Several years back, a graduating senior did his Senior Thesis on Fear. That student was Austin St. Onge—now in his second year at Boston College. One of my major takeaways from his presentation was a better understanding of a specific part of the brain—the amygdala. Austin spent a good portion of his presentation focused on the amygdala, a part of the mid brain about the size of an almond that is the home to our emotions, our fears and our “fight or flight” instinct.
So today, I want to talk for just a few minutes about what neuroscience is telling us these days about the brain and the amygdala, and to do so I will rely on the work of Dr. James Doty, a brain surgeon from California who happens to be the Director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism at Stanford University.
Doty is a person worth your time if you like this kind of stuff—a brilliant surgeon and wonderful person. His early life was hard and difficult. He had an alcoholic father and an invalid mother. He often got into fights growing up and was even kicked out of school for striking a nun (she did hit him first). One quick takeaway from his life story--not all great people start out as angelic, A students in school. Anyway, he traces a chance encounter with the mother of a magic shop owner with transforming his life. If you want to learn more about it, you can listen to a fabulous episode of “On Being” which I will provide a link to after this talk.
Doty describes with a deep reverence what it is like to crawl inside the skull and see the human brain. He describes it as “a series of pinkish hills and valleys with blood vessels coursing over the surface and there is a membrane of fluid pulsating to the beating of your heart. It is an extraordinary sight, and I realize, I’m looking at what this person is, who this person is—it is all here in front of me.”
Way back, people were more interested in the heart than the brain. The ancient Egyptians, for example, thought the brain was an uninteresting place. It was immutable they said—it never changed. Science now tells us something very different—key elements of human identity are to be found in the brain. The heart matters in terms of identity too it appears, but any of us who have known someone who has experienced a traumatic brain injury, or who has had a stroke perhaps, or who has been beset by something like Alzheimer’s, knows identity and the brain are linked. We have now come to understand that the human brain is well worth studying and has a quality called neuroplasticity—the capacity to change, to literally morph into a different organ. We can, through behavior and practice, in essence re-wire our brains.
Let’s go back to the amygdala for minute. When we are in FEAR mode, our brains tend to shut down, we don’t want to have new experiences, we run away from what we don’t know to what we do know, the familiar. In FEAR mode, the amygdala is in charge—we go into what psychologists call our “fight or flight” mode. But Neuroscience is now telling us that intentional behaviors—particularly behaviors of empathy and compassion, actually shrink the amygdala. It turns out that not unlike our physical muscles which respond and change based on exercise (let’s say lifting weights, for example), the human brain responds to exercise too. The question now becomes: which exercises are good for the brain?
James Doty believes that acts of empathy and compassion actually help us shrink the FEAR center of our brain (the amygdala) and open us up to new ways of seeing and understanding and ultimately experiencing happiness in our lives. When we show compassion and kindness, the reward centers in our brain light up. His research at the Stanford Center for Compassion supports this idea. Let me share two studies he’s done.
In one study, students were given a modest sum of money (let’s say 100 dollars) and told they had two choices, donate it to a charity of their choice or keep it. The students who donated the money saw the reward center of their brain light up. They produced oxytocin—a hormone that plays a central role in social bonding and interestingly in childbirth. It’s called the love or cuddle hormone. The students who kept the money saw no reward center stimulation and no oxytocin production, even though they were 100 dollars richer.
In a different study, students were asked what qualities they were looking for in a life partner. There was some variation by gender—for example, males were more likely to list physical traits (beauty) as important while females were more likely to want a “provider.” However, of all the qualities listed, overwhelmingly, the most important traits mentioned were kindness and compassion. The results cut across every demographic. In numbers too large to ignore, people want their partner to have kindness and compassion above all other qualities. This makes sense—who wants to go home and say, “hey mom and dad, meet this person who is really, really important to me—they’re mean.” If your social life is not where you want it to be, maybe up your kindness and compassion practices. It’s worth a try.
These are but two studies among hundreds that point to this one fact: when we care for others, when we show acts of empathy and compassion, we are improving the quality of our own lives and even our own health. It would appear now that science is telling us that we are designed to care and connect. We are all part of one human family no matter our gender, our skin color, our cultural background and our upbringing.
It is my belief that religion, at its best, offers us an exercise in neuroplasticity—a chance to rewire how we think and live. While it is true that we all have wants in our lives, religion helps us to come to some understanding of what is worth wanting. You’d think that figuring out what is worth wanting would be easy, but in reality, it isn’t. In fact, most of the world’s religions offer counter-intuitive notions of “best practices” for living for us to consider.
Christians believe that turning the other cheek and doing for others will bring you more happiness and satisfaction than doing for self. Buddhists believe that nothing is permanent and that human suffering can be mitigated by following a code of conduct known as the Eight-fold path. Each wisdom tradition offers us a different way of seeing and being, and it almost always involves compassion and empathy for others. Science is now supporting this too. At this moment in our evolution, perhaps it is survival of the kindest that will be our salvation.
For Follow Up Consideration