The science of compassion

Can we be taught to care more about our fellow humans? Christina Patterson joins the scientists and thinkers who believe a true understanding of empathy could transform the world we live in

Everyone smiled. The woman who greeted me on the door smiled and the woman who told me where to register smiled and so did the woman who gave me a badge. Perhaps these women always smile, or perhaps they thought they had to. Perhaps they thought that if you were running a conference on "empathy and compassion in society", aimed at "professionals in education, health and social care", the least you could do was smile.

You might think "professionals in education, health and social care" don't need to be taught about compassion. You might think compassion was what got them into their jobs. You might, in that case, have been living in a world where you've never been in a hospital, or a care home, or a school. Compassion is what gets some people into nursing, teaching or social care. But compassion isn't easy to keep up. Compassion, as those of us who have had experiences of the lack of it, in hospitals, doctors' surgeries or relatives' care homes, know, can fade.

"You don't," said the man on the stage, in the packed hall of Friends' House in Euston, "need to be religious to develop compassion for others. We need a secular approach to human values. I believe we can begin by acknowledging that everyone we meet is a human being just like us." The man, who was called David Rand, and who was from something called the Tenzin Gyatso institute, was reading a message of support from the Dalai Lama. Quite a few who were taking part in the conference quoted the Dalai Lama. Quite a few people were practising Buddhists, though most, apparently, weren't. I'd already wiped a tear away at footage of the youth conference at the Royal Festival Hall the day before. "It's vitally important we have our eyes opened," said a young Londoner on the giant screen with the kind of smile that makes you want to sm ile too. "I just sent a text to my mum, saying how much I loved her," said a girl whose big, blue eyes were shining. "I went to the youth conference yesterday," said the filmmaker Roger Graef when the footage ended, "and was very moved by the whole thing." He had, he explained, made a film about the neglect of old people called Who Cares? He'd made another one called The Truth About Adoption and another one called Kids in Care. On the night the film about adoption was screened, he said, all the websites for adoption agencies crashed.

"We need compassion," said a professor of clinical psychology called Paul Gilbert, perhaps stating the obvious, "because life is hard." Our brains, he explained, have "all kinds of motives that come from our evolutionary past". Using slides of people, and animals, and a mouse wearing, for some reason, a crash helmet, he set out some of the principles of evolutionary psychology that had shaped his thought. We have, he explained, built-in biases. We're tribal, but it's not our fault. The genes in his frontal cortex, he said, would be "very different" if he'd been kidnapped by a violent gang.

When he finished, another Paul spoke. This Paul, who's also a clinical psychologist, has done pioneering work in the study of emotions for 40 years. He spoke in a video from California and later via Skype. "We probably see more suffering in a week than our ancestors saw in a lifetime," said Paul Ekman. "What does it do to our brains?"

A pretty young woman called Olga Klimecki tried to give us some answers. She had just finished a PhD on "training the compassionate and empathic brain". When she started, she said, there were no "longitudinal studies". The brain activation, she explained, as she showed us slides of brain scans, with bits in red and blue, was "very different" in a "compassionate state" than in a "non-compassionate state", or a state of pain.

"A teacher at a high-school graduation," said the next speaker, Patrick Gaffney, "shocked his students when he told them: 'You are not special. Even if you were one in a million, there would be 7000 just like you.' We seem," he said, "to have created a world in which we're more and more concerned with ourselves". To cultivate compassion, he said, we "need to have some ability to focus activity." But our minds, apparently, can wander away from what we're supposed to be doing 47 per cent of the time.

Mine, if I'm honest, already had. I was interested, but as well as not having time for special acts of kindness, I hadn't had time for lunch. But in the break, help loomed. As a woman played a harp, smiling staff poured mugs of tea and served giant slabs of cake. These people, I thought, know how to be kind to me.

After the break, Yotam Heineberg talked about his work with gangs. With Rony Berger, a clinical psychologist at Tel Aviv University, he has developed a programme for young people who are at risk of violence, or who are suffering post-traumatic stress. Their "Erase Stress programme" has reached more than 50,000 children whose lives have been hit by natural disasters, terrorism, or war. Children, he said, "get trapped in the cycle of violence". Their brains get "programmed to think in terms of hateful threats". Their work, he said, can break the cycle.

C hristine Longacre, a former director of a hospice, has done pioneering work of her own. "After my first husband died," she explained, "I was complaining to an acquaintance who's a doctor about some of the additional suffering we went through. The doctor said 'you don't know what our training's like. The ones who survive the dehumanising effect of it are the ones who cut off'." She has developed a five-month training course in "contemplative end-of-life care". Greater "physician empathy", she explained, "has been associated with better patient outcomes and fewer medical errors".

"If you want to change the future," said the next speaker, Mary Gordon, "you have to go to school". And 17 years ago, she did. When she met women whose lives had been "blighted by violence", she decided to try to tackle the problem at its root. The result is a programme called "Roots of Empathy" which now runs in seven countries around the world. They start by bringing a mother and baby into a classroom, and training the children to observe the baby's feelings. At the end of the year, the children make wishes for the baby. "They say," she said, and it made me want to cry, "that they hope Baby Billy gets a daddy, or has a friend, or isn't bullied, or that his dad gets out of jail". "We've got a long way to go," said the economist Richard Layard in the final session, "before people feel that other people are on their side". But he is doing his best. He has written reports on happiness for governments and the UN, and campaigned for "resilience" programmes, and parenting classes, in the House of Lords. "The key determinant of your happiness," he said, "is your mental health. If you're not at peace with yourself, you can't give much to other people."

"The point of the conference", said Vinciane Rycroft afterwards, was to look at "the different approaches to compassion and the science, ethics, politics and reality on the ground." She runs a charity called Mind with Heart, which aims to give young people the social and emotional skills they need to build "a more sustainable society". She didn't present her own work, she said, even though she organised the conference, and the day of workshops that followed, because "you have to walk the talk" and give others a chance.

Yes, if you're doing this stuff, you do. You could just preach about compassion, but the proof is in the studies, scans and "narrative interviews" with people whose lives have been changed.

The proof, in fact, is in the pudding – and, of course, the cake.

compassioninsociety.org

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