Questionable Motives

January 20, 2010

Where does compassion originate?

Filed under: Altruism,Biology,Compassion,Evolution — tildeb @ 3:15 pm

According to evolutionary theory, if compassion is truly vital to human survival, it would manifest itself through nonverbal signals. Such signals would serve many adaptive functions. Most importantly, a distinct signal of compassion would soothe others in distress, allow people to identify the good-natured individuals with whom they’d want long-term relationships, and help forge bonds between strangers and friends.

The biological basis of compassion

First consider the recent study of the biological basis of compassion. If such a basis exists, we should be wired up, so to speak, to respond to others in need. Recent evidence supports this point convincingly. University of Wisconsin psychologist Jack Nitschke found in an experiment that when mothers looked at pictures of their babies, they not only reported feeling more compassionate love than when they saw other babies; they also demonstrated unique activity in a region of their brains associated with the positive emotions. Nitschke’s finding suggests that this region of the brain is attuned to the first objects of our compassion—our offspring.

But this compassionate instinct isn’t limited to parents’ brains. In a different set of studies, Joshua Greene and Jonathan Cohen of Princeton University found that when subjects contemplated harm being done to others, a similar network of regions in their brains lit up. Our children and victims of violence—two very different subjects, yet united by the similar neurological reactions they provoke. This consistency strongly suggests that compassion isn”t simply a fickle or irrational emotion, but rather an innate human response embedded into the folds of our brains.

In other research by Emory University neuroscientists James Rilling and Gregory Berns, participants were given the chance to help someone else while their brain activity was recorded. Helping others triggered activity in the caudate nucleus and anterior cingulate, portions of the brain that turn on when people receive rewards or experience pleasure. This is a rather remarkable finding: helping others brings the same pleasure we get from the gratification of personal desire.

The brain, then, seems wired up to respond to others’ suffering—indeed, it makes us feel good when we can alleviate that suffering. But do other parts of the body also suggest a biological basis for compassion?

Keep reading about remarkable new research findings of the built in biological signs and symptoms of compassion and altruism by Dacher Keltner here.



  1. What is often forgotten by the religious, is that it isn’t just humans that have empathy and compassion for others; animals also show signs of this behaviour to their offspring:

    Comment by misunderstoodranter — January 21, 2010 @ 5:15 pm | Reply

  2. Absolutely.

    Mirror neurons seem to play a key role in activating a sympathetic limbic response. Any species whose brains contain these specialized neurons should exhibit compassion if that is what the neurons actually do (the Latin root ‘com’ meaning shared, and ‘passion’ meaning suffering). Marco Iacoboni’s team in Italy stumbled across these neurons during brain electrode studies of monkeys quite by accident. So far (and I will behind the times in this) not only do primates possess them, but so do cats and dogs and horses and dolphins and whales and several marsupials. But it’s early days in these studies. Critters that altered behaviour – often self-sacrificing – after these neurons fire up show us every indication of meeting the criteria we establish for morality. Hence, the early hypothesis is that human morality is what we call a set of behaviours that are based in our biology and shared with other critters who have similar biology.

    Comment by tildeb — January 21, 2010 @ 5:42 pm | Reply

  3. I just discovered this site myself after having read Age of Empathy
    This is great stuff. I’m going to do an article on it for sure.

    Comment by bryanbr — November 11, 2011 @ 7:11 am | Reply

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