Can we teach compassion?

A neuroscience team at Stanford University is exploring whether compassion can be learned. This has potentially great use for all sorts of places where violence and aggression cause problems — schools, prisons, streets and war zones.

The research by Dr. James Doty and his team is simply fascinating. They are asking whether altruism and compassion actually reside concretely in the human brain. Can humans be taught to be more compassionate? The answers to these questions could have major impacts for our violence-prone society.

Doty will be presenting a public lecture in Seattle April 4 at 3 p.m. at the University of Washington, sponsored by the Compassionate Action Network International. His lecture is part of a week of activities that also bring Charter of Compassion author and renowned religious studies scholar Karen Armstrong to Seattle.

One study now underway by the interdisciplinary team is exploring whether meditation increases compassion. One interesting finding so far — it does, but so does training in improv theater. Further research will look at types of meditation training to see if compassion increases or stays the same, compared to improv training or none at all. Another study is looking at those who have been involved in gang violence but now work to support at-risk youth to determine commonalities among those who are able to step away from a life of violence into a life of compassion. A separately funded study is seeking the same answers in Israel with Jewish and Arab former combatants who have engaged in violence in the past and are now collaborating in various peace-making activities.

The research team, called CCARE, was established within the Stanford Institute for Neuro-Innovation and Translational Research at the School of Medicine to “support and conduct rigorous scientific studies of compassion and altruistic behavior,” according to its mission statement. It draws from several disciplines, including neuroscience, psychology, economics and contemplative traditions.

– Rita Hibbard