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The scientific basis of compassion

Published on: December 30, 2013

I just dragged in from battling hideous traffic, trying to snake my way home from a downtown Seattle that seems packed to capacity with with cars. Most of this glorious sunny day was spent sitting indoors, in darkened rooms, shifting around on metal folding chairs with a lanyard around my neck - exactly the sort of scenario that would have me in a viscous foul mood, if this were any other day. But today was special, and how.

The epic Seeds of Compassion event kicked off this morning with a gathering at UW's Hec Ed Pavilion. On hand, a roster of the brightest minds in brain science, an interpreter, and His Holiness the Dalai Lama. The topic: The Scientific Basis for Compassion.

To say that it was an honor to be there is an understatement. There they were, the geniuses behind every child development story I've been excited about in the past two years: Andrew Meltzoff, Daniel Siegel, Alicia Lieberman, and Richard Davidson, all lined up on stage looking smart and science-y. I couldn't wait to hear what they had to say.

But when His Holiness climbed the stairs, those scientists lit up - like a wave of joy washing over the stage. The scientists were not just smiling, they were laughing as they shook his hand, because they were so dang delighted to be in his presence. I think a lot of the crowd felt the same way. Like, hey, he could talk about anything. Just look at his smile.

The two-hour discussion that followed highlighted the latest in what science understands about the roots of compassion and empathy, namely: infants are born learning, and their brain development is directly linked to what they see, hear and experience. How a child feels affects how a child learns, and parents and caregivers can have a profound impact on that learning and development. Love and compassion grows brains!

In a short film, moderator Daniel Goleman (who wrote Emotional Intelligence) floored me with this simple statement, based on science: "The heart sends more messages to the brain than the brain sends to the heart. The heart is more than a metaphor for compassion." His point is that compassion and empathy are rooted in our biology.

His Holiness has a few thoughts on that: "I believe man is a kind of social animal...and love and compassion are linked to our survival." He compared humans to turtles, who lay their eggs and just leave. "They don't have capacity to show affection. Why? No need!" But babies, he reasons, need that connection; without it, they die.

There are two kinds of compassion, His Holiness says: biased and limited (biological), and unbiased and unlimited. "The first kind of compassion cannot extend to your enemy," says His Holiness, "the second can." What a challenge to all of us.

I wasn't expecting to laugh as much as I did; the Dalai Lama is wicked funny, and it's so unexpected. When talking about breaking down the barriers to achieving the second kind of compassion, he talked about how some people he meets hold something back. Eventually, though, he draws them in. "How? My sincere smile! My sincere smile is a reflection of no sense of a barrier."

Seriously, that man can smile, and when he does, he lights up a room. Makes me wonder about my own smile; what do I hold back from others? How open is my face, my smile? How can I learn to be as in-the-moment as this elderly Tibetan monk, jetlagged, sitting barefoot and cross-legged in a cloud of serenity?

I could blog on and on here about the incredible work being done in infant brain science. Moving stories of 3-year-olds handing over their teddy bears to strangers who say they've hurt their finger. Of the work being done at UCSF by Alicia Lieberman, who works with kids dealing with violence and war. Daniel Siegel's discussion of how we deal with threats: Did you know that when someone feels threatened, they make a bigger distinction between "people like me" and "people not like me?" And they feel less compassion towards those not like themselves?

Perhaps this seems obvious, but it hit me with the force of a revelation: The solution to that problem could bring solutions to racism, violence, war. Like, we're scanning brains and actually seeing brain activity change when engaged in compassion.

It may surprise you to hear this: The Dalai Lama believes that science is the greatest hope we have for spreading compassion. He says you can pray and pray all you want, and that's good - doesn't hurt anything - but it doesn't get the job done. "Scientists have a greater responsibility than a religious person like me," he says, the humble man that he is.

When it was over, nobody wanted to leave. Right at 11:00 a.m., Goleman said his thanks and said goodbye, but the crowd stood and stood and watched until the last flash of red robe was well gone, off to his major motorcycle police escort, and the next event at Key Arena.

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