Monday, May 11, 2009

Teaching Compassion

There's a fascinating news story in a recent issue of Science magazine about a new center at Stanford University. (Science 24 April 2009. 324:458).
The new Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE) will study the biological roots of benevolent behavior and investigate whether mental exercises derived from the centuries-old tradition of Buddhist compassion meditation—but stripped of religious trappings—can foster compassion in nonbelievers.....

Doing good science in this area is tricky business... On one hand, Mobley says, there's the risk of researchers' personal beliefs interfering with their objectivity. "Scientists are supposed to be professional skeptics, but there are people in the field ... whose only interest is seeing God's face." And then there are experimental limitations, such as having to rely on first-person accounts of what's going through someone's mind during meditation. Even so, Mobley says, scientists who dismiss such work out of hand—and he has heard from plenty of them—are misguided. "Nothing is off-limits to science and critical thinking," he says. "We don't have great tools, but they're good enough to get started."

One starting point for scientific inquiry is a clear definition of the object of study. Yet the recent CCARE meeting made clear that compassion is hard to pin down. If the participants had chosen, they might have drawn up a Venn diagram of overlapping terms—sympathy, empathy, and altruism, to name a few—preferred by scholars from different disciplines. Although most participants seemed receptive, the juxtaposition of science and faith wasn't to everyone's liking. "All of this quoting His Holiness left and right makes me a little queasy," grumbled one scientist....

Several pilot studies funded by the project are getting under way, including a brain-imaging study with novice and expert meditators and a collaborative study between neuroscientists and economists that will be among the first to investigate the effects of charitable giving on its recipients—in this case undergraduate students who receive financial aid.

,... A similar study is getting under way to investigate whether compassion training for medical students might improve their bed-side manner. If it works, it would illustrate Doty's greatest hope for CCARE: to take a centuries-old religious practice and extract from it a set of mental exercises with no religious overtones that can be scientifically proven to change the way people treat each other.

I don't think it's by accident that it's exploring Buddhist traditions. First, as we've discussed, they can be separated from overt religious doctrine easily. Second, well, compassion isn't something that springs immediately to mind when one considers the Big Three monotheistic faiths. Kinda ironic, don't you think?


Erp said...

The URL for the center is

I'm wait and see on this; in particular how scientific are they going to be.

NancyP said...

Speaking as a former medical student, medical students are learning how to be detached and compassionate simultaneously, as well as dealing with their own unprocessed anxieties about illness and death. Lack of compassion can be a defense mechanism.