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Lions Roar : May 2010
SHAMBHALA SUN MAY 2010 46 Sixty-five percent of participants overcame their reluctance and administered the maximum voltage. Commenting on the re- sults, milgram concluded that when “asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.” the ex- periments (which incidentally would not meet today’s standards for ethical psychological testing) looked at moral fiber and con- science in the way that most of western psychology and neurosci- ence has tended to: from the point of view of dysfunction, pathol- ogy, and neurosis, with an eye perhaps to fixing what’s wrong. fifty years later a number of scientists and scholars are taking a new approach. they are trying to understand the nature and depth of our empathetic behavior toward other beings. A col- league of milgram’s—the renowned social psychologist Philip Zimbardo—is updating the milgram experiments by using as- sessment tools to measure people’s empathy, compassion, and altruism, and then putting them in a situation requiring them to buck authority in order to prevent harm to others. the study will try to determine whether we can predict how readily someone is willing to act heroically. if the measurements work, they can be used to assess the effectiveness of training people to cultivate com- passion. that’s one of the main interests of the new group funding the study: the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and education at Stanford University, known as CCARe. wheRe DOeS AltRUiSm reside? Can it be cultivated? And if so, what kind of training could work to make us more compas- sionate? in a world with so much violence and suffering these are not trivial questions, and the search for their answers has inspired the creation of a new academic field, one that looks at behavior not so much from the perspective of the dark side of human nature—our proven ability to inflict harm on each oth- er—but from the perspective of our capability for compassion and altruism. At the University of wisconsin, as part of his ongoing study of meditation adepts, Richie Davidson has been studying a group of tibetan monks to see what effects their compassion meditation practice has on their brains, as measured by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fmRi). Researchers at emory University in Atlanta have studied the effects of compassion meditation on the body’s systemic responses to psychosocial stress. Kristin neff has established the Self-Compassion Research lab at the University of texas to investigate both the effects of self-compassion and possible methods for training people, mainly schoolchildren, in self-compassion. Dacher Keltner, author of Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life, researches “pro-social behavior” and directs the greater good Science Center at the University of California at Berkeley, whose aim is to report on groundbreaking scientific research into the roots of compassion and altruism and share inspiring stories of compassion in action on their website, peacecenter.berkeley.edu/greatergood/. CCARe (pronounced “see care”) is the capstone in this emerging field. it’s a multidisciplinary effort that brings together the work of psychologists, neuroscientists, physicians, religious scholars, and a variety of other scientists and researchers to study compassion rigorously. According to its founding documents, CCARe is a collaboration between scientists, who use objective measures to study brain and behavior, and practitioners of med- itation, who “study the mind using first-person subjective obser- vation, as in the Buddhist and other contemplative traditions.” the center intends to fund not only scientific research “into the neural, mental, and social basis of compassion and altruistic be- havior,” but also explorations of “testable cognitive and affective training exercises through which individuals and societies can learn to employ these complex behaviors.” CCARe emerged following a dialogue at Stanford in October If we could come up with a set of mental practices and show that these improve personal and communal well-being, it could become the basis for a huge pro- social movement. —james Doty JamesDotymd,founderofccare PhOtOBYStevefiSCh