With the difficult past year we have faced, there have been many moments that call for our empathy and for our compassion. But it’s difficult to keep that up for long periods of time, especially if we are balancing care for others with our own personal difficulties. Could this “compassion fatigue” be a limit on human kindness? Quite to the contrary, neuroscientists have found. Researchers like Professor Alfred Kaszniak have demonstrated how we can draw a distinction between compassion and its companion emotion, empathy. Compassion might be easier than it looks; empathy, feeling others’ emotions as our own, composes an important component of it, but also can overpower it. Accounting for how our minds and bodies sync up during moments of care and concern, then, help us understand how we can perform hesed – acts of loving-kindness.
Dr. Alfred Kaszniak is a Professor of Psychology, Neurology, and Psychiatry at the University of Arizona. He is currently Director of the Arizona Alzheimer’s Consortium Education Core, Director of the Neuropsychology, Emotion, and Meditation Laboratory, Faculty and Advisory Board member of the Evelyn F. McKnight Brain Institute. He is the co-author or editor of seven books, including the three-volume Toward a Science of Consciousness (MIT Press), and Emotions, Qualia, and Consciousness (World Scientific). His research, published in over 155 journal articles and scholarly book chapters, has been supported by grants from the U.S. National Institute on Aging, National Institute of Mental Health, and National Science Foundation, as well as several private foundations and institutes. His work has focused on the neuropsychology of Alzheimer’s disease and other age-related neurological disorders, cognition and emotion in healthy aging, consciousness, memory self-monitoring, emotion, and the psychophysiology of long-term and short-term meditation.
(This post is part of Sinai and Synapses’ project Scientists in Synagogues, a grass-roots program to offer Jews opportunities to explore the most interesting and pressing questions surrounding Judaism and science. This was an online adult education event co-hosted by Valley Beit Midrash and Temple Chai on April 26, 2021).
Shmuly Yanklowitz: We have a wonderful opportunity to think about one of the great Jewish teachings, that we are in service of the one who is one committed to Baruch Rahum v’Chanun, to compassion and to mercy. We talk about the Jewish values of Rachamim, and Chesed, and of living with loving-kindness, and living with mercy and with patient, deep love.
But we’re not here to sermonize about these values we know so well, we’re here to look at the data, because we’re here to look at science and Judaism. We look at astrophysics, we look at physics, we look at biology. Our aim here is of engaging more of the scientific community in Jewish thought, and engaging more folks in Jewish thought, in thinking critically about matters of science. And we hope you’ll continue to join us for that. We’re grateful to Sinai and Synapses, Scientists in Synagogues, for their support. We’re grateful to the Jewish Community Foundation for their enabling us to continue engaging in this thought leadership. We are the only one who was funded outside of the East Coast to do this crucial work.
We believe that there are Jewish scientists who have been alienated from the Jewish community because we don’t offer this type of material, and also that Jews are impoverished by not having access to this type of learning. And we think science has been under attack in America over the last number of years, unfortunately. And so we think it’s important that we return to an appreciation and a study for how science and Judaism enhance one another, rather than detract or contradict. We used to talk about it as a contradiction between religion and science; that’s not the approach we’re taking. We’re taking an enhancement approach.
And so our series today is going to look at empirical research, very important research on this topic of social neuroscience perspectives on empathy and compassion. I can think of few things more important in 21st century America, as we move from a “we” generation to a “me” generation, where we can once again re-cultivate that sense of empathy and compassion.
I’m grateful to Professor Irwin Sandler, our friend here at VBM, for making this intro today to this professor. And this professor is not a Jewish Studies scholar, and so after his presentation of about 40 minutes from his field of scholarship, I’ll have the chance to ask him a few questions that bridge some of the conversation between Jewish thought and social neuroscience. And then we will open up the floor to all of you, many of you who are in the Zoom. And I know far more are listening by podcast and by video recording, so I guess they won’t be able to engage, but you’ll have the chance to ask your questions. You can also post them in the chat between now and then.
So friends, Professor Alfred Kaszniak is an Emeritus Professor at the University of Arizona whose research focused on human neuroscience. He also presently serves as a sensei for the Upaya Zen Center of Tucson. Today what we’re going to look at is the phenomenon that, recently, the nascent field of social neuroscience has provided: research evidence concerning processes contributing to empathy and compassion. The talk today will explore this body of research and examine its relationship to traditions that endeavor to cultivate compassion. Professor Kaszniak, thank you so much for being here.
