Monday, 8 August 2011
Choosing compassion could help us survive - by Pat Williams
WE humans live on the edge of a precipice. Our evolutionary history has created within us everything
we need to live in this world - which inevitably means that we have within us equal. opposite, and inconsistent
That we are largely driven by our animal natures is clear from both self-inspection and decades of research into aggression and violence. We know, too, from these same sources, that we have in our make-up strong impulses towards both territoriality and conformist herd behaviour. But we also know that we have equally basic compassionate instincts - for generosity and kindness, for example. And there must be few, if any, human beings on this planet who have not sought, or do not seek, to give and receive love. Yet our present situation seems to reinforce our darker, more violent instincts. The precipice is growing ever steeper. We are living in the shadow of a terrifying potential for violence and destruction, aware that many millions could die in a nuclear conflict or that long-range missiles might reach us from halfway across the planet. And if not that, then like a tribe that has over-grazed, we may run out of vital resources. Or else we may unwittingly render our planet uninhabitable, because our brains are not designed to react automatically to threats which we do not reckon to be immediate.
Perhaps the search for possible solutions to this danger may be what lies unspoken behind the increasing amount of current research into what you might call the 'positive' side of our natures: forgiveness, heroism, gratitude, altruism, fairness, trust, cooperation and peacemaking - all of which feature in what is becoming known as 'compassion research'.
An increasing number of new, or newish, organisations dedicated to this kind of research have sprung up. Among them, for instance, is the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, created by a team comprising the Dalai Lama, Stanford University and James Doty, a multimillionaire inventor, entrepreneur and philanthropist as well as a clinical professor of neurosurgery at Stanford University. The aim
is to investigate how the brain deals with compassion and altruism, and how to apply those findings in a practical way to improve people's lives.Another is the Greater GoodScience Centre, dedicated to expanding a scientific understanding of compassion, which actively disseminates findings from scientists whose areas of study are consistent with this objective. It funds research into, among other things, compassion and empathy,
social and emotional learning and forgiveness.
The Centre recently published The Compassionate Instinct, a book of essays by 52 authors of the stature of Daniel Goleman, Philip Zimbardo, Paul Ekman, Steven Pinker, Robert Sapolsky, and ArchbishopDesmond Tutu. It discusses aspects of current research, experiences and observations on the theme of compassion and its kaleidoscope of concomitants, such as kindness, forgiveness, empathy and trust. The book is well worth reading.
The ground covered includes research into the biological roots of forgiveness, empathy, compassion, and trust; the cultivation of compassion with friends and neighbours, and also in politics and society.And it provides an added interest for readers of this journal - an abundance of materials which can be transformed into anecdotes and stories of optimism with which to inspire downcast patients, students, colleagues
and friends. Some of the material in this article has been sourced from this book.
The idea of compassion, of course, is at the heart of every human and ethical tradition. In the Qur'an, God the Compassionate is foremost among the (99) Most Beautiful Names of God. In the Jewish tradition, God is invoked as the Father of Compassion. The theme of compassion in Hinduism reaches as far back as the Vedas, which were composed prior to 1500 Be. Christians are enjoined to love their neighbours unconditionally, to 'go the extra mile', and never to place themselves above others. And compassion is also the essence of all humanist thinking.
Here are two inspiring examples of compassion. The first comes from South Africa's apartheid era. Nelson Mandela and the men imprisoned with him on Robben Island deliberately worked to make their brutal guards
understand that they, their black prisoners, were human beings too. One former prisoner, Neville
Alexander, smiling ruefully at the memory, said when interviewed, "It was very frustrating. We'd just succeed in educating one set of guards to understand this, when a new set would replace them, and we'd have to start all over again." The second is from Man's Search for Meaning,psychiatrist Victor Frankl's strong and memorable account of his Auschwitz experiences: "We who lived in concentration camps can remember
the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms - to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way."
As Frankl says, even when stripped of everything, some things can never be taken from us: the ability to make choices, even in the worst imaginable circumstances, and the capacity to be compassionate. These are riches beyond price.
