Cultivating Compassion

Quick…what’s the difference between empathy and compassion? Most people are hard pressed to come up with a compelling response; that is, until they have had a conversation with Tania Singer, a social neuroscientist and one of the leading researchers probing the foundations of the developmental, neuronal and hormonal mechanisms that underlie human behavior. Singer, a speaker at DLDwomen in Munich July 11 and 12, spends her days studying how individuals’ genes and surrounding environment shape their behavior. While empathy is literally feeling someone’s pain – a negative, stressful feeling — compassion is a warm feeling, rooted in love, that compels a person to try to alleviate the pain and to help. While humans are hard wired to be empathic the question posed in the lab was whether people can be taught to be more compassionate.

To find the answer, Singer started by considering emotional contagion, an innate and unconscious human response. Examples include a crying baby setting off other babies or when one person laughs and others start laughing for no apparent reason. Emotional contagion, which happens more than people are aware and can be manifested in many ways including with dilating pupils, is a precursor to empathy.

“To make the jump from the emotional contagion to empathy you need to know you’re having an emotion that’s for another person,” says Singer. “The situation could be described as ‘I feel your pain, but I know it’s not mine’. The crucial thing is not just to have empathy, but to turn it into compassion, which is a concern for the welfare of other people.”

Singer, who since 2010 has been the director of the Department of Social Neuroscience at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, describes social neuroscience as a multi-disciplinary field combining psychology, biology, neuroscience, philosophy and economics. While traditional cognitive science concentrates on a single brain in isolation, social neuroscience studies the interaction and communication between brains to understand human social behavior.

Before coming to the Max Planck Institute, Singer spent three years as a professor of social neuroscience and neuroeconomics at the University of Zurich. She was born in Munich and received her Ph.D. in psychology at Berlin’s Free University.

For almost a decade Singer has been using scanners to measure what happens in the brain when somebody shows empathy. While she was able to demonstrate that in the brain’s circuitry it is possible to see how a reaction to somebody else’s pain is manifested in the person being studied, the question remained as to why people sometimes seem capable of showing so little sympathy. Singer set out to see what blocks an eventual compassionate response.

“There are competing forces so there is capacity to have compassion naturally but then humans are very sensitive to the question of in-groups and out-groups,” says Singer. “We have shown in our lab that empathy can be replaced with revenge or schadenfreude when one person is not part of our group. This is what happens in war: the other people, the enemy, get categorized as part of an out group and then we forget that they are human and very quickly compassion is blocked. In humans there are very different systems competing with each other. You have the capacity for love, but you also have the capacity for fear. They play against each other all the time.”

To study the phenomenon, Singer brought fans of two rival Swiss soccer teams, Zurich and Basel, into the lab to see how their brain circuitry would respond depending on whether the person who might be the beneficiary of a compassionate response is part of an in-group or out-group.

Singer’s data showed that those tested were much more likely to have a compassionate response if the other person was part of one of their in-groups. In the case of the soccer fans, the in-group was somebody who rooted for the same team as the subject being studied. The breakthrough was that Singer showed that a small change – in this case the only variable was whether somebody rooted for the same team as the subject – could dissuade an empathic response.

“If we want to overcome this situation where there is a missing compassionate response, we have to work on expanding the circle of compassion to the people we don’t know,” says Singer “We have to work on understanding that even our enemies are human beings.”

With the result of the in-group/out-group study in hand, the question became how to elicit compassion and other positive emotions. For that Singer turned to the people she calls “expert compassionists” — Buddhist monks. In controlled experiments Singer was able to show that monks could control their level of compassion and even expand and contract it at will.

The good news is that subsequent experiments showed that spending your life in a monastery is not a prerequisite. People can be trained to be nicer to each other but the ability to be compassionate towards others needs to be cultivated, she says.