Alfred Kaszniak: Thank you so much, Rabbi, and all of you who are here attending today. I’m going to bring up some slides, and it’ll take my computer just a couple of moments, so don’t worry if you’re not seeing things right off. And I also need then to switch to the view of the slideshow that’ll work for us.
So this is a quite new field that’s called “social neuroscience,” and what it is about is bringing together the technologies of neuroscience, especially human neuroscience, to a set of questions having to do with our fundamentally interpersonal domains: the ways in which we interact with each other. And certainly among the most important of the dimensions of such interaction is empathy and compassion. And I want to point out some of the ways in which empathy and compassion, although they have been of deep concern in a variety of different religious traditions – these are domains also of great practical importance.
So let me go ahead and then begin. So I want to address four different questions in these next minutes with you. The first of those is, “What is empathy, and what is compassion, and how do they differ?” They’re not the same, but how specifically they differ? I want to address how psychological science, and especially social neuroscience, contribute to how we understand empathy and compassion. I want to ask the question, “What does the study of meditation practices have to do with any of this?”, because that has been a big part of the story. And then I want to end with some things concerning whether compassion can be learned. Are there specific things we can do in helping others to become more accurately empathic and more compassionate?
So what do we mean by “empathy”? For psychologists and philosophers, it typically refers to three interrelated but distinguishable processes. One is knowing what another person is feeling, a second is feeling what another person is feeling – in other words, an actual embodied resonance with another individual’s experience. And then finally, in this literature, the term “empathic concern” is typically used. And what’s meant by that is what we more generally, in discussion, mean by “compassion.” Now, compassion itself differs from empathy in that it involves – first of all, it’s specific to the suffering of another person, their pain or suffering. And it involves deep feeling for that pain or suffering, but importantly, also, the concomitant desire to alleviate that suffering. And I’m going to come back to that a couple of different ways as we proceed.
Now, I said that it’s very important to understand that compassion has some very practical consequences. This is a very detailed review paper that Stephen Post, an expert in altruism and compassion, had published in 2012, and I think this is just a very good summary of the available evidence to that date. And it has only increased more abundantly since then.
“Compassionate care,” he writes, “Benefits patients with regard to elected treatment adherence, wound healing, satisfaction and well-being; it benefits physicians with regard to lowered depression rates, elevated sense of meaning, lower rates of burnout, and more diligent technical care; it benefits health care systems that establish reputational gains, and it doesn’t cost them any greater use of time or resources,” in doing that. It benefits medical students, regarding their decrease in complaints of abusive clinical environments and maladaptive team interactions.
So compassion – not only, of course, in the healthcare setting, but many others as well – is very important in our day-to-day lives. So how do we understand compassionate response to suffering? Well, speaking through the lens of science, until relatively recently I would have had rather little to say about that question. So, this social neuroscience domain that has been addressing questions about empathy and compassion is quite new. The fact that social neuroscience has begun this area of study and has incorporated contemplative practices and their evaluation, especially those that are purported to enhance compassion, is what’s enabling me to have something to say to you today. So I think one of the most important messages I want to leave you with is that moving from empathic feeling, this resonance with another person’s experience, to true compassion, actually involves several different component processes. They interrelate, but they’re different. And so in many ways, we could say that compassion is actually composed of non-compassion elements.
John Decety has been a leading investigator in this area, and he describes, based upon his very thorough review of the available literature, four functional components that dynamically interact to produce the experience of empathy. The first is, I think, what we usually all think of when we talk about empathy, and that’s a kind of affective sharing between oneself and another. How it is that we come to, in a feeling way, resonate with another person? Now, he emphasizes – and I’ll unpack this in a moment – that this is based on automatic perception-action coupling. And I’ll be specific about what that means. The second is self-awareness and self/other differentiation, a very important component of this. Third, mental flexibility – adopting the subjective perspective of another person. And then finally, regulatory processes, especially emotion regulation.
So I want to go through a little bit of the research on each one of these to give you a sense of what it’s about. I think any of you who have been around infants are aware that those small individuals tend to very automatically mimic and synchronize their emotional expression with yours. Turns out that other primates do this as well. So stick out your tongue, and the infant monkey sticks out his or her tongue. So this is the area that’s been referred to as this “automatic perception-action coupling.” And it happens at a very sort of basic and evolutionary established part of the brain.
In one study, for example, by Fawcett and colleagues, six- and nine-month-old infants were shown to be sensitive to the dilation of pupils in the eyes of anyone that they were interacting with. And in fact, when that was sort of abstracted and put into an experiment where either circles with either big- or smaller-diameter black-colored areas in them, much like the pupil, would be expanded or contracted (versus squares that don’t look at all like eyes), the infants showed good discrimination, and their own pupillary dilation changing in accord with these – the circles, not the squares.
