Good will to all? What does your brain think?

Green recycling bins devour discarded wrapping paper, tinsel is packed away for another year, and pine needles are swept up. As another year draws to a close, and the world’s problems continue to dominate headlines, I’ve been reflecting on the season of good will. How can we alleviate the suffering of others? How can we best respond to pain, in a way that is generative and useful to all concerned, rather than being exhausting or depleting?

Perhaps it is useful to use the lenses of empathy, compassion, and altruism. Although these terms are often used interchangeably, they are subtly different, and there are important neurological differences involved too.  

Empathy, Altruism, Compassion

Empathy is when we see someone suffering, feel an emotional response to this, but take no action to alleviate it. Empathy raises negative emotions in people, and can lead to withdrawal and an increase in stress. In neurological terms, ‘I feel your pain’ can literally bring us vicarious pain. Two specific areas of the brain (a portion of the anterior angulate and a part of the anterior insula) are activated whether we are directly experiencing pain ourselves, or vicariously feeling the pain of others. In short, our brains don’t differentiate when it comes to empathy.  

Altruism is perhaps at the other end of the scale from the inactivity of empathy, as altruism is when we try to alleviate other people’s suffering, without any regard for ourselves. A selfless concern for the wellbeing of others is an unsustainable approach, and it’s not hard to imagine why. Altruism easily results in feeling overwhelmed or exhausted, and puts us at increased risk of depression.

Compassion is essentially empathy plus action. It involves seeing someone else’s misfortune, feeling an emotional response to that, and then taking steps to alleviate this pain…although not to the detriment of ourselves. Checking our own resources is an essential part of compassion, akin to fitting our own oxygen mask before helping others. Compassion is a pro-social behaviour, which is generative and positive for both the giver and the recipient. It enhances positive feelings and can also bring lower stress levels and better health.  

The science bit

So, compassion sounds like the way ahead. But what does your brain think?

From a neurological perspective, different parts of the brain are involved depending on whether we respond with empathy or compassion. One fascinating study showed an immediate increase in self-reported negative feelings after empathy training. In other words, being trained to put yourself in another person’s shoes and feel their pain resulted in the volunteers feeling worse! The same volunteers then received compassion training which resulted in a reversal of their negative feelings, as well as an increase in their positive emotions such as joy, alertness, and everyday wellbeing. So, compassion training allowed the volunteers to feel better themselves, as well as resourcing them to alleviate the pain of others.

The two different trainings also showed that different areas of the brain were used during compassion training as opposed to empathy training. Compassion and empathy, then, are different both psychologically and neurologically. This is particularly exciting as compassion is better for individuals, can enhance positive social emotions and resilience, and enables us to care for others. Our brain’s ability to adapt and change through neuroplasticity can further embed these positive outcomes in our brains.

Compassion, then, elicits positive, sustainable responses which can be resourcing, sustainable, and endorphin-inducing for all involved. Good for each other, good for our brains, and good for our communities.

Peace on earth, good will to all.