Home » Discussion » "Empathy and Compassion in Buddhism and Neuroscience" by Alfred W. Kaszniak

"Empathy and Compassion in Buddhism and Neuroscience" by Alfred W. Kaszniak

17 March 2010

A central insight of the Buddha, also directly realized by generations of meditation practitioners over the centuries, is that our common experience of an independent and permanent self is an illusion. In deep meditation practice, this sense of self is directly observed to be constructed out of the constantly changing mental continuum of form, sensation, perception, mental formations and consciousness. An aspect of this experiential deconstruction of the self is the realization of interconnection, or what Zen Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh has termed “interbeing.” This insight appears contrary to a sense of separateness and independence that may seem fundamental to Western culture and modern life. However, recent scientific research in the rapidly developing new domain of social neuroscience has provided evidence resonant with the meditative insight of interdependence.

In the 1990s, neurophysiological research led to the discovery of “mirror neurons” in the brain: cell assemblies that were active when an animal engaged in some voluntary action AND also when that animal watched in another engaging in the same action. This seemingly built-in simulation capacity was also observed in functional brain imaging studies of persons seeing images of another in pain. Those same brain regions active in the personal experience of pain, particularly the emotional aspects of pain, are active when seeing another’s suffering. Further, there is additional research evidence to suggest that such empathic responses are relatively automatic and do not require some sort of volitional intent. Thus, the interpretation of relevant brain research converges with the first-person experience of long-term meditators. We seem to be deeply and necessarily interconnected with others.

If this is so, and we have a kind of built-in, automatic empathic responding, then why does compassion (empathy for another’s suffering, plus the desire to alleviate it) so often seem in short supply? The answer to this question given by Buddhist contemplative practitioners is that the delusion of being a separate self that must be protected and satisfied gives rise to a self-focus in which aversion and attraction derail the natural inclination toward altruistic action. Again, recent scientific investigation provides a converging perspective. Studies that have an experimentally manipulated self-versus-other focus have shown a self-focused perspective arouses more intense physiologic responses to another’s suffering, along with an aversive conscious experience, termed “empathic distress.” Perhaps this phenomenon occurs because a self-focused perspective is more likely to give rise to associations concerning painful and distressing events in one’s own past experience. In related research, it has been found that children who show greater physiologic emotional response to others’ distress tend to be more self-focused and less likely to respond altruistically.

Experienced Buddhist meditators report that the practice of calmly and mindfully observing the mental continuum results in a shift in the sense of self, and what was once thought to comprise a stable, permanent self is eventually seen to be impermanent and interdependent. Self-focus is said to fall away as this realization deepens. Very recently, neuroscientists have conducted functional brain imaging studies relevant to these contemplative descriptions. For example, mindfulness training (alert, nonjudgmental maintenance of attention to the present moment of experience) has been shown to decrease activity, during particular task instructions, in those midline brain regions thought to participate in the narrative self-reference that maintains the sense of identity continuity across time. In other functional brain imaging research, the activation of these midline brain regions by visually presented words was found to return to baseline more rapidly in experienced Zen Buddhist meditators than in meditation naïve persons. These and other recent brain imaging observations have been interpreted as consistent with the hypothesis that meditation practice reduces the amount of time to disengage from the brain activity associated with self-focus. But what of the claim that this enhances empathy and compassion? In another experiment, “expert” Buddhist meditators (i.e., those with more than 10,000 hours of meditation practice) showed greater activation than meditation novices in those previously described empathy-related brain regions when distressed emotional vocalizations were heard while the meditators engaged in what is termed “non-referential compassion meditation.”

I hope that this brief description has conveyed some of the convergences between Buddhist contemplative experience and recent social neuroscience research. Scientific studies of empathy and compassion, and of Buddhist and other meditation practitioners, have dramatically increased. In Western culture of the present day, where science is often held in high esteem, such studies may help build a bridge to contemplative practices that have kept the startling and transformative insights of the Buddha alive and personally accessible.

Alfred W. Kaszniak, Ph.D., is Professor and Head of Psychology at the University of Arizona. His work has focused on the neuropsychology of Alzheimer's disease and other age-related neurological disorders, memory self-monitoring, the biological bases of emotion, and emotion response and regulation in long-term Zen and mindfulness meditators.


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