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Are We Wired for Compassion?

Posted on Jan 19, 2010
mother and baby
Flickr / ECohen

When the term human nature gets thrown around, it’s sometimes used in a derisive fashion, as if to boil all the complex motivations, biological drives and psychological quirks that comprise our makeup down to some simplistic, base formula. However, there are some who might cast the concept in a brighter light, including the psychologists and neurologists whose research on compassion is featured in this excerpt from Greater Good Magazine. —KA

Greater Good Magazine via Arts & Letters Daily:

First consider the recent study of the biological basis of compassion. If such a basis exists, we should be wired up, so to speak, to respond to others in need. Recent evidence supports this point convincingly. University of Wisconsin psychologist Jack Nitschke found in an experiment that when mothers looked at pictures of their babies, they not only reported feeling more compassionate love than when they saw other babies; they also demonstrated unique activity in a region of their brains associated with the positive emotions. Nitschke’s finding suggests that this region of the brain is attuned to the first objects of our compassion—our offspring.

But this compassionate instinct isn’t limited to parents’ brains. In a different set of studies, Joshua Greene and Jonathan Cohen of Princeton University found that when subjects contemplated harm being done to others, a similar network of regions in their brains lit up. Our children and victims of violence—two very different subjects, yet united by the similar neurological reactions they provoke. This consistency strongly suggests that compassion isn"t simply a fickle or irrational emotion, but rather an innate human response embedded into the folds of our brains.

In other research by Emory University neuroscientists James Rilling and Gregory Berns, participants were given the chance to help someone else while their brain activity was recorded. Helping others triggered activity in the caudate nucleus and anterior cingulate, portions of the brain that turn on when people receive rewards or experience pleasure. This is a rather remarkable finding: helping others brings the same pleasure we get from the gratification of personal desire.

The brain, then, seems wired up to respond to others’ suffering—indeed, it makes us feel good when we can alleviate that suffering. But do other parts of the body also suggest a biological basis for compassion?

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By pathwhisperer, January 20, 2010 at 7:55 pm Link to this comment

Yes, but with the exception of psychopaths/sociopaths who are born with different brain structures.  See the research of Adrian Raine,, and Kent Kiehl,  They’re not exactly a subspecies, but they are very different, absolutely amoral and empathyless with no possibility of change.  This is even true for SAPs (socially adept psychopaths) who have the self control to choose to follow moral and ethical norms.

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By Night-Gaunt, January 20, 2010 at 1:30 pm Link to this comment

Genetics are the base of it then expression then environment influences and finally epigentics which can change over a life time and by diet too.

Yes most of us are hard wired for compassion but there is a small number of us (4%-6%) have no such faculties we call them psychopaths. A larger number of near normals that can easily become such are called secondary psychopaths. (12%) Most of them rule human societies so they are the ones most often, but not always, promoting their way of living & thinking. Why else would some consider the idea of empathy to be suspect? About 20% of violent criminals are psychopaths as are many serial killers. But some people just loose empathy and maybe even like the idea of killing.

As for those people fighting others there are many ways of creating hardened people but even during the great patriotic war (II) 4 out of 5 were reluctant to shoot to kill.

We need to shake off, after identifying, the psychopathic way if we are ever going to free ourselves from their pernicious influences.

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By samosamo, January 20, 2010 at 1:15 am Link to this comment

Compassion is an emotion, one that is either rational or
irrational and it exists, possibly, in all animals in some form,
other wise it is probable that no species of animal would exist
today, or is it just an instinct to reproduce for the survival of a
species and in this ‘modern’ human civilization is a touted
‘positive’ emotion to get people to forever seek that grand warm
feeling that compassion creates, which would seem rational as
to keep people civil in society.

Or when does it become irrational in the sense of how rational is
it to be so compassionate that the population of humans is not
just allowed to grow unfettered but to keep growing so that it
will be nothing more or less than a cancer that will at least
cripple our species if not kill it us all.

I say this as my general idea of compassion and am wary of
studies that tend to focus totally on the ‘positiveness’ of it, or
anything because it can tend to distract people much like a drug
and especially so we don’t think there could possibly be a down
or dark side, even when it stares you in the face.

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By Glen Wayne, January 19, 2010 at 6:10 pm Link to this comment

Compassion Fruit     empirePie     January 19th, 2009

The nurture of an apple tree
holds hands with sympathy
for the infants of a bond
like the shade of a sharing frond

so why are we so reluctant to

re slice the pie
an apple pie of compassion fruit
to be creamed for the greater good..


for one of nation hood
where our woody piece is: ‘take the pie’
and please don’t question why


‘pie in the sky’ is for dreamers
just ask the noble one
the piece up the action one
the supreme commander one
to slice up our interests
to ‘bring it on’
for the style
of the apple pie fittest.