Capacity for reconciliation after aggression is deep within us. For instance, mutual kissing, submissive
vocal sounds, touching and embracing are quite common after the aggressive conflicts of chimps. Other great apes, like the bonobo and mountain gorilla, also engage in acts of reconciliation, as do goats, sheep, dolphins and hyenas. In fact, of the half-dozen or so non-primates that have been studied, only domestic cats have failed to demonstrate a conciliatory tendency".
There is also, quite clearly, an innate inhibition against killing our own kind. This is well documented in many studies, which show that throughout military history soldiers have demonstrated a strong resistance to killing others. In the 1860s, in response to a questionnaire, French officers reported a common tendency of soldiers
to fire harmlessly into the air, often without even seeming to aim. And a British study in 1986 examining 100 19th- and 20th-century battles, discovered that the killing potential of the combat weapons used was much greater than the historical casualty rates. The evidence showed that the majority of combatants, when faced with killing the enemy, avoided doing so.'
According to former paratrooper Lt Colonel Dave Grossman/ who taught psychology at West Point and was both chairman of and a professor at, the Department of Military Science at Arkansas University, these findings have largely been ignored by academia, psychiatry and psychology - but not by the military itself Since the Second World War, troops have been 'brainwashed' to overcome this resistance. They are trained, for example, to see the enemy as nothing more than one of the man-shaped targets they have practised
on in similar field conditions in full battledress. And they are trained to aim at the heart, which they are conditioned to see as merely a splosh of red paint on the 'target'. But the success of the training, says Grossman, comes at the cost of severe psychological trauma - post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD),
suicides, alcoholism, drug use and divorce. A study in 1988 showed that PTSD sufferers were almost exclusively among veterans who had taken part in 'high-intensity combat situations'. Grossman also points out that popular culture has done much to perpetuate the myth of easy killing. Many video games actually replicate military training, and are conditioning young people to kill - "but without 'stimulus discriminators'to
ensure they only fire under authority".
Research into human violence has, however, also thrown up an unexpected, though contentious, possibility - that in spite of genocide, 'ethnic cleansing', and unjustifiable wars, the level of violence in the past century may have actually decreased. According to Steven Pinker, professor of psychology at Harvard, social scientists have begun to count bodies in different historical periods and have found that any idyllic images we may have had of hunter-gatherer societies living in a state of harmony with nature and each other are the wrong way round." Our ancestors were far more violent than we are today, he says: in fact, we may be living in the most peaceful moment of our time on earth.
There has been much criticism of Pinker's view, but ancient texts, certainly, in all the traditions, show a stunning disregard for human life. Think of all the smiting commanded by God in the Old Testament, which also prescribes death by stoning for a whole list of non-violent infractions, including picking up sticks on the Sabbath, homosexuality, and disrespecting one's parents. In the Middle Ages, too, mutilation and torture were still routine punishments for social infringements which today would result in a fine. So why do so many people believe that we are living in the most violent period that has even been? Better reporting, says Pinker, plus the fact that, as cognitive psychologists have shown, the easier it is to recall an event, the more likely we are to believe it will happen again. War images from TV are burned into our brains; images of people dying in
their beds of old age are not.
About 20 years ago, medical and psychological researchers turned their attention from focusing exclusively on disease and depression, and began to look also at 'wellness' and positive thinking. Similarly, interest in the 'red in tooth and claw' aspect of our natures has widened to include the compassionate 'up' side. When, in the course of research, Professor Jonathan D Haidt, of the University ofVirginia, and colleagues asked people
in several countries to list disgusting things, they found, to their surprise, that, as well as rotten food, dead bodies, excrement, etc, most people also mentioned social offences such as hypocrisy, racism, cruelty and betrayal. Haidt later began to wonder about things which uplifted people rather than revolted them and to look at what he termed 'elevation': the uplifting effect that comes from seeing another person perform an unexpected altruistic act.' His experiments have shown that people who witness such events become more
optimistic about humanity, develop higher goals for themselves and are prepared to affiliate with others; they also report more energy, playfulness, and pleasant physical feelings - warmth or tingling in their chests - none of which was found in the control groups. Elevation is also contagious, says Professor Haidt, and so he is looking at ways to include the idea in education programmes, "inspiring young people in ways that more traditional teaching techniques cannot". But there is a need for caution here. All emotions are contagious, sometimes to the point of mass hysteria. We are, in many ways, herd animals. And there is a strong tendency, especially in groups, for elevated feelings to tip over into highminded self-righteousness. Past and current events - from the Inquisition to the persecution of so called 'witches', to the phenomenon of the suicide
bomber - demonstrate the tragic direction in which the 'meme' of self-righteousness can lead us. There is, I think, no substitute for making altruism, or any other 'elevated' emotion one may have 'caught', authentically one's own.
