Compassion: Do we have “nerves of compassion”?

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Compassion

Born to Be Good coverHow do you react when you witness suffering?

You probably feel warmth in your chest and a lump in your throat. Your heart rate goes down, and you become a bit gentler—ready to comfort and support the sufferer. If you have these feelings and physical reactions, it’s because humans are hardwired for it, according to psychologist Dacher Keltner.

Charles Darwin called sympathy the strongest of all human instincts. In Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life, Keltner describes the new scientific evidence in support of Darwin’s intuition. Keltner is a faculty member at Berkeley’s Greater Good center. As I described Monday, this center partnered with the CompassionLab to produce the free online survey of compassion in organizations.

The wiring is called the “vagus nerve.” According to Keltner, “this is a bundle of nerves…which resides in the chest and, when activated, produces a feeling of spreading, liquid warmth in the chest and a lump in the throat.” In addition, when you witness a person or even an image of suffering, the vagus nerve causes you to audibly sigh. This sigh is perceived to be soothing, comforting, and reassuring. It communicates empathy and readiness to help.

Chris Oveis, one of Keltner’s students, produced the experiments that first associated the vagus nerve with compassion. When they showed participants an image of an emaciated, starving child, they observed the activation of the vagus nerve and the behaviors described above. If you show participants the image of, say, college landmarks or the sports team’s mascot, they feel pride and their vagus nerves are not activated. Those feeling pride are less likely to be sympathetic.

What do you feel when you observe suffering?

Are you surprised to learn that we are hardwired for compassion?

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  1. I am most often overwhelmed and, in the end, saddened when I observe suffering. I feel a need to do something to relieve suffering but I am inevitably unable to do so, and, for me, that is overwhelming.