So these investigators concluded that these young infants are sensitive and responsive to these very subtle cues about other people’s internal states. Our pupils, our pupil dilations, are under the control of our autonomic nervous system, and they reflect our level of emotional arousal. And so this is a kind of process that would be very beneficial for early social development, especially when parent and infant are synchronizing their own emotional arousal with each other. What gives sense to this conclusion that it is an automatic process – this is a study with adults that utilized very brief exposures of either happy, neutral or angry faces, that were immediately followed, then, by faces with neutral expressions. And when the timing of that is done quite precisely, what happens is the person is consciously aware only of those neutral faces. They don’t have any conscious awareness that there’s been an emotional expressive face that has also been shown.
What they observed was that, despite that absence of any conscious recognition of these emotional faces, the participants showed activation of the so-called smile muscles, the zygomatic muscles. They do very small-electrode recording, non-invasive recording, of facial muscles. Those muscles, the smile muscles, activated when they were shown these masks of happy faces, whereas the kind of frown muscle, a brow muscle, was active when they were shown angry faces – so again, despite the fact that they lack any conscious recognition. So this, indeed, not only in infants but in those of us who are adults, seems to happen automatically and really outside of our awareness.
This set of abilities to mimic what another person is doing, or what another person is feeling, seems to be very basic to something that’s been called mirror neuron systems within the brain. And they’ve been shown to be very important in how it is that we emotionally resonate with the distress of another individual. If we’re watching a video where we’re seeing this individual responding with a grimace to what we’re told is a very loud, distressing sound they’re hearing through their earphones, what has been shown in neuroimaging studies is that those same areas that would become activated if we ourselves were experiencing that pain are activated as we watch someone else experiencing pain.
And it involves particular areas deep within the brain: something called the anterior insula, shown in the neuroimaging photos in the top part. And if we were to pull back the temporal lobe and the frontal and parietal lobe through this main fissure of the brain, we would see that area, that anterior insula, sitting underneath it. This is a very important area in this kind of basic resonance aspect of our ability to empathize. Now, if this was all that we had – just this automatic perception-action coupling – we would probably all be like preschoolers, who we may have had occasion to observe. You go into the preschool, one child starts crying, all of them start crying. It’s a kind of emotional contagion.
So the automatic activation of shared experience, if that’s all we had, would likely lead to what we call empathic over-arousal and empathic distress. We would simply resonate with that person’s distress. And at some point it becomes overwhelming, and we actually begin to turn away then, or we engage in things that are maybe appearing to be altruistic or helpful to the other individual, but in fact are self-serving – you know, pushing that box of Kleenex in front of someone who is crying, for example, because it will lessen our distress if that person stops crying.
So with a set of other processes by which we differentiate ourselves from that other individual, we come to know that it is their pain and suffering. And even though we can resonate, we can feel it is not our own. In which we take the other person’s perspective, so that we can be contextualizing – we can be accurate – about what we perceive to be from their point of view, and by which we regulate our emotional experience, our ability to move from empathy to true compassion just would not be possible.
So how do these other processes – how do they unfold? There’s an area of research that’s usually referred to as mentalizing, or theory-of-mind studies. And all of them are based upon a variety of ways of having individuals take the perspective of another person, and it can be done with very simple, cartoon kind of images, that quite young children can be studied in this way. And what’s observed in those situations is that when we take the perspective of another, when we imagine what that person might be thinking, feeling, experiencing, seeing, there is activation of the brain in these front middle portions that are also involved in a whole set of things such as emotion regulation, and how we prepare for action and how we experience pain, and also areas on the side of the brain, at a region called the temporal parietal junction, that is important for how we generally perceive the movement of other individuals, or at least organisms such as other primates that look a bit like us.
Now, of course, we’re not always entirely good at taking the perspective of someone else. Sometimes we get stuck in our own self-referential perspective. And so mental flexibility in being able to shift from a self perspective to the perspective of another person also becomes very important in research in this area. It’s been shown that when errors are made in taking the perspective of another person, they typically stem from an inability to shift from that self-referential perspective. And of course, it makes sense that an essential aspect of our being accurate in our empathy, being correct in what we are inferring about someone else’s experience, requires this mental flexibility to shift perspective and take in the broader context.
