Experience L!fe Interview

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How compassion and social connection have a powerful effect on our health, happiness, and well-being.

The founder of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research Education (CCARE), James R. Doty, MD, a professor of neurosurgery at Stanford, discusses how compassion and social connection have a powerful effect on our health, happiness, and wellbeing.

Experience Life | How do you define compassion, and why compassion research important?

Dr. James Doty | I think compassion is the appreciation, acknowledgment, or recognition or another’s suffering and, as a result, feeling a desire to alleviate that suffering. That doesn’t necessarily mean you have the ability to — it’s just that you wish that person’s suffering to be alleviated, and if you could, you’d do so.

Now that there’s interest in the scientific community to understand compassion — both in regard to how these types of behaviors effect the brain itself, and how as a result your peripheral physiology is effected — it gives support to the integration of programs that promote compassion in a secular environment.

EL | What positive effects do we get from being compassionate?

JD | We know that when somebody is compassionate with intent, it actually increases vagal tone, which is the neuroconnection between your brain, heart, and other organs in your body. When that happens, it downregulates your sympathetic nervous system and upregulates your parasympathetic nervous system.

Your sympathetic nervous system is that which is associated with the fight-or-flight mechanism, the fear response, and the disgust response. And when you’re in that mode, you shut down, you’re not as thoughtful or creative. It decreases your ability in your frontal lobes to execute executive control. It also increases your heart rate, makes you anxious, depresses your immune system and all sorts of deleterious effects.

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