A world map of Virgin Mary apparitions

She met mere mortals with and without the Vatican's approval.

  • For centuries, the Virgin Mary has appeared to the faithful, requesting devotion and promising comfort.
  • These maps show the geography of Marian apparitions – the handful approved by the Vatican, and many others.
  • Historically, Europe is where most apparitions have been reported, but the U.S. is pretty fertile ground too.

The divine is supernatural, but religion is very much of this world. The way people worship even has an impact on their physical surroundings. Here's a telltale sign that you're in Catholic country: chapels, shrines and grottoes dot the roadside. The latter are replicas of the cave in southern France where the Virgin Mary appeared to a local peasant girl in the early 19th century.

Those Marian apparitions themselves are another peculiar point of contact between faith and the world. Typically, they happen in times of crisis to young children from a humble background. They are often the only ones able to see the apparition. The visitations sometimes reoccur over a prolonged period. If the Virgin speaks to those who can observe her, it is to ask for a chapel or church to be built, to implore the faithful to be more devout, and/or to offer warnings for the future. Witnesses are often able to report in great detail on the dress and attributes of the apparition, but mostly there is no direct contact between the Virgin and the observers.

What is a Marian apparition?

Marian apparitions are generally associated with Catholicism, which has great devotion for Mary, the mother of Jesus. Despite her being the mother of Christ, the church does not consider Mary to be divine herself. According to Catholic doctrine, the age of public revelation ended when John, the last apostle, died around the year 100 AD. Marian apparitions therefore are 'private revelations', illuminating aspects of faith but never revealing new ones.

Apparitions often are the object of ridicule. Some may be fraudulent. Most do not get an official church approval, neither from the local bishop or from the Vatican. Unrecognized apparitions may thus lead to schisms with the official church. The visionary and their followers may decide to found their own independent movement or join existing sects. Either path is usually characterized by a traditionalist approach to the faith, often rejecting the innovations of the Second Vatican Council.

A world map of Marian apparitions

map of marian apparitions

Image: National Geographic / Michael O'Neill (Miraclehunter.com)

Outside Europe, the U.S. leads the world in Marian apparitions - all but one unrecognized by the Catholic church.

Image: National Geographic / Michael O'Neill (Miraclehunter.com)

The Virgin Mary tends to appear in regions mostly inhabited by Catholics.

These maps, produced by National Geographic, show the geography of Marian visitations, in Europe and in the rest of the world.

  • Crosses show where the Virgin Mary appeared to a future saint.
  • Yellow dots mark visitations related by tradition (but not attested by the Vatican).
  • Blue dots denote more recent, but as yet unconfirmed apparitions.
  • Green dots signify visions approved as 'worthy of faith', but not supernatural.
  • Red dots mean a local bishop has 'approved' the apparition as genuine.
  • Larger red dots (for named apparitions) mark those that have also been recognized by the Vatican.

In Europe, the Virgin's favorite destinations appear to be Italy and France, followed by southern Germany (i.e. the Catholic half) and Belgium. Considering the traditional hold of the faith on Spain and Poland, the number of Marian apparitions is relatively small. A fair number in western Ukraine, but none in eastern Germany. A handful in Hungary, almost none in the Balkans (Medjugorje being the most notable exception). Ireland out-Marys England, and Scandinavia is entirely free of Holy Mothers.

The U.S. leads the rest of the world in the number of apparitions, although most are unrecognized. Two apparitions in Africa and one in Mexico are officially recognized by the Vatican. Here's an overview of all Vatican-approved apparitions of the Virgin Mary.

​Our Lady of Knock, Ireland


Part of the new mosaic, unveiled at the Basilica of Knock in February 2016.

On 21 August 1879, the Virgin Mary, Saint Joseph and Saint John the Evangelist appeared to two women (both called Mary) outside a church in the village of Knock, County Mayo, Ireland.

They were joined by other witnesses, who also saw a cross and a lamb on a small altar behind the three figures. A witness further away described the scene as englobed in golden light.

