March 21, 2009

Compassion, in Born to Be Good, #1

This from Dasher Keltner's new book Born to Be Good, in the chapter titled "Compassion":
When Richie Davidson scanned the brain of a Tibetan monk, he found it to be off the charts in term of its resting activation in the left frontal lobes. This region of the brain supports compassion-related action, feeling, and ideation. After years of devotion and discipline, his was a different brain, humming with compassion-related neural communication.

Okay, you're rightfully critiquing, whose resting brain state wouldn't shift to the left if you had the time and steadfastness to meditate for four to five hours a day upon lovingkindness, as Tibetan Buddhists do? Fair enough. When Richie and Jon Kabat-Zim and colleagues had software engineers train in the techniques of minfulness meditation -- an accepting awareness of the mind, lovingkindness toward others -- six weeks later these individuals showed increased activation in the left frontal lobes. They also showed enhanced immune function. They may not have been donning the saffron robes of the monk, but at least their minds were moving in that kind direction.

Recent scientific studies are identifying the kinds of environments that cultivate compassion. This moral emotion is cultivated in environments where parents are responsive, and play, and touch their children. So does an empathic style that prompts the child to reason about harm. So do chores, as well as the presence of grandparents. Making compassion a motif in dinnertime converstions and bedtime stories cultivates this all-important emotion. Even visually presented concepts like "hug" and "love" at speeds so fast participants couldn't report what they had seen increase compassion and generosity.

Compassion is that powerful an idea. It is a strong emotion, attuned to those in need. it is a progenitor of courageous acts. It is wired into our nervous systems and encoded in our genes. It is good for your children, your health, and, recent studies suggest, it is vital to your marriage. In the words of the Dalai Lama: "If you want to be happy, practice compassion; if you want others to be happy, pratice compassion."

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