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By lichen, January 19, 2010 at 5:10 pm Link to this comment

Rdfidler is an aggressive neocon because he forgives his parents and other adults for having abused and violated him.  The human species as a whole, however, is not unless they are made that way by people like him.  Having compassion most of all for the plight of children is what has moved our species head.  As Loydd Demause says:

“The evolution of culture is ultimately determined by the amount of love, understanding and freedom experienced by its children. Every abandonment, every betrayal, every hateful act towards children returns tenfold a few decades later upon the historical stage, while every empathic act that helps a child become what he or she wants to become, every expression of love toward children heals society and moves it in unexpected, wondrous new directions.”

What Gerard says is quite correct; the fact that we develop PTSD and other serious mental illnesses after being physically attacked or made to commit violence shows that it is not a natural act that we are somehow “wired” for at all.

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By gerard, January 19, 2010 at 4:50 pm Link to this comment

rfidler:  You aren’t making very good sense.  Sorry I can’t grasp the reasoning behind your posts. Also, please remember I’m referring you to an Army Captain or Colonel here:  His book is called “On Killing.” Read it.

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By dihey, January 19, 2010 at 4:46 pm Link to this comment

Anyone who has seriously studied evolution will answer the question in the headline with a resounding “yes, of course”. When a group A of early Homo in Africa became more “wired for compassion” it had a greater chance of survival as a group than group B which existed without “compassion”.
It is true that increased chance of group-survival meant increased chance of survival of all members of group A, seemingly contradicting the principle of natural selection. However, given the fact that we were an incredibly vulnerable species on Africa’s savanna, any decreased chance of group survival or else a ‘status quo of compassion’ meant the possibility of the rapid and complete extinction of the group.
Today the only predators which threaten us with extinction are viruses and bacteria. If evolution is still at work, then we may become ‘unwired for compassion’. In fact, that may already have happened.

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By rico, suave, January 19, 2010 at 4:42 pm Link to this comment


I respectfully disagree. Humans are, BY NATURE, an aggressive species. Compassion, not killing, is what needs to be taught. That’s what women are for. To become “civilized” is to be taught to control your violent impulses and work cooperatively. To the extent that you believe soldiers need to be re- taught to kill, only proves that we are more compassionate than you think.

That “basic training” is used to “re”-teach killing refutes your argument.

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By rico, suave, January 19, 2010 at 4:34 pm Link to this comment


I have read zero compassion in your hateful, spiteful, cynical posts. Please show me an example of your compassion, as defined by normal people.

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By lichen, January 19, 2010 at 4:25 pm Link to this comment

No, rfidler, that baby was not me; I was showing compassion.

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By gerard, January 19, 2010 at 4:18 pm Link to this comment

What do you think “basic training” is all about if not to teach people to kill?  They have to be taught.
Indoctrinated, is another word for it.  It doesn’t come naturally to most people, and we can be very grateful for that, can’t we? 

There’s a book out there somewhere, written by an Army Captain (forget his name) called “On Killing,” which details the entire process.  It also reports from this guy’s experience that most of the time, even after they are taught to kill. soldiers have great trouble actually firing a gun in situ.  Results of giving way to the training appear to be emotional distress culminating in severe cases of PTSD which last a lifetime. PTSD victims report not only nightmares, automatic rage and hysteria but false pain, flashbacks and feelings of “losing it” and suffering from shame and guilt.  All these symptoms are signs that the most human part of our brain—compassion, sympathy, fellow-feeling—has been injured or killed.  Once destroyed it is very hard to reclaim. Cruelty breeds more cruelty.
  Taliban cruelties parallel “the warrior spirit” of any human beings whom indoctrination pushes over the edges of sanity.  Nobody is immune and nobody is doomed.  It’s a choice—always a choice.  Why can’t we get that through our heads?

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By rico, suave, January 19, 2010 at 4:15 pm Link to this comment

“Those parents who send their babies away, have the little boy’s genitals mutilated, ignore their cries, refuse to feed them when they are hungry, use corporal punishment and neglect, violence, shouting, show little respect for their needs and feelings, suspect and hate them…this is what creates violence and lack of compassion and hatred.”

You’re so ANGRY! Would that baby have been you?

Call your mother. Tell her you forgive her, and move on.

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By lichen, January 19, 2010 at 4:08 pm Link to this comment

“Human nature” or shall I say the nature of the individual, depends entirely upon experience.  We can be compassionate or callous; nonviolent, or violent, depending on how we are treated from birth.  Those parents who send their babies away, have the little boy’s genitals mutilated, ignore their cries, refuse to feed them when they are hungry, use corporal punishment and neglect, violence, shouting, show little respect for their needs and feelings, suspect and hate them…this is what creates violence and lack of compassion and hatred. 

However, those parents who practice a natural both, don’t mutilate, breastfeed on demand, and show only respect, kindness, and understanding for their children and respect for their feelings will create humans who will absolutely not be violent, not prone to fascism or for a lack of compassion.

Read Alice Miller on the subject:

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By rico, suave, January 19, 2010 at 3:19 pm Link to this comment

Here’s an image:

A bunch of Taliban sitting around a cave in full Pushtun regalia.

Put that photo next to you while you read the article in Greater Good Magazine. Would ANYBODY in the world conjure the question, “Are we wired for compassion?”

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