The apparition lasted for nearly two hours, during which the witnesses – standing in the pouring rain – recited the rosary. Meanwhile, the ground around the apparition remained entirely dry.

A church commission judged the apparition 'trustworthy'. Knock developed into a pilgrimage site. The apparition occurred at a time of agricultural strife and cultural crisis in Ireland, when the common language shifted from Gaelic to English.

That may explain why the apparition remained silent: the oldest witness knew no English, while the youngest knew no Gaelic. On 13 May 2017, that youngest witness, John Curry, was reinterred in Old St Patrick's in Manhattan after his remains had been identified in an unmarked grave on Long Island.

​Our Lady of Pontmain, France

Image: Michel GILE/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Interior of the basilica of Pontmain. The blue color effect is created by the tinted windows.

On 17 January 1871, at the height of the Franco-Prussian War, 12-year-old Eugène Barbedette looked out at the night sky over Pontmain and saw a beautiful woman wearing a blue gown studded with stars and a black veil under a golden crown.

His 10-year-old brother also saw the apparition, but their parents, and other adults, saw nothing. Two other children described the apparition in the same detail as the two brothers. Adults could only see a triangle of stars.

After three hours, the apparition vanished. That same evening, Prussian forces inexplicably abandoned their advance towards the town. The children who saw the apparition later became priests and nuns.

Pontmain is a place of pilgrimage, also from Germany. Bob Hope and his wife donated funds for a chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Hope of Pontmain at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington DC.

​Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal, France

Image: Xhienne, CC BY-SA 3.0

Medal of the Immaculate Conception (a.k.a. 'Miraculous Medal'), created by Saint Catherine Labouré in response to a request from the Blessed Virgin Mary.

On 19 July 1930, a voice woke up the nun Catherine Labouré calling her to chapel, where the Virgin Mary told her that "times are evil in France and the world" and instructed Catherine to produce medallions that would confer graces on those that wore them.

The medallions proved very popular. Inscribed with the slogan 'Ô Marie conçue sans péché, priez pour nous qui avons recours à vous' ('O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee'), they were influential in the Vatican's promulgation, in 1854, of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception.

Sister Catherine spent the rest of her life caring for the sick and elderly. Her body, now encased in glass in Paris, was discovered to be incorrupt. She was canonized in 1947. Pope John Paul II used a variation of the medallion's image as his coat of arms.

Our Lady of the Golden Heart, Belgium

Image: Jean-Pol Grandmont, CC BY 3.0

The Chapel of Our Lady in Beauraing.

Between November 1932 and the next January, the Virgin Mary appeared a total of 33 times to five children between 9 and 15 in the small Belgian town of Beauraing.

The lady, dressed in a long white robe, said she was the Immaculate Virgin, requested that a chapel be built at the site of her apparition, and asked the children – and everybody – to pray. During one of the last visitations, she revealed her golden heart.

​Virgin of the Poor, Belgium

Image: Johfrael, CC BY-SA 3.0

The miraculous spring of Our Lady of Banneux.

A few days after the Virgin's last apparition in Beauraing, she appeared in the nearby town of Banneux. Between 15 January and 2 March 1933, 12-year-old Mariette Beco saw a lady in a white gown and blue sash who claimed to be the Virgin of the Poor, and stated: "Believe in me and I will believe in you."

The Virgin asked Mariette to put her hands in a small spring, ordaining it for healing for all nations. A chapel is built where the Virgin requested it. The Marian apparition of Banneux carries two titles: Our Lady of the Poor and Queen of Nations.

Mariette was made fun of, even by her own grandmother and aunt. Others tauntingly called her 'Bernadette', after the French girl who had visions of Mary in Lourdes. Mariette married and led a quiet life. In 2008, three years before her death, she said: "I was just delivered the message. The messenger is of no importance."

Our Lady, Help of Christians, Czech Republic

Image: Kmenicka, CC BY 3.0

The basilica at Filipov.

At four in the morning on 13 January 1866, the Virgin Mary appeared at the sickbed of Magdalena Kade. Mary, dressed in white and wearing a golden tiara, pronounced Magdalena healed from her long illness. Many miraculous healings were subsequently reported. A church (later elevated to basilica-status) and convent were built on the location, which is sometimes called the 'Lourdes of Bohemia'.

