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Compassion from an evolutionary perspective

Compassion is a topic that I believe is NOT talked enough in our noisy lives. It is generally sidelined to other outrage-driven moments both in media and in day-to-day conversations.

Thanks to my meditation class, I am constantly reminded about the key role compassion can play in our lives if we let it. Let’s explore this topic a bit more today including what evolutionary psychology researches have to say about it.

Merriam Webster dictionary defines compassion as:

“sympathetic consciousness of others' distress together with a desire to alleviate it”

Notice the emphasis on the last couple of words, to alleviate it.

Compassion urges you to think and feel about others’ suffering and act in a way that can help relieve them.

According to this brilliant article published in a magazine called Greater Good at University of Berkeley, compassion originated from a Latin word “compati” which literally means “to suffer together.” Among emotion researchers, it is defined as the feeling that arises when you are confronted with another’s suffering and feel motivated to relieve that suffering.

While empathy refers more generally to our ability to take the perspective of and feel the emotions of another person, compassion is when those feelings and thoughts include the desire to help.

Empathy may be a passive state while compassion is an active state of mind.

While cynics may dismiss compassion as touchy-feely or irrational, scientists have started to map the biological basis of compassion, suggesting its deep evolutionary purpose. This research has shown that when we feel compassion, our heart rate slows down, we secrete the “bonding hormone” oxytocin, and regions of the brain linked to empathy, care-giving, and feelings of pleasure light up, which often results in our wanting to approach and care for other people.

The problem however is that most of our common sense around this topic is pretty misleading. At least in the West. Kant saw it as a weak and misguided sentiment: “Such benevolence is called soft-heartedness and should not occur at all among human beings,” he said of compassion. Hard to not judge him but he sounds like a total “bro” at a college frat party.

In other research by Emory University neuroscientists James Rilling and Gregory Berns, participants were given the chance to help someone else while their brain activity was recorded. Helping others triggered activity in the caudate nucleus and anterior cingulate, portions of the brain that turn on when people receive rewards or experience pleasure. This is a rather remarkable finding: helping others brings the same pleasure we get from the gratification of personal desire.

Being compassionate causes a chemical reaction in the body that motivates us to be even more compassionate. Compassion is deeply rooted in human nature; it has a biological basis in the brain and body according to many studies.

In closing, I’d like to throw in a few more definitions of compassion that I hold close to my heart:

These 3 flavors of “compassion” when applied can help you gain inner peace in the long run. Choose the one that fits your situations.

1) Compassion is a mind that cherishes others and wishes them freedom from their suffering and delusions without any returns.

2) Compassion is a mind that doesn’t define others by just one evident flaw.

3) Compassion is a mind that doesn’t harbor judgement of others even when they make it easy but instead focuses on their good.

I hope this was interesting to you. Please feel free to drop a comment or two on what role compassion plays in your role and how you would define it.