Compassion are supported by different biological systems and neural networks of the brain. Compassion based meditation practices can reduce pain, and can promote positive emotions and social closeness, which in turn can improve mental and physical health. Helping others and doing random acts of kindness releases endorphins in our brain that help us feel good, and can even mimic a “runner’s high.”
Compassion and Your Brain
When we are working out of higher consciousness, we access the parts of our brain that make us more self aware, less selfish, and we display more empathy, compassion and kindness. We act from love rather than from fear. When we feel physical pain a part of our brain lights up. The same happens when we see someone in physical pain. You can see our natural connectivity and compassionate instincts in how our brains react to pain. If you see somebody else suffering, that very same part of the cortex activates. Not the only part of the brain that lights up when we see images of suffering and distress. The amygdala—the brain’s threat detector—activates, which is no surprise since we might worry the suffering will come our way. Compassion also activates the vagus nerve which balances our concerns and increases our calmness. When we feel loved oxytocin (the love hormone) is emitted, making every connection both deeply profound and healing.
What is compassion?
Compassion motivates people to go out of their way to help others to eliminate the physical, spiritual, or emotional pains. Compassion means “to suffer with”. It is not just feeling. It is feeling with action. It is remaining hopeful and lifting the spirits.
In the voluntary participation in other’s suffering there is strength and a sense of confidence. But when you are undergoing your own pain and suffering, there is an element of involuntariness, and because of the lack of control on your part, you feel weak and completely overwhelmed. The capacity to love oneself or be kind to oneself should be based on a very fundamental fact of human existence: that we all have a natural tendency to desire happiness and avoid suffering. Once this basis exists in relation to oneself, one can extend it to other sentient beings. We can develop an attitude of considering other sentient beings as precious in the recognition of the part their kindness plays in our own experience of joy, happiness, and success. Much of our joy, happiness, and sense of security in our lives arise from thoughts and emotions that cherish the well-being of other sentient beings.
Compassion Meditation Stages
In compassion: emphasis has given on feelings of loving kindness, care, and concern for self and others. Compassion meditation typically takes place in three stages: (i) the generation of compassion; (ii) the extension of compassion; and (iii) the globalization and stabilization of compassion.
The first stage often involves the intentional generation of memories and thoughts that induce a feeling of compassion. Intentionally bringing to mind a loved one while silently repeating compassionate phrases as a way to stabilize attention.
In the second stage, perspective taking and reappraisal are used to extend compassion to strangers and adversaries by altering the way they are regarded, for example by focusing on their suffering and hardship rather than on their negative actions or qualities.
The third stage involves extending compassion to all beings and repeating the process until it becomes an automatic response. A typical method for extending compassion to all
beings involves recalling one’s own desire to be free of suffering, and then recognizing
that all beings share this same desire. The idea of wishing for the happiness of all sentient beings and this idea of cultivating thoughts of cherishing the well-being of all sentient beings are realistic and scientific. The point is to try to develop the scope of one’s empathy in such a way that it can extend to any form of life that has the capacity to feel pain and experience happiness.
How Compassion Affects Our Brains
Compassion lowers stress hormones in the blood and saliva and strengthens the immune response. Studies have shown that practicing compassion and engaging in compassionate action bolsters brain activity in areas that signal reward. The human brain is the product of many millions of years of evolution – a process of conserving, modifying and adapting. Compassion is helpful for Deeper Level evolution of human brain.
Compassion and supramarginal gyrus
The supramarginal gyrus is a part of the cerebral cortex and is approximately located at the junction of the parietal, temporal and frontal lobe. In a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience on October 9, 2013, Max Planck researchers identified that the tendency to be egocentric is innate for human beings – but that a part of your brain recognizes a lack of empathy and autocorrects. This specific part of your brain is called the the right supramarginal gyrus. When this brain region doesn’t function properly—or when we have to make particularly quick decisions—the researchers found one’s ability for empathy is dramatically reduced. This area of the brain helps us to distinguish our own emotional state from that of other people and is responsible for empathy and compassion.
Compassion and Brain’s Neural Network
When highly psychopathic participants imagined pain to themselves, they showed a typical neural response within the brain regions involved in empathy for pain, including the anterior insula, the anterior midcingulate cortex, somatosensory cortex, and the right amygdala. The increase in brain activity in these regions was unusually pronounced, suggesting that psychopathic people are sensitive to the thought of pain but are unable to put themselves in someone else’s shoes and feel that pain.
Compassion and Vagus Nerve:
It is a very long nerve running from the hypothalamus area of your brain, chest, diaphragm, and to your intestines. The vagus nerve activates the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which manages your relaxation response, and in turn, helps you to control the health of your immune cells, organs and tissues, and even your stem cells. Vagus is Latin for “wandering”. Stimulating your vagus nerve sends acetylcholine throughout your body, not only making you feel relaxed, but also putting out the fires of inflammation – something that happens in response to stress. Research has linked the vagus nerve to improved neurogenesis (creation of new brain or neuronal cells), and increased brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) factor. BDNF is like a fabulous super-food for your brain cells. It helps with repair of brain tissue, actual regeneration throughout the whole body. The vagus nerve controls that relationship, between the breathing and the calming. If somebody tells you about a sad experience—of, say, their grandparent dying—your vagus nerve fires. If they tell you an inspiring story, their vagus nerve fires. The more you feel compassion, the stronger the vagus nerve response.
Compassion helps make better friends. Feeling compassion for one person makes us less vindictive toward others. Brain scans during loving-kindness meditation, which directs compassion toward suffering, suggest that, on average, compassionate people’s minds wander less about what has gone wrong in their lives, or might go wrong in the future; as a result, they’re happier. Compassionate people are more socially adept, making them less vulnerable to loneliness. Cultivate compassion toward a loved one, yourself, a neutral person, and even an enemy. When our mind run wild with fear in response to someone else’s pain (e.g., What if that happens to me?), we inhibit the biological systems that enable compassion. The practice of mindfulness can help us feel safer in these situations, facilitating compassion. I will finish this post with the quotation:
Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive. – Dalai Lama