Compassion’s curative power

Emma Seppala, PhD is the associate director of Stanford School of Medicine’s The Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE) and a well-known researcher and speaker on the science of well-being, social connection and compassion. BeWell spoke with Dr. Seppala to glean her latest insights and learned that strong medicine does not always come in a prescription drug vial.

Empathy: the most evolved form of kindness

Most of us (except in extreme cases, such as psychopaths) are wired for empathy, defined as the shared experience of someone else’s pain or pleasure. Whenever we look at or interact with others, parts of our brain, “mirror neurons,” internally echo what others do and feel. Someone’s smile, for example, activates the smile muscles in our faces, while a frown activates our frown muscles. In this way, we “read” other people’s states of mind. Think about when you see a relative walk into the room with a troubled expression; before you’ve even exchanged words, you know if something is going terribly wrong or wonderfully right. Our brain is wired to read cues so subtle that although our brain may not consciously register them (“he doesn’t seem angry”), our body will. Research by Stanford University’s James Gross shows that even when someone is hiding their anger and we don’t consciously know they are upset, our blood pressure will increase. Our wiring for empathy is so deep that, just by observing someone else in pain, the “pain matrix” in our brain is activated. If someone else hurts, we hurt …