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The Biology and Neuroscience of Compassion

By Jennifer Dobner November 17, 2014 Posted in: Power Of Compassion , Article

STANFORD, CA - As an emotion or feeling, empathy is something most of us associate with something bad, says Jami Zaki, an assistant professor of psychology at Stanford University.

There's proof of this in an internet survey of 500 people who were asked identify the words the most closely linked to the emotion, Zaki says.

Among the mostly negative answers: Depression. Sick. Sad.

But researchers know that humans also experience positive empathy and they're using neuroimaging to better understand the brain's physiological response to positive events.

Scans of the Ventromedial prefrontal cortex, for example, show that people respond to rewards. The data also shows that the brain can respond to different types of rewards, helping people make choices. For example, choosing money over chocolate.

Zaki and his Stanford colleagues have used that data to examine whether the brain also responds differently when rewards occur vicariously. Or in other words: Does watching another person get a reward evoke the same response as getting one yourself?

It does, he says, but that led to another question: Would that help someone decide when they want to be generous versus selfish?

A second study looked for a connection between empathy and personal wellbeing, using pair of individuals, one of whom watches as the other person was rewarded with money.

That work concluded that watching another person reap a reward might have a greater impact on wellbeing than actually getting the reward.

Zaki shared the findings at the Science of Compassion conference Tuesday, the second day in string of events that comprise Compassion Week. Sponsored in part by Dignity Health, Compassion Week is a joint initiative of Stanford University's Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, the Charter for Compassion, and the Tenyin Gyatso Institute.

That he and other researchers are even gathered to talk about the links between science, compassion, and empathy is progress, Stanford neuroscience and psychology professor Brian Knutson said.

"It was not so long ago that the science of compassion was considered an oxymoron," Knutson said.

Knutson's own research focus is on charitable giving and lending.

Knutson examined brain responses to requests for monetary donations and found that in cases where people could see photographs of orphaned children or women from developing nations, they were more likely to give when they could see the intended recipient of the funds.

"The photos activated the brain," he said, noting that pictures of smiling individuals generated more responses than those of sad ones.

Neuroimaging scans also showed a "steady ramp up" in brain activity even before study participants were specifically asked to decide whether to give, Knutson said.

That, he says, could ultimately allow researchers to begin to predict behaviors in individuals before they take action across of range of activities with broad social implications.

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