Now, work on this – and there’s been some really interesting research done by Nancy Eisenberg, up in Phoenix at Arizona State University. That work, and the work of Batson and colleagues, has shown that self-focused perspective-taking arouses more intense empathic distress, and also more intense physiological, emotional arousal. So when we’re imagining how it would be if we were experiencing, say, the painful revelation that someone is disclosing to us, we’re going to end up feeling more empathic distress. And we’re going to be physiologically more aroused than if we try to imagine what it’s like for that other person.
Interestingly, even though it seems intuitive that individuals who show greater physiologic emotional response to someone else’s distress might be more empathic persons, it actually turns out to be the other way around. Those who are more greatly physiologically aroused to someone else’s distress actually tend to be more self-focused, less empathic and less altruistic in how they behave in response to that distress. And so it goes back to what I had said just moments ago: when we are highly emotionally aroused in response to someone else’s pain and suffering, we often turn away from it, or we do things that try to calm our own experience rather than addressing the helping of that other person.
So how is it that we get caught in a self-referential perspective? What is self in the brain? A very large area of continuing research has focused with neuroimaging studies on what happens. For example, if you give people a set of different adjectives and their simple task is to make a judgment about whether that adjective is accurately descriptive of them or is not. So it is a task that requires self-reference. You have to ask something about yourself. And so you have to reference your narrative about self in those kinds of tasks.
What we see is those tasks is that there is activity increasing in these front and back middle portions of the brain, and also back side portions of the brain, in a system that’s come to be known as the “Default Mode Network.” Why default? Because it’s what we tend to default to if we’re just sitting in the scanner and we don’t have any task that’s assigned to us. And all of you have some personal familiarity with that. If we’re not doing something, our minds tend to wander, and where they wander to are the stories we tell about ourselves, either remembering our past experiences or using that memory to project into possible alternative future scenarios – what we call planning.
So that’s, of course, something that we are good at as human beings. We’re good at planning, we’re good at projecting into the future. But there can be a problem with this due to various shaping factors. And these have have been studied fairly extensively. Now, they include cultural factors – ways that parents raise children, things that happen in the school, our social roles, our professional or occupational roles – all of those can lead toward an inflexibility in self-focus. We get stuck in our own perspective. And the result of that is a decrease in our compassionate experience and intention and in our altruistic actions.
So the question I ask here is: what’s the alternative? Again, a number of studies – this was one of the earlier ones by Norm Farb and his colleagues – have used meditation training, and they have examined individuals both prior to and following meditation, and compared them to control groups of people that were doing something else. And it’s been found that meditation training, usually a very simple kind of focus on staying in the present moment non-judgmentally, reduces the extent to which we get caught up in or that we cling to a self-focused narrative. And neuroimaging studies, such as that of Farb and colleagues, have shown that this corresponds with a kind of flexibility in disengaging those brain systems I just referred to, that default mode network, and returning to a more present-centered and embodied experiential awareness, where those areas of the brain that are responsible for monitoring our internal, visceral state are more active. I said a moment ago that emotion regulation very important, and it’s helpful to know what I mean by that. That does not mean trying to sit on our feelings or suppressing our emotional expression – in fact, in research on this, James Gross at Stanford University was one of the pioneers in it; we’ve been doing this work in my own lab also. That kind of suppression of expression tends, if anything, to actually increase both our own facial muscle activity. So we’re leaky. We actually express more than we think we are, and pretty reliably, it increases our degree of physiologic arousal.
What tends to work in downregulating emotional arousal is reappraising the meaning – making different meaning out of the personal relevance, for example, of emotional images that we might be shown in an experiment. And we see that effectiveness reflected in not only autonomic physiologic measures like the sweat response on the skin surface, but also in brain imaging of a structure called the amygdala, that’s a kind of vigilance system in the brain for that which is personally relevant. Consequences: so, such emotion regulation is very likely what physicians and other health care providers are learning to enable them to be able to be of service to patients that they are treating, or servicing in the emergency room, etc.
So here’s a kind of interesting study in that regard. This is a functional magnetic resonance imaging study of physicians who were skilled in, trained and practiced, in acupuncture, versus those who were naive – that is, they did not use acupuncture. And they watched films of needles being inserted into different body parts. Now, if you’re not familiar with acupuncture, that can look as though it’s something that would be pain-inducing. But of course, the trained physicians in this particular practice have a lot of experience in knowing that actually it’s in the service of alleviating suffering – it is in the service of reducing pain and suffering. So what they saw was that in the acupuncture-naive group, they had evidence of activation in all of those areas that you would anticipate, given what I just had said. These affective resonance regions like the anterior cingulate were more active. The acupuncture experts, however, showed a different pattern. They showed activation of areas that are involved in emotion regulation and in shifting our perspective to that of the other person. So it looks as though in training of various kinds, we’re actually bringing online some of this emotion regulation capacity and perspective-shifting ability.