For example, in the year 2000 the International Committee of the Red Cross asked Harvard researchers
to analyse the comprehensive data collected from its People on War project, in which thousands of hours of interviews with individuals in 12 of the world's most wartorn areas were undertaken, discussing the often almost unbearable impact of war on their lives, in terms of humiliation, tragedy and loss. The researchers
found that, although the focus of the interviews had been the terrible things that had happened, time and again
acts of compassion and altruism were spontaneously mentioned. Sometimes it made the difference between life and death; sometimes it might have been the simple giving of a glass of water. In the nightmare of war, these acts of humanity shone like beacons and were lifelines for the recipients. It seems to me that such actions were not, and could not have been, produced by superficial emotional contagion. They could only have arisen from deep within certain individuals.
Research into forgiveness, as we learn from many studies cited in The Compassionate Instinct, confirms what observation and common sense also tell us - that we could not have survived without the capacity to forgive because, quite apart from the obvious benefit of damage limitation, forgiveness brings in its train peace,
harmony, cooperation and wellbeing, to families, social groups, and whole countries. But studies
also show that forgiveness has powerful psychological and physiological effects on the forgiver, in terms of reduced stress levels and general wellbeing.
Right across what you could call 'the compassionate spectrum', in fact, these healthy and beneficial consequences are found. For example, although it has been said for centuries that kindness is its own reward, neuroscience has now found the physiological pathways which express this in the body. When we give to others, our brain shows heightened activity in the nucleus accumbens, a region known to have many dopamine
receptors, and which processes rewards.
But compassion, like everything else, must begin at home. We all need to be able, when necessary, to turn its healing light on ourselves. Indeed a therapeutic technique known as Compassionate Mind Training (CMT)has recently been developed by evolutionary psychologist Paul Gilbert for people with high shame and self-criticism, whose problems tend to be chronic and who find selfwarmth and self-acceptance difficult and/or
In 2008 Professor Gilbert and Sophie Mayhew published a series of case studies exploring the understanding, acceptance and value of CMT for psychotic individuals who heard voices.They were interested in the degree to which such people were able to access and feel the positive emotions of 'warmth' and 'contentment', and to become more compassionate towards themselves. They also explored how CMT affected participants'
hostile voices, their levels of anxiety, depression, paranoia and self-criticism. Participants were invited to offer their own suggestions for tailoring this approach for those people who hear voices.The results showed
decreases for all participants in depression, psychoticism, anxiety, paranoia, obsessive compulsive
disorder and interpersonal sensitivity. And all the participants' auditory hallucinations became less malevolent,
less persecuting and more reassuring."
This is a powerful result, particularly in individuals suffering extreme symptoms. But in my experience, people with even minor anxieties, or simple social embarrassment, benefit from learning how to extend to themselves the healing balm of compassion.
Researchers are also looking at a range of other ways in which compassionate responses can be learned. Interventions have been designed, for instance, for partners in marriage, for parents, for incest victims, for people recovering from drug and alcohol addictions. Unsurprisingly, it doesn't work with everyone. However, there is a powerful, long-term way in which individuals can be primed for compassionate and heroic responses, without indoctrination or conditioning. The human race has practised it from time immemorial
- the telling of traditional tales and epic stories of heroes.
