Compassion and Empathy

Why are some people more kind and helpful than others, sometimes even so selfless they are willing to help out even when doing so puts their own wellbeing at risk?

Psychology researcher Abigail Marsh has spent much of her career exploring this question, and it appears that the answer may be hired-wired within the human brain.

Her interest in the subject began when a stranger risked his own life to help her in a dangerous situation, then leaving without waiting for a thank you or telling her his name.

Marsh began by studying people with psychopathy, a disorder marked by a cold, uncaring, antisocial, sometimes violent personality. Marsh reasoned that investigating how the brains of psychopaths work might offer clues into the brains of altruistic people.

Psychopaths: Unable to Recognize Signs of Distress in Others

MRIs on the brains of psychopaths indicated that such individuals are unable to recognize signs of emotional distress in others, including fear and other emotions that typically elicit sympathy and compassion.

Marsh notes that the part of the brain most closely associated with recognition of fearful expressions is the amygdala, a small, primitive, almond-shaped (literally: Amygdala means almond in Greek) area that helps prepare us to prepare and cope with emergencies.

People with healthy brains display marked spikes in the amygdala when looking at images of faces with fearful expressions, while psychopathic individuals tend to display minimal reactions.

Marsh also found that the amygdala of psychopaths are 18 to 20 percent smaller than normal, while the brains of extremely altruistic individuals who had donated a kidney to a complete stranger were about eight percent larger.

What Distinguishes Altruism?

When Marsh asked kidney donors why they were willing to donate a body part to a total stranger, most had difficulty coming up with an answer. They didn’t see themselves as being different than other people, and they never considered themselves special. However, she found that altruistic people are compassionate not only to family and friends, but also to people completely outside their social circle.

We are Capable of Altruism

Marsh believes that although all people are at some point on the continuum between psychopathic to extremely altruistic, most people are capable of attaining a higher level of altruism.

She also believes that people today are kinder and less accepting of suffering and cruelty than ever before, citing growing concerns about domestic violence, animal abuse and capital punishment.  True compassion, Marsh says, is within reach for all of us.

Steven Pinker, a cognitive scientist and psychology professor at Harvard University, agrees that people are more willing to look beyond themselves, despite the common perception is that the world is crueler than ever before. He reasons that we care more because we are more aware of the suffering of others.

Altruism and compassion are part of human nature, maybe much more than acts of violence and cruelty, Pinker says.

Altruism and Addiction

People who display compassion to others tend to be happier and healthier, and cultivating altruistic qualities is especially beneficial to people in drug and alcohol treatment or rehab. Studies indicate that addicted individuals who reach out to help others, even in very small ways, improve their chances of staying sober and avoiding relapse.

Watch Abigail Marsh’s TEDs Talk here.

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