Studies of what meditation may have to do with all of this have been going on for nearly a couple of decades now, and my former graduate student Liz Nielsen and I were involved in one of the earlier studies having to do with emotion regulation and meditation. So we recruited a sample of persons who had been either practicing meditation for a shorter period of time (five to 10 years) versus very experienced meditators, those who had been practicing for 10 or more years. And then we also compared them to meditation-naive persons, persons who did not practice meditation. We had them in an experimental situation where we were showing them visual images of emotionally arousing pictures. Here you have some examples of the unpleasant ones; we also used pleasant and neutral images as controls as well. And in one condition, we exposed each of those images for six seconds while we recorded various physiology, and then afterwards asked them for some self-report about what they were experiencing.
But in another condition, we masked those images. And what I mean by that is we exposed those images very briefly, only 45 milliseconds or less, a very short period of time. It was preceded and then followed by these jumbled visual-noise images that we worked long and hard on constructing. And if, again, you do that in the right way with just the right timing, the person has no conscious experience of having seen any emotionally evocative image. And then after that second mask, we probed for both the valence of any experience they were having, positive to negative, and any degree of arousal that they were experiencing. Even though they’re not able to consciously report having seen any image, they nonetheless have emotional experience. And that’s what we were studying, as well as the physiology that we were recording.
What we found was that the long-term meditators, those with more than 10 years of practice experience, first of all reported higher emotional clarity on a very lengthy self-report inventory, and that’s what you see in this upper bar graph. LTM is “long-term meditators,” STM, “short-term meditators,” and then the non-meditator controls. For those who reported higher clarity, they showed both lower physiological – we recorded from the skin surface for this kind of sweat gland response that reflects autonomic nervous system arousal. They showed both lower physiologic arousal and lower reports of experienced arousal, as well as greater subtle positive facial expression. Again, we recorded these very small degrees of electrical activity over the muscles, the expressive muscles of the face. So that’s very consistent with regulation of emotion in these long-term meditators happening very early in the emotional elicitation process, because when we mask those images, we’re preventing any conscious processing of them. So it has to be something that’s going on very early in the course of that brain processing of those arousing images.
Now, many religious traditions, of course, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, indeed all of the major world religions, emphasize compassion. That’s a large part of what those traditions are about in their actions within the world. So remember, I said that compassion builds upon empathy by adding the desire to alleviate another’s suffering. And of course, much of our discussions in religious traditions and our scriptural readings are about how it is that we cultivate that intention or desire to alleviate another’s suffering. My colleagues and I have been recently very concerned with how we might be able to take both some of the science, as well as what comes from particular religious traditions that have been concerned with ways of being able to enhance compassionate capacity, and put them into secular kinds of trainings that might be able to be more widely used. And so I have a couple of references on this slide to some summaries of that recent work. One of the things important in this area that’s been observed is that empathic accuracy itself is not enough, it also must be accompanied by a motivation, intention, to alleviate another’s suffering, to be of service to someone else, for that accurate empathy to translate into compassionate action.
I said before that compassion is different from empathy – we define it differently. And it also shows up as different in neurophysiological studies that have been done. So here, a particular one out of Germany showed participants videos of people who were suffering, who were experiencing distress. And then they used two different conditions: one, instructions to empathize with what they’re seeing in the videos, and another in which they were trained in compassion meditation using loving kindness, kinds of phrases that were practiced also gaining experience in bringing to mind the intention to relieve the suffering of all beings. Following that compassion training, there was a shift from these empathy-related brain regions being activated in the empathy condition to greater activation in brain areas, again, involved in emotion regulation, but interestingly, also involved in parental care.
The early evolved systems that we share with many other animals that enable us to bond to our infants enable us to be dedicated to their care, this distinction between empathy and compassion has important practical implications. You’ll read in the popular press a fair amount about compassion fatigue, especially during this year-plus-long pandemic, where so many health care professionals have been experiencing burnout and have been, in fact, motivated to drop out of their their professions in disturbingly high numbers. We are beginning to think that that label “compassion fatigue” is a misnomer, that this really reflects empathy fatigue from repeated experiences of empathic distress, of empathic over-arousal.
