Is Empathy Hurting Your Brain?
Compassion vs. Empathy
A group of scientists conducted an experiment looking at the neuronal basis of empathy and compassion.
The study was made up of experienced and novice meditators. The researchers investigated the activation of neural networks and plasticity (flexibility) of social emotions with a fMRI brain scan and evaluation of personal reaction to suffering. They wanted to see if compassion can be cultivated through meditation.
They found that empathy and compassion are not only different in the neural pathways they activate, but in how emotions are processed.
The empathy pathway triggered something called an 'empathy-for-pain' network, often understood as ‘feeling what others feel’.
The empathy network didn't lead to more altruistic behavior. In fact, those who only used their empathy neural pathway had a more negative, distressing response related to sharing pain than those who were able to use compassion.
Empathy, without compassion, was highly aversive leading to increased negative emotions and burnout.
The compassion neural network activated a part of the brain associated with affiliation, love and positive emotions.
Their conclusion: compassion training could be an antidote to empathic distress and burnout.
Risk For Burnout
Those in the helping profession are at high risk for compassion fatigue, empathic distress, or burnout.
Research supports the notion that fight or flight emotions (anger, fear) and self-conscious emotions (shame, embarrassment, pride) can reduce our drive to be compassionate.
Cultivating compassion not only changes brain activity in those practicing it but may also benefit others in distress by increasing helping behavior.
What is compassion?
You might think compassion is most linked to caring, but it doesn't actually fit into any single dimension.
It is not a single emotion or an emotion at all.
It's the commitment and action to reduce suffering in ourselves and in others; it's a cultivated attitude.
It's recognizing pain is present, while not allowing it to overwhelm us to the point of inaction.
We can cultivate compassion through mindfulness, self-kindness, and acknowledging our common humanity.
Cultivating Compassion Leads To:
Cultivating compassion has been found to
Increase positive emotions + social closeness.
Improves mental and physical health by improving vagal tone*, which in turn, increases the likelihood of experiencing more compassion in the future.
This generates an upward spiral that leads to growth and change.
It increases hormones like dopamine, oxytocin, endogenous (made by the body) opioids that are linked to our "caring systems" in the brain.
Lowers levels of cortisol and improves heart rate variability, which leads to a greater ability to regulate emotions.
Improves health-related behaviors like sticking to a diet, quitting smoking, working out, or the ability to apologize for past mistakes.
More likely to make changes that better yourself; more likely to be able to regulate emotional responses like avoidance, abandonment, numbness or moral outrage without action.
Another study found that telomerase, an enzyme that rebuilds and lengthens telomeres, increased when practicing compassion. Telomeres shorten every time a cell divides, which is an indicator of cell longevity. The length of telomeres can be negatively influenced by stress, but meditation seems to alter this response. There appears to be a link between meditation and cellular aging.
* Vagal tone shows us how quickly we can adapt to changing circumstances and is connected to immune functioning and cardiovascular health.