Emiliana Simon-Thomas is a neuroscientist, holds a PhD in how fear affects our thinking and is the science director of Greater Good Science Center in Berkeley, California. When we meet, she is about to distribute 6 million dollars for research projects solely on the theme of gratitude.
Gratitude is one of the core themes of the research center, focusing on positive emotions regarded as likely to lead to a meaningful life. Others are empathy, forgiveness and mindfulness. For Emiliana, her main interest is to increase the understanding of how compassion arises.
“I want to clarify the processes that lead to compassion”, she says as we walk with Orion, 3, 5 months at the time, in a baby carrier on her stomach. Emiliana takes her lunch walk around the Berkeley campus in the shining February sun, among students preparing Valentine’s Day, celebrating Ash Wednesday and dancing for the Tibetan New Year.
Though, for an illustration to compassion, Emiliana chooses to pick another typical street scene in Berkeley – the many homeless. Maybe I had already met them? Oh yes, the first thing I saw when I arrived the night before. Now I had recently rushed by them on the sidewalk right outside the hotel.
“And then you spontaneously wanted to do something – but didn’t know what?” Emiliana rhetorically says and continues:
“Studies show that it’s very stressful to witness situations where others suffer and not be able to do something. It makes people supress their sympathy, as a natural reaction. For healthcare professionals wanting to help everyone and solving everyone’s problems, this feeling of inadequacy can be experienced as a defeat and lead to what we call compassion fatigue.”
Researchers define compassion as an active response to others’ pain, grief and other life’s difficulties. The system as a whole is about care and our common humanity. All people can experience suffering, and we all have the same opportunities to empathize with others and care for them.
But, explains Emiliana Simon-Thomas, yet people generally react differently depending on who is in need. I’ve already merely passed the homeless, and am in good company. But if, for example, her Orion fell and hurt himself, she thinks everyone would run back and help out. We have obviously easier to care for certain people we feel familiar with, but not for others.
Why is this?
“One immediate reaction might be a judgment – the person is outside my circle and therefore not worthy of my empathy. But another emotion that might arise is empathy. It occurs early in the process and is not completely separate from the compassion”, she explains.
At the same time, compassion may not come about without attention in the present moment. There is a difference between passing homeless without really seeing them and to instantly react if a child is being harmed. And the compassion with others also requires a little sympathy with what is going on in one-self, so-called self-compassion. Anyone who is afraid, for example, needs to be well aware of his or her own fears, accept it and not get too hard on themselves about it.
“If you can’t deal with your own feelings, you might not be able to convert them into care and action. Compassion is not a single, distinct feeling of its own, rather a framework for the whole”, explains Emiliana Simon-Thomas and lists all the elements needed: empathy, mindfulness, being non-judgmental, awareness of own emotions and self-compassion. She says that none of them work alone, and she does not even regard empathy as the single most important component.
“Compassion overlaps both emotional and cognitive processes in the brain, and all the networks in the brain are parallell. None of them is doing anything completely on its own. For me, it’s important to clarify how these overlappings are expressed. We’re simply trying to understand why people create feelings in the way they do.”
To feel with others makes us vulnerable, Emiliana Simon-Thomas explains, which can create several different emotions. Seeing anyone go hungry – like right in front of us on a street in Berkeley – makes us feel bad. But we can also become angry about how it can be that way. A situation that makes people compassionate can thus simultaneously make them angry, as a response to other people’s difficulties.
As a kind of disguised compassion?
“No, anger stands in the way of compassion, the typical is that they don’t go together. When we’re involved in an unfair situation it can create frustration, though, that’s how the brain also reacts when we see someone else’s suffering. In this way, anger, as well as compassion, can make us want to help.”
Obviously, we also can suppress the compassion. And one reason is the brain’s reward system, Emiliana Simon-Thomas has discovered. This is how it works: Most of us have the capacity of empathy, which means we can feel bad seeing others suffer and sensing their pain. According to brain functioning, it would then be a “reward” to get rid of that feeling.
“One way is to suppress the empathy and compassion. Another is to actually help the one who’s suffering – which also gives us joy. But in that case, the reward will sometimes come so much later, when the person we helped might smile to us, say thanks or come out of their difficulties. In the meantime, we must bear to see their pain … Here, our desire for immediate reward is a problem.”
In this situation, one can learn to become aware of the reactions that stand in the way of compassion and instinctively lead to the shut down. Emiliana Simon-Thomas usually teaches these ways of handling them:
“If something happens in the street, don’t supress your fear or anxiety but let the feelings come. They don’t last long anyway. What matters is how you think about them: If you find that you are afraid, think Oh fear, hmm – that’s interesting … Then it disappears. Or if you are worried, think Oh, anxiety, hmm – interesting … And then it disappears, as well.
Can we become more compassionate than we think?
“Yes, but unfortunately we need to practice … That will make the habit of feeling compassionate become a reflex. We can, for example, try to widen the circle of those we care about, realizing we’re all interdependent. It increases our compassion and counteracts, not only the tendency to merely pass the ones we perceive as strangers, but certainly also our feeling of inadequacy.”
This article is published in the Swedish daily © Svenska Dagbladet