So compassion, which includes these components of attentional stability and emotional balance, and this intention or motivation to help those who are suffering, is actually associated with positive experience, and appears not to fatigue. And so this motivates many of us to be looking at how we can construct interventions that help in being able to develop this compassionate capacity and might reduce that burnout. So several secular compassion education or training programs have been developed; they incorporate meditation approaches, typically, but they also incorporate other kinds of things as well. So just a couple of examples, and then I’m going to come to a close.
So here’s a study by Gail Desbordes and colleagues, where they used something called compassion-based – I mean, cognitive-based compassion training. It’s an eight-week-long program, and they compared that to both a kind of simple attention focus meditation training, and then a control in which they were participants were involved in a health discussion class. They saw different patterns of brain activation in the attention-focused meditation versus the compassion training. But what I want to emphasize now is that these patterns of activation were seen when they were not actively practicing these things. So in other words, they were generalizing outside of the training itself, and [it was] available to those persons for a longer period of time.
Here’s a study out of the University of Wisconsin that compared a short-term compassion training to an emotion regulation reappraisal training, and then a no-intervention control group, and used an economic decision-making game where they could manipulate – for example, whether the person was experiencing another individual they thought they were playing with as being unfairly treated, as being the victim of someone else’s cheating, or taking advantage of them. And so the criterion variable was whether there was any change following this training in their altruistic redistribution of funds to that perceived victim. The increase in altruistic behavior that was seen following the compassion training was associated with changes in brain regions that are implicated not only in empathy, but also, as you might expect from what I’ve already said, in perspective-taking and in emotion regulation.
Do any of these programs have real-world consequences? Here’s a study that found that individuals following either mindfulness meditation training or compassion meditation training were much more likely to sacrifice their seat in a waiting room where all the seats were taken to someone who was grimacing, appeared to be in some pain and distress, had crutches, etc.
One of the things that’s interesting about this area of research is – and this is something that Danny Goleman and Richie Davidson had commented on in their 2017 book Altered Traits. As they write: “Unlike other benefits of meditation that emerge gradually, like our ability to more quickly recover from stress, enhancing compassion seems to happen more readily.” And they suspect that cultivating compassion may be taking advantage of a kind of biological preparedness, an evolutionary preparedness, we have that programs us to be able to learn compassion-related skills, perhaps particularly taking advantage of this parental or caregiving circuitry in the brain that I talked about previously.
So I want to end by just noting where this area may be heading in the future. We wrote a paper that we published in 2015 summarizing some of this, but obviously this is an area that’s quite novel – it’s only been around for a little over a decade now. And so there are many both conceptual and methodologic issues that have to be resolved in future work. So we’re really kind of at the beginning. We need more research to answer questions such as what influences the development of compassion in childhood? And really, what component skills are being developed in these different compassion training programs? How can we begin to take that apart something else that I think is very much needed? There’s been a lot of focus on on meditation training, but what role is being played by other spiritual practices, such as prayer or contemplative scriptural study? Almost no research on this. And of course, these are very important aspects of those religious traditions where compassion has great emphasis.
So I want to end there, thank you. I think we’ve got a bit of time that we can entertain some questions from rabbi, or perhaps even after from some of the rest of you who are participating.
Shmuly Yanklowitz: Fascinating, Professor, thank you so much. So I’m going to share the first three questions, and then we’ll open it up to some others here. Thank you so much for this. So firstly, you know there’s an interesting passage which we debate at our Passover seder every year around how Pharaoh’s heart is closed. Pharaoh closes his heart in the first plagues, in the Exodus story, and then after he does that, God closes His heart in the later plagues. And we talk about how that if you don’t view this as a divine intervention but kind of nature taking place, that we can kind of condition ourselves to lose control of that capacity for empathy. And I wonder if this is something that you’ve seen in the research? Is there a danger of not acting empathically a few times, unless we recondition ourselves?
Alfred Kaszniak: It’s a really important question, thank you. You know, I think there is that danger. You know, we are the products of our actions. That is how our conditioning unfolds. And so the more practice we have at turning away from pain and suffering, at not taking action at assuming someone else is going to do it, the more likely it is that that’s how we’re going to behave into the future, and we become hardened, I think.
Shmuly Yanklowitz: Interesting. So to move to the second question, in the Jewish community, we talk a lot about intergenerational trauma. Of course, Jews are not the only ones that talk about this. People of color, women, all, you know, lots of different groups. And oftentimes we suggest that people with deeper vulnerabilities, in a sense, will be able to resonate more with people of other vulnerabilities. But to this question, do people who experience trauma typically act more or less empathically? I was struck by what you said, that those with the highest physiological engagement get kind of a sensory overload. They turn off their consciousness of the other because they engage in a kind of self-soothing. Do we see any correlation between past trauma and empathy?
