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  • Mass Murder and the Science of Empathy

    I’m in Telluride Colorado, where I attended stellar scientific meetings, held by The Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, Stanford U., while the nation has been watching the massacre in Aurora, Colorado and its aftermath. The take home message of the meetings is that we are wired for empathy, compassion and altruism, and this operates at both conscious and unconscious levels. In infants, it was described as “empathic contagion” and as children grow into toddlers and older, it takes on an additional cognitivecomponent, and at this point, to some extent, we often know what we are feeling and why. From our own research on empathy and altruism, as well as from clinical experience, we know that some aspects of empathy and altruism remain unconscious, even as adults. One common problem I see in patients is empathy and altruism on overdrive, or the tendency to take unrealistic responsibility for another’s suffering, and this kind of empathy and altruism involves empathy-based guilt and is largely outside of conscious awareness.

    New fMRI studies from multiple labs are providing further evidence of our fundamentally altruistic nature.  While most of us have this motivation hard-wired, there are cultural variations in terms of altruistic behaviors. In sync with findings of Richard Nisbett from U. Michigan who found differences in behavior when comparing southerners and northerners in the U.S., there are regional differences in the proneness to engage in altruism. One fascinating series of experiments, conducted in different cities found rather striking variations. For example, responses to a college student disguised as a blind man trying to cross the street differed in how much help he might expect to receive by passers-by. Cities can be (and were) ranked, and apparently Rochester NY just might be the center of altruism in the U.S. Another focus of these meetings involved application: We know that people are happier when they feel compassion towards others and when they have a heightened sense of what contemplative practitioners describe as “loving kindness” and there are ways to teach this.

    Multiple methods of training in loving kindness and compassion were presented in lectures and in experiential sessions; all involved one or another kind of meditation. So while the science is making it increasingly evident that empathy, compassion and altruism is wired in to all but a very small percent of the general population, there are clearly applications and methods to increase our propensity to health promoting compassion, and as a side effect, we make ourselves and those around us happier. As the Dalai Lama often says, compassion towards others is the key to a happy life, for everyone.

    While this rather passionate scientific meeting on compassion was going on, in the same state, not that far away, the news stories of the Aurora massacre have been non-stop underway. While James Doty, C-Care Director spoke briefly about what was happening in Aurora and there was a moment of silence for the victims and their families, otherwise, the two events were wildly disconnected. It’s more than a little discordant, sitting around oozing compassion then coming home to our rented condo and watching these unbelievably painful and very personal stories of lives torn apart, lives taken. Why do we watch horrific news stories, over and over and over? I have an eerie feeling that the people of Aurora would be aghast at scientists sitting around, almost self-congratulatory at our would-be enlightened state, while innocent people had just been murdered and injured at an incomprehensible mass murder. Somehow this horrific event just didn’t come into the meetings. Speaking to a few between sessions, I heard “I won’t even think about it, I won’t watch the TV.” Maybe that’s the only way to deal with the contradiction. I turn on a news channel daily, it’s my habit, and I certainly couldn’t stop this weekend, perhaps more than ever.

    The news stations, driven by ads and therefore popularity, must run the ongoing story because people are watching. It reminds me of 9/11, or Katrina, or the Southeastern Asia Tsunami, or the more recent Japanese earthquake and tsunami. For months after 9/11, I would teach classes or meet with students then run into my office and see the latest news on my computer. So why do we do this, why do we watch such horrible stories over and over? Robert Sapolsky, from Stanford wrote an interesting essay “Primate Peekaboo” explaining why primates (our species included), are so intrigued by squabbles taking place between neighbors, or public loveaffairs of the wealthy and famous. Primates are drawn to witness anything exciting going on in their communities, good or bad. Perhaps this is just another example of the same phenomenon, but maybe it’s something different, or a variation on a theme. There has to be a reason why so many Americans are currently glued to the over and over reruns, the details of this incomprehensible story, even if the compassion scientists managed to ignore it. .

    I’m a research and clinical psychologist, studying empathy and altruism. I believe in the big story of our Telluride meetings. I think our need to be witnesses to something like this massacre and its aftermath is related to our fundamentally altruistic nature. When someone we love dies, know it or not, we feel survivor guilt. When we get hit with some career success and our sibling is jobless, know it or not, we feel survivor guilt. When we see a homeless beggar asking for help, know it or not, we can’t help but feel survivor guilt although in each instance, it is often outside of conscious awareness.

    Perhaps when we hear about or watch on the media the painful details of a community under the cloud of a recent mass killing, we all feel some kind of survivor guilt impacting us outside of conscious awareness. We identify with others. The mirror neuron system, the building blocks of empathy, is active. When you see someone in pain, the same regions in your own brain fire and you feel the other’s pain. So our barely conscious altruistic motivations may be behind our obsession to witness others’ disasters, as if we were there ourselves.  We get disgusted with ourselves, find it incredulous that we keep watching these scenes over and over, and yet we continue. I think this is telling us something new, something untouched by a high-powered meeting on compassion attended by high-ranking scientists, about our wired-in empathic, highly pro-social human nature.

    Our meetings might have reached a higher level if we too, like the rest of the country, took at least a few hours to consider what was at this time happening at Aurora, Colorado, and how we as individuals, really feel about it, instead of pretending it “just isn’t happening.” Who would be better able to at least try to understand, given our inherently social and altruistic nature, what goes wrong in the wiring of an individual who commits mass murder, than a group of sophisticated neuroscientists who specialize in things related to morality and human decency? Or alternatively, perhaps it was impossible for many to focus on compassion and let Aurora into conscious awareness.

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