Philip Zimbardo is famous for his landmark Stanford Prison Experiment in which seemingly well-adjusted male college students, randomly assigned the roles of 'prison guards' at a makeshift jail' on campus, descended within five days to perpetrating outlandish, sadistic punishments on their student 'prisoners', which eerily foreshadowed Abu Ghraib. The experiment, due to run for two weeks, was stopped only because a
compassionate young woman, Zimbardo's girlfriend, courageously challenged the situation. After hours of argument and protest, she convinced him to call it off. In recent years, Zimbardo has been researching
what kind of individuals will stand up against authority, or blow the whistle, or even sacrifice their lives, for what they know to be right. They are quite ordinary people, he says - but a number of factors make them able to go against the herd if the situation calls for it. As a result of his research he has created the Hero Project,
designed to help instil in children the qualities of heroes rather than monsters." The most important factor of all, he says, is what he calls 'the stimulation of heroic imagination' - in other words, the telling of epic stories such as the Iliad, or Beowulf, which have embedded in them models of the heroic process. As readers of this journal are aware, metaphors and patterns of compassion, generosity and sacrifice within stories nourish human development. Children have a natural hunger for such tales, but in this digital age are too often starved of them - and society has begun to feel the consequences.
Even if the sense of dread in the public mind does not, as Pinker suggests, pass any reality check, the gathering storms around us seem real enough - and in times of emergency our baser, short-term animal survival instincts tend to win, because this is what our brains are specialised for. Yet even here, if we have templates provided by stories or the example of others already in our minds, our compassionate instinct can be sustained.
We have all exercised compassion on behalf of others, so we can quickly and easily evoke it from the range of our sub-personalities - the 'characters', as I have described them in an earlier article in this journal" and a CD, which we unconsciously switch between in the theatre of our lives. Indeed one can consciously apply the
idea of the 'characters' to our whole repertoire of survival instincts, switching from Seeking Advantage to Intention to Share, or banishing Vengeance and bringing Cooperation to the centre of the mental stage. Our sub-personalities, the 'characters' in the theatre of our lives, can help us - because the 'many minds' model
fosters conscious choice.
Here is an example from our evolutionary past. The desire for revenge, according to Professor Michael McCullough, is a universal trait in human nature. When our human ancestors were harmed by another, the propensity for revenge may have deterred the aggressor from harming them again and prevented them from appearing weak and vulnerable, thus serving as a protective device." This dynamic still plays out today.
Social psychologists have shown in the laboratory that a victim will retaliate more strongly against a provoker when others are watching. And when two men have an argument in the street, the mere presence of a third person doubles the likelihood that the encounter will escalate from an exchange of words to an exchange of blows.
Clearly revenge is adaptive, and can protect us. But we are all interdependent, all linked, now, in
global networks, all in the firing line. What worked automatically for our ancestors needs to be put, from time to time, under conscious control, so that we can deliberately select from our basic biological repertoire what will work best for the whole human network, not just for ourselves - revenge or peacemaking, disgust or elevation, suspicion or trust. We can no longer be driven blindly by the primal needs of our ancestral primates
and early tribal living. Retaliation in order to save face is too dangerous now. Even within our own society, a minor perceived slight may result in murder by knife or gun. But internationally, whatever our country, the threats are too great to stoke up grievance and resentment, or to think in terms of 'them' and 'us'. Yet many societies, our own included, seem in recent decades to have become overheated and anxious, pointing the
finger of blame at other cultures, other beliefs, other behaviours, other religions, other people - whatever it is, is the fault of the 'other'.
So the revenge instinct needs to be avoided, or controlled, or carefully measured. Sometimes we may find the measure more easily, both individually and collectively, by looking in our minds for an appropriate 'character' who can choose to warn strongly, but not to harm. Naming our impulses and sub-personalities as 'characters'
helps distance us from an aggressive (or any other) impulse, because by doing so we automatically move into our 'observing selves' - which can both cool us down and help us see our options more clearly.
It has become even clearer to me through writing this article how important it is, in certain circumstances, consciously and authentically to choose compassion, rather than allow ourselves to be infected by the emotional context, whatever it is. And, in more ambiguous circumstances, to be able to select, situation by situation, what may be the optimum 'measure' of compassion we can manage.
Our choices could determine our survival. Is there anything that can help us in this? Victor Frankl states it impeccably: "Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our :response lies our growth and our freedom."
HUMAN GIVENS JOURNAL VOLUME 17, NO.2 - 2010