Exercising Compassion

Mirror neurons, asserts neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran, will be to psychology what DNA is to biology. These so-called “Dalai Lama” neurons, first identified in a lab in Parma, Italy, in 1995, are thought to be key to the human ability to learn skills and language from one another. These are the neurons that enable us to “read” each other’s facial expressions and body language. They’re what cause us to cringe when we watch our child receive an injection or to flush with embarrassment when we witness someone else “play the fool”. When our mirror neurons are in play, we “pick up” on subtle signs of distress from those around us and we are moved to alleviate the cause of that distress. They allow us to experience compassion. Mirror neurons teach us how to behave in community.

While the discovery of mirror neurons is recent, savvy forces have been making use of them for a long time. Totalitarian regimes have always known the importance of squelching demonstrations of dissent. Your mom warned you to stay away from “bad influences.” And there are real economic reasons behind the fact that advertisers pay big bucks to popular figures who model their latest fashions.

It turns out that the motivation behind our behavior is a lot less rational than we would like to believe. Studies show that we are more likely to act in accordance with the behavior that we see modeled around us than we are to act in accordance with our professed beliefs. If this is true, it’s time to examine what we have available to mirror. If you lead a stereo-typical American life, grabbing a pop-tart on the way out the door, driving your auto solo to work, spending the day in an office cubicle, grabbing some fried chicken at the take-out window before sitting down to face whatever the main-stream media has placed before you on the television screen in the evening, who is providing the template for your life?

Some of us feel guilty that we don’t feel more compassion for the “unfortunates” of this world. Others don’t seem bothered and even make derogatory remarks about “rag-heads” and “welfare queens” and “wetbacks”. The plain fact is that it is impossible to feel compassion for an abstraction. What is there to mirror?

If you do feel led to lead a more engaged life, more in keeping with your Christian or Buddhist or Muslim or humanist beliefs, you’ve got to be present; you’ve got to turn your full attention to human beings who are now only abstractions to you.

For me, a big “ah ha!” moment regarding the “homeless situation” was driving up to a Catholic Worker “Breakfast on the Streets” site in Norfolk, Virginia, at seven AM one grey and blustery morning to see one hundred and twenty-five human beings standing quietly in line, each waiting for a cup of coffee, a bowl of boiled grits and two cold hard boiled eggs. Talking with them later, about the misfortunes and ways of thinking that had brought them to this point, I was overwhelmed with the sense that there, but for fortune, could be a child of my own.

For an even easier step, which only involves turning away from your television set and turning towards your computer monitor, I recommend taking a tour of the “Axis of Evil” through the eyes of Andy Chang, a young man who photographed his way across Northern Africa and into the Middle East. Andy’s artistry with a camera allows you to soak in the humanity of the people he met on his journey. Try to hold his images in your mind when next you hear calls to strengthen the American-Israeli position in the Middle East. Think about these faces when you hear terms like “military options” and “collateral damage” discussed.

Working in a Vietnamese rehabilitation hospital as I do, without the benefit of being fluent in Vietnamese, certainly comes with its share of difficulties. Yet many times I feel as if I better appreciate a bereft family member’s despair or a brain-injured man’s confusion when I focus on those individuals directly, rather than relying on my translator's account of their situation.

Your own personal set of mirror neurons can bring you clearly into another’s experience. What, for example, do I have to tell you about this man, in order for you to empathize with his situation?


 You are already wired to be a compassionate human being. It’s up to you to “exercise” your compassion.