Alfred Kaszniak: Yeah – now, so there is a bit of research on this. Now, something that I just find fascinating – you know, we had assumed for a very long time that intergenerational trauma, the transmission of trauma across generations, happened by virtue of either stories you were told by your grandparent or something of that nature. Some very new research has been demonstrating that our genome is actually affected by trauma, and that including those germ cells that we pass along to the next generation are affected by that trauma. So the effects of traumatic experience may be occurring very deep in our kind of most fundamental biology.
Shmuly Yanklowitz: Very interesting, thank you so much. One more for me, and then I see Lauren has a hand up, and I’m sure others as well. You know, there was a study I read a few years ago that said the best way to teach children empathy is to meet their needs. And I don’t know if that’s accurate or not, that was just one study, but to move from the descriptive to the prescriptive for a moment – and I know you closed your wonderful presentation saying that we still don’t know a lot, there’s still a lot more research to be done. But those of us who are in the business of leading youth programs, whether we are parents or grandparents or we are communal leaders, how do we think about in all of our service learning experiences, based upon how much we know today, how do we deepen compassion or empathy in our students or in our children, in the activities we’re already leading?
Alfred Kaszniak: Thank you again for a wonderful question. So there’s been research in a number of different centers – University of Wisconsin, University of Vermont has been another place where this has been active. One of the things that is emerging early from the studies of young children and compassion-focused kinds of intervention programs, is that sense of safety of the child is very important. So if a child feels threatened, uncomfortable, it’s not surprising that they begin to wall off and self-protect. But also having the opportunity to experience the benefits of compassion, of kindness expressed to other individuals. You know, one of the not-so-well-kept secrets about compassionate action is that the giver of compassion benefits as much or more than the receiver of that compassion. And that’s true for young children also, and that’s being borne out by some of these early studies.
Shmuly Yanklowitz: Beautiful, we have Lauren and then we have Tracy.
Hi. So my question is: it would appear from what you’re showing is that humans are basically programmed to feel either empathy and or compassion. But how do you explain when we have situations of pogroms, of lynchings, when entire communities took part in atrocities against others having no compassion, no empathy? What causes an entire community to become like that? Have there been studies on that?
Alfred Kaszniak: There have been some. They’re mostly out of the domain of sociology rather than the kind of social neuroscience I was talking about today, but, you know, let’s set aside for a moment the very small number of persons who could be characterized as sociopaths – that is, people who really seem to lack this empathic resonance capacity. One of the things that comes out of the sociological studies is that this kind of group dynamic, wherein the group begins to focus exclusively on a very self-preoccupied kind of goal, whether their ability to dominate some other group, as happens in, you know, racial kind of aggression, or the others that you had mentioned – pogroms, etc. That social dynamic becomes so powerful it overrides these “natural tendencies” that we have to be kind and compassionate with other persons. So I think we can’t discount, you know, what’s the social context that any of this is either expressing itself in or being inhibited.
I’m a registered nurse, case manager, mother, grandmother, and I consider myself an HSP, highly sensitive person index. I think it’s Dr. Elaine Aron or something – it’s a very wonderful 10-question questionnaire to see sort of if you are – those of us that consider [ourselves] extroverts really may be like closet introverts, because we need to, like – we can be extroverts for only so long, and then we need to go back within and recharge our batteries. And I’ve kind of experimented a little bit with my grandsons, and one of them, really – I mean he was from the get-go, he was sharing his candy, sharing a french fry. This kid is, you know, is an empath, and embodies that. But he also – I recognize some of the things in this HSP profile, and there are a series of books that explain that the highly sensitive child, highly sensitive parent. How much credence do you give that research? And you know, when I saw this talk, I thought, “Ah, surely this might be mentioned.” So maybe it’s part of your research.
Alfred Kaszniak: Thank you, Tracy. So like almost any other human or animal trait, empathic resonance and compassionate ability are normally distributed. Most people fall somewhere in the middle. There are some on one end of the distribution – not very sensitive – some on the other end of the distribution, extremely sensitive. So it’s really important to recognize that we don’t understand what all the variables are contributing to that variability, but to understand that there are benefits of great sensitivity. It makes individuals more resonant with another person, and as I tried to point out, there can be difficulties as well, because we can become empathically over-aroused. We can become – falling into empathic distress, where then it’s more likely that we’re actually going to turn away, that we’re not going to be there and bear witness to the suffering of someone else.
