Daniel Goleman about altruism, mirror neurons, and how the human brain is wired for compassion

Because of mirror neurons, tuning into our internal feelings gives us a mix of our own responses and what we pick up from the other. So the challenge is to distinguish between what comes from our own reactions and what comes from the other person. Say you’re at a party and you notice the person you’re talking to is not really listening to what you’re saying, but is scanning the room behind you. It’s a common moment that can be interpreted in many ways, depending on our own emotional habits. If you are prone to an abandonment pattern, at that instant you might assume she’s rejected you and is going to leave. Unlovability would trigger the thought “She doesn’t like me.” If you have fears of social exclusion, you might start feeling you’re an outsider in this group. If you’re a narcissist, you might have the thought “This person isn’t worth my spending time on.” Those are all projections. None of them would allow you to sense, for example, that the other person is looking for someone they think you might like to meet.

Empathy and compassion are two different phases in the arc toward altruism. Empathy simply means “I sense how you feel.” Compassion means “I feel with you enough to be moved to help.”

In this day and age we are tuned out of the present reality by our cell phones, Blackberries, being locked in to our email, and we miss the human moment—we miss the opportunity for attending to what’s going on with the other person, and responding as needed. When our attention gets captured by all these gadgets, we may feel like we’re in touch with someone at a distance while we’re completely indifferent to the person right next to us.

It’s self-preoccupation that keeps us from noticing what others need in the first place. So the enemy of compassion is preoccupation with the self.

There is a strong relationship between maximal cognitive efficiency and a person’s emotional state. When people are in an alert, motivated, and engaged state, the brain operates at a peak efficiency. In fact, when they’re joyous, they’re even more efficient. If a boss puts someone down or humiliates them, that threatens and undermines the person’s neural ability to be at their best. So the boss has to understand that they’re partly responsible for the other person’s very brain state and subsequent inability to do better. There is also a power factor: emotions are most contagious from the most powerful person in a group outward. One study shows that people ruminate about negative statements from their boss far more than they remember positive ones. Which means that a small dose of negative feedback gets magnified in your own mind, and can have great power because something coming from this powerful person in your life is amplified emotionally.

That one person simply holding someone’s hand, or maybe just being a calm presence, can have a powerful biological effect both emotionally and physiologically. For people who are in very vulnerable, extremely precarious health situations, it might have clinical consequences, too. But apart from that, just in terms of how a person experiences their illness, a calm, loving presence can make a huge difference. This doesn’t cure the disease; it eases the suffering the disease brings. Mindfulness and other meditation practice are things we can do for ourselves. But the interconnections of the social brain suggest that we can then bring our ease of mind to other people. Not just in some metaphorical way, but actually, in hard scientific terms, through emotional contagion. If you have a loved one who is suffering, and you yourself are calm, equanimous, and loving, your presence is going to help them. It’s more than just a nice thing to do; it’s an effective thing to do.

Neural interconnection may partly explain the tradition in Asian cultures of darshan, simply being in the presence of a realized being. People go to be with someone who has stabilized in an equanimous, loving awareness. And because the social brain makes their state of mind contagious to anyone in their presence, those beings transmit a taste of their mind-state to those around them. So the point of darshan is just going to be in that presence, because you come away with a bit of what they have.

Neuron-illustration-by-Medical-University-of-Vienna (1)