The Science of Compassion and Why Our Brains Matter

“Each time I’m in the position to open a person’s skull, it’s extraordinary to me to recognize that this is where we live. What you see are these hills and valleys of the brain that are sort of pinkish, blood vessels coursing over the surface and there’s a membrane with fluid, pulsating and matching the rhythm of your heart. Just think: this is the very essence of who we are.”

These are the words of Dr. James Doty, Stanford neurosurgeon and Founder and Director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. He’s on the cutting edge of emerging studies on how the brain and the heart speak to one another, and what he’s discovering may have the power to transform not just individual lives, but to reshape what he calls the “baggage of evolution”, or the fight or flight response that is linked to violence and tribal conflict. 

I recently had the chance to listen to an interview with Doty conducted by Krista Tippett, American author, entrepreneur and host of the public radio show and podcast, On Being. In the interview, Doty spoke of our brains and their evolutionary hardwiring toward human connection. From his research, Doty claims that by exercising compassion with others, our world becomes a more vibrant place. 

As Doty continued to speak, he outlined the origins of this hardwiring to connect.

“Unlike other species, human beings require being cared for by our parents for several years before becoming independent, which has created very powerful neurological pathways that bind us with our offspring,” said Doty. “Our very evolutionary roots, then, are imprinted with these neurological pathways, making us feel good when we connect with others. There have been many studies where people are put in isolation for a time and their worlds fall apart. Ultimately, you cannot transform or transcend your circumstances without going outside yourself and connecting with others because when you do so, your physiology works best. It’s hardwired to do so.”

For centuries, our brains have been imprinted with this desire and need to connect with others — particularly our offspring — for optimal performance. In this way, our brains will almost always choose what the familiar over the unfamiliar. 

So how do these two pieces of information relate to one another? If our brains are evolutionarily hardwired to connect with others and they default toward familiarity, then we tend to extend our connective fibers toward those who are “like” us, whether in language, ethnicity, mannerisms or blood. When we are put in positions of being fearful, we often shut down (fight or flight response) and gravitate toward familiar experiences (people who act like us, think like us) in an attempt to create a sense of safety. Meanwhile, however, we’re kept on pins and needles, wondering if we’re going to get attacked. 

This “tribal response” is often what drives deep divisions between groups of people, heightening the illusion of “difference” in our common humanity.

Most interesting to note, is that Doty shares that the brain doesn’t distinguish between an experience that is intensely imagined and what is real. “Ultimately, what people don’t recognize is their power of intention to change everything.”

In other words, by way of intention we can manifest new practices and create entirely new senses of “familiar” in our own bodies and minds. How it works is if you are thinking of doing an action, that part of your cortex starts being stimulated. As Doty states, for example, studies have shown that if you think about working out, your brain will actually begin firing as if you are working out.

And as it relates to other people, just like exercise strengthens certain muscles over others, by exercising compassion, you can break down artificial barriers of separation by looking at another person who seems very different and seeing similarities with more clarity. By doing this, suddenly our world becomes a vibrant place and even more suddenly, we are able to recognize the incredible aspect of humanity in every person, and that every person has the potential to change the world.”

To the Dare to Innovate community: what’s remarkable about you change-makers is that although you differ in location, nationality, belief structure, language and ethnicity, the work that each of you is doing is exercising compassion within yourself and others in your communities. From user-centered research to designing your businesses with the community in full focus — that’s empathy! You’re not only developing the economic status of your country, but also the humanity of your nation, region, our world. Do you notice differences between yourself and others in your country? Different backgrounds, ethnicities, even tribes? What keeps those differences alive? What might break them down? 

And dare you transform those differences into connections? Dare you transform our humanity? How might you?

Hilary Braseth is Founder and Vice Chairwoman of the Dare to Innovate Board of Directors, and presently works with an innovation and design consulting firm in San Francisco, CA. In short, Hilary believes in integrated, authentic self-understanding, human relationships and cross-sectoral collaboration as the most viable means for catalyzing a sustainable future. Hilary is a Returned Peace Corps volunteer from Guinea (2011-2014), where she worked in waste management & recycling, ecotourism, entrepreneurship and empowerment.