There’s an interesting set of studies, maybe you’ve seen some reference to this, there are very rare individuals that are so exquisitely sensitive to the experience of other persons, and there’s one well-documented physician this was true of, but for example, they can see someone getting an electric shock you know pulling out a frayed wire from the plug, and literally feel that shock intensely within their own body, to the extent where it knocks them over. So those rare individuals are going to be very important to study in addressing this question of what accounts for the really extraordinary degrees of this sensitivity. And we don’t know many answers to that yet.
Shmuly Yanklowitz: Amazing. So Professor Sandler has his hand up, and then Kathleen.
Thank you for a really wonderful presentation. I had a question: I was really interested in one of the latter things you talked about, which was the common elements across different religious and meditation traditions that enhance compassion. And particularly, I think about, in meditation practice, there are often mantras that you repeat and you learn to say to yourself. But I think religions have those also, in the form of prayers. And I’m wondering – I’d love to hear you speculate on kind of common features of these that might enhance compassion. And on the other hand, features that might diminish compassion and increase maybe empathic distress, or even turning against the other, the one, that’s not part of the in-group. Thank you.
Shmuly Yanklowitz: Thank you, Professor Sandler. Professor Kaszniak, if you don’t mind making a note of that just to include all the voices in the room, I want to give Kathleen and Mickey a chance to share their questions, and then you can just respond with a closing response to all three if that’s okay for you.
Alfred Kaszniak: Very well, wonderful.
Shmuly Yanklowitz: Just to honor your time. Kathleen, please go ahead.
Thank you. Outstanding presentation, I really appreciate your discussion of the overarousal, of empathy preventing the person from getting to the next level of compassion, where actually something can be done for the individual. What I have noticed and is kind of distressing, not here, not at our temple here, thank God, but I was in Illinois for a couple of years, and the temple there was so very focused on social justice outside of the community that they completely neglected the needs, particularly for compassion, throughout this COVID experience of the congregation itself. And I don’t know if that’s common, or if that was specific to that particular temple, but I think it’s something that can happen, that it is easier to try to help someone “the other” as opposed to not only neglecting, but not helping your own.
Shmuly Yanklowitz: Yeah, great thanks for that, Kathleen, okay, and then one last question.
Okay, so I had read that empathy, especially in young people, is decreasing, that there have been studies that have measured this. And then I also was reading that Professor Baron Cohen – not Sacha, but his cousin – believes that empathy can be taught. And I think you were mentioning that too. But you were mentioning more compassion being taught. But my question to you is: am I understanding you correctly that we have to get to the step of being able to have the empathy before we can turn it into the compassion? And so how important, then, is it for the empathy to be learned, either with or before the compassion is learned?
Shmuly Yanklowitz: Okay, sorry to overload with three questions there, but I felt that would honor the time best.
Alfred Kaszniak: Thank you, so I’ll do my best. You know, days could be spent talking about each of these. I appreciate the questions. So starting with the last one, most of the time our compassionate responding grows out of our empathic resonance, but not all the time. For example, we can have compassion for someone we simply read about in the newspaper, or hear about on the television. And so I don’t think that it’s necessary to do something that is focused on increasing our empathic resonance in order to increase our compassionate capacity. What I do think is important, however, is that there be some inclusion of training in these various components. For example, Professor Sandler had mentioned mantra meditation. Maybe that one of the things that kind of practice does is it actually self-soothes, it calms us, and so it’s in the service of emotion regulation. But you get a sense of – I think that’s the kind of research that needs to, going forward, is that which asks the question: what are the actual component processes that are at work in any of these sorts of things, including what, you know, in our religious traditions we’ve done for millennia – how do they work, what is the process? Because I think that enables us not only to be more specific, say, in Rabbi’s question of “What do you do to train young children in enhancing compassionate capacity?” But also, “How do we maximize what it is that our traditions are are doing in the world?” So I hope that touches on – and I know that I didn’t give sufficient attention to each and every one of those questions, and I do apologize for that.
Shmuly Yanklowitz: Thank you, brilliant, this is so wonderful. Thank you for this gift, Professor Kaszniak, and thank you all for joining us. And this is really, as we see it, one of our primary goals here at VBM, not just the learning, but learning to act, and learning to act more compassionately, and becoming more empathic beings. Wishing everyone a wonderful day and hope to see you again soon.