Compassion and Psychology of the Mind

Recently, Naomi Osaka pulled out of a tennis tournament because of mental health. She had this to say: “I’ve often felt that people have no regard for athletes’ mental health and this rings very true whenever I see a press conference or partake in one.” She was fined a bunch of money for not talking to the media. She knows she needs to focus on her mental wellbeing and not what people say about her. She was showing compassion for herself.  We need to have compassion on Osaka even though we don’t know her personally.

Growing our compassion for others can improve our own mental wellbeing. For example, let me take you on a little journey through some research that looks into how the brain develops empathy and how people show empathy and compassion all at the same time. This will also give you a few little science lessons along the way about psychology and how compassion goes into psychology.

When babies are born they are born with some empathy, but they have to be shown empathy before they can develop that skill set further. People have to experience empathy before they can share it with each other, and the person who spends the most time with an infant will have the most influence on their development and how they learn to show empathy to others. The research has shown that if children can start learning how to show compassion at home it will be much easier on them later in their lives. Empathy requires experiences in your life and in your child’s life. As kids experience more of their childhood, they develop skills for empathy and compassion.

Now, I will go into a little bit of the science on mirror neurons. Mirror neurons were discovered in 1990 by scientists studying primates. They are neurons that fire even when a person observes an action being done by someone else.

Let’s say if you see someone do something nice for one of your neighbors. Then your mirror neurons fire, so you feel the need to help a neighbor. Whenever you see someone do something nice for someone it will be reciprocated back to your neurons. It’s not about physical touch, but it’s about mental touch because what you see someone else do touches your brain.

ARE WE BECOMING LESS COMPASSIONATE?

Dr. Sara Konrath was the author of a study on college students and empathy which was published in 2019 called “Changes in Dispositional Empathy in American College Students Over Time: A Meta-Analysis.” They Interviewed college students over a period of 40 years. They did what is known as meta-analysis, which is bringing numerous studies together, collecting data on empathy felt by college students.

Dr. Konrath used something called the “Interpersonal Reactivity Index” (IRI)* scale to measure empathy in her test subjects. What I found so interesting is that there is actually an IRI scale for empathy, now you can measure how much empathy you are showing. It measures components of both cognitive and affective empathy. Affective empathy is like when someone that you know is homeless and you feel moved emotionally to assist that person find somewhere to live. Cognitive empathy is when you have knowledge and understanding of what is going on in someone’s life so you know how to help that person get through a rough time in their life.

Dr. Konrath’s findings indicated that the level of empathy has decreased in American college students over 40 years. In 1979, the average response for empathetic concern was at the 50th percentile.  In 2009, the average response for empathetic concern was at the 26th percentile.  I’m not saying that all college students are not empathetic, but I am surprised at how much empathy we have lost in America. The new IRI scales were coming in much lower than expected and lower than the old data suggested, and this surprised me that it was at this low level.

Dr. Konrath also discovered something interesting in a cross-cultural study measuring empathy in different communities around the world. In countries with hotter temperatures around the world, people are a lot more empathetic than people in colder temperatures. I thought it was interesting for Compassionate Atlanta because we are trying to bring more awareness about compassion to the city of Atlanta. We should be able to be very empathetic because we live in a warm climate!

COMPASSION TRAINING

Another study was done by researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and led by psychology and psychiatry professor Richard J. Davidson in 2013. These professors were writing about compassion training, and they did some Functional magnetic resonance imaging  (fMRI) scans of the brain. They found that when people took the training, they were more compassionate to people in need. The people that did not take the training did not have the same reaction to pictures of people suffering. The participants took part in a seven-hour training in the ancient Buddhist technique of compassion meditation.  Then they were shown images of a crying baby, a burn victim, and other pictures of human suffering. Their MRI scans after viewing the pictures showed the portion of the brain associated with compassion lit up. These researchers were able to measure from the MRI scans how well these participants reacted to images of human suffering, and I thought this research was really exciting because even as adults we can learn to be more empathetic.  This is beneficial for anyone interested in Compassionate Atlanta because we are trying to decrease human suffering.

*If you would like to measure your empathy using the Interpersonal Reactivity Index, use this link: https://mysocialbrain.org/iri_info.html

References:

“Changes in Dispositional Empathy in American College Students Over Time: A Meta-Analysis.” American Psychological Association, December 2019, https://www.apa.org/research/action/speaking-of-psychology/empathy-narcissism. Accessed 9 June 2021.

Ladwig, Jill. “Brain Can Be Trained in Compassion Study Shows.”  University of Wisconsin-Madison News. 2013.  https://news.wisc.edu/brain-can-be-trained-in-compassion-study-shows/. Accessed 9 June 2021.

Jimmy Freels
Community Outreach Associate
Compassionate Atlanta

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