Brain research, especially over the last decade, has provided unique and helpful insights into problems and questions in many areas and disciplines including computer science, economics, education, philosophy, politics, psychology and robotics. An area of neuroscience research with the potential to profoundly change the way we think and interact in society (from classrooms to living rooms to boardrooms) is the work being done in labs focused on understanding the difference between compassion and empathy. The compassion-empathy difference is more than semantic; the consequences are pragmatic. The distinction is real and so is its effect on society: knowing the difference can help individuals build resiliency and avoid burnout as well as turn “empathy gaps,” which have recently made headlines, into junctures for local community and national strength.
Compassion and empathy are not synonymous. Empathy is feeling the same emotion as someone else and compassion is feeling kindness towards another person. Where empathy is about stepping into the shoes of another to understand and share their feelings, compassion is about acquiring a 360 degrees understanding of the suffering or problem that a person is experiencing and taking action to resolve it. Compassion is a two-step process of understanding and acting but empathy is only one step and it is about emotionally absorbing the feelings of another.
Our brain knows the difference between compassion and empathy even if we aren’t aware of it. Tania Singer, director of neuroscience at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Lepzig, Germany has used MRI scanners to show that compassion and empathy “are two different phenomena associated with different brain activity patterns.” When we think compassionately we “light up” the same regions of the brain as love but empathetic thinking lights up regions associated with pain.
The neuroscience effect of having compassion at the forefront of our thinking is positive for each of us as individuals and for our communities. The effect, in very basic terms, is that when we think from a compassionate mindset, we release the peptide hormone oxytocin, which then activates the neurotransmitters of dopamine (brain reward) and serotonin (anxiety reduction) contributing to happiness and optimism—two characteristics that contribute to success.
Compassion’s strength as a power source for fostering communal as well as individual success is that it is not only derived from the same neural networks as love but it is centrally focused on the concern and care for others. When empathy is used as the source for helping another, the central motivation is to alleviate your own pain and stress. And that egocentric motivation is, I believe, one of the keys for understanding why burnout occurs much easier when we think empathetically. Emotionally absorbing another’s feelings, which empathy entails, is physically draining and can make you feel metaphorically stuck in quicksand. Compassion, on the other hand, keeps the emotional quicksand at a distance by using a more cognitive understanding of a person’s suffering when attempting to alleviate the pain: understanding without absorbing. We have confused compassion fatigue with empathy fatigue and that confusion has been reflected repeatedly in major media outlets over the last few months. If our society’s caregivers (i.e., nurses, paramedics, doctors, social workers, police and fire personnel, etc…) could learn how to harness the power of compassion, they would be helping themselves just as much as they are helping others. Their resiliency is an important source of our community strength.
Research has clearly shown that compassion can be taught and learned. Envision a world in which economics, education, medicine and even politics are infused with more compassion. Practicing compassion in politics would not only help Congress to act but act constructively. Imagine politicians who do more than say “I feel your pain” (empathy) but actually understand and do something about it (compassion): we would have more politicians who act with principles rather than for principal. Our modern political world could reflect the words of President Lincoln: “Republicans are for both the man and the dollar; but in case of conflict, the man before the dollar.”
Let’s fill in life’s empathy gaps with the compassion two-step. Let’s ride the neural networks of compassion to stronger and more resilient communities. While Dr. Singer and others are researching “whether it is possible to transform people’s empathetic reactions into compassionate action,” shouldn’t we just simply create waves of kindness that our neural networks naturally want to ride?
Dr. Chris Kukk is Professor of Political Science at Western Connecticut State University, a Fulbright Scholar, Director of the Kathwari Honors Program and founding Director of the Center for Compassion, Creativity and Innovation. He’s also Co-Founder and CEO of InnovOwl LLC, a ‘think and do’ consulting firm that solves micro and macro problems through innovative education.
Reprinted from http://chriskukk.com/.