The miraculous nature of Magdalena's sudden cure was questioned by her contemporaries. In 2008, German journalist Kerstin Schneider – a distant relative of Magdalena Kade – draws a parallel with the clinical history of her great aunt Lina Marie Schöbel, a schizophrenic who all of a sudden declared she was 'Jesus', and who was exterminated by the Nazis for being insane.

Our Lady of Gietrzwald, Poland

Image: Mazaki, CC BY-SA 4.0

The inside of the basilica at Gietrzwald, the 'Polish Fatima'.

On 27 June 1877, a 'Bright Lady' showed herself to 13-year-old Justyna Szafrynska and a day later also to her friend Barbara Samulowska. The lady appeared over the maple tree in front of the church, seated on a throne with the infant Jesus on her lap, surrounded by angels.

She told the girls she was the Blessed Virgin Mary of the Immaculate Conception, and she wished them to say the rosary every day. The Virgin blessed a spring, said the sick would be healed and asked that they too pray the rosary.

Asked what happens to people who swear falsely, the Holy Mother said that "Such person is not deserving to go to Heaven (and) is induced to do it by Satan".

The Prussian authorities saw the apparitions as an expression of Polish nationalism and sought to suppress the event, even imprisoning the local parish priest.

​Our Lady of Lezajsk, Poland


Icon of the Virgin of Lezajsk.

In 1578, woodcutter Thomas Michalek saw a bright light in the forest. It was the Virgin Mary, who asked him to alert the authorities to build a church on the site. Thomas was scared and did nothing.

The Virgin then reappeared and instructed him to take action. Which he did – but he was not believed. In fact, the local curate took him to court. After the curate's death, a small chapel was finally built.

By the way, Lezajsk is also a place of pilgrimage for Jews, who come to visit the tomb of 18th-century rabbi Elimelech, one of the founders of the Hasidic movement.

​Our Lady of Šiluva, Lithuania

Image: CD, CC BY-SA 3.0

Lithuanian pilgrims on the way to Šiluva.

In the summer of 1608, some children tending sheep reported seeing a beautiful lady holding a baby on the spot where a church had stood, and she was weeping. The children returned the next day with some villagers, including a Calvinist minister. They all saw the lady as well.

A new Catholic church was built on the site of the old one, and eventually replaced by a much larger one to accommodate the multitudes of pilgrims – now the Basilic of the Nativity of Mary. The Chapel of the Apparition, built over the rock where the Virgin appeared, has the tallest steeple in Lithuania. Pilgrims kiss the rock itself, which is accessible under the chapel's altar.

For its devotion to the Virgin, Pope Pius XI entitled Lithuania as Terra Mariana ('Maryland'). Until World War II, processions of pilgrimage to Šiluva would start in towns all over Lithuania. Our Lady of Šiluva is the patroness of those who have lapsed from the Catholic faith, and of those who pray on their behalf.

Our Lady of La Salette, France

Image: Fphoto, CC BY-SA 4.0

Sanctuary of Notre-Dame de la Salette.

On 19 September 1846, two cowherders, Maximin Giraud (11) and Mélanie Calvat (15), reported seeing a 'beautiful lady' in the mountains, wearing a pearl-studded white robe and a gold apron. Her face buried in her hands, she was weeping bitterly. She spoke to them, first in French, then in the local language, Occitan.

The apparition urged people to respect the seventh day and the name of God, sorrowfully threatening punishment (including a scarcity of potatoes). She asked that her message be spread to the world. Each child received a secret, after which the lady vanished.

Some observers at the time considered the apparition at La Salette a 'pious fraud'. Two priests specifically accused Constance Saint-Ferréol de La Merlière, a former nun, of having 'dressed up' as the Mother of God, inculcating the two credulous teenagers with her own religious agenda. Mademoiselle de La Merlière sued the priests for defamation – and lost, twice.

In 1852, the Missionaries of Our Lady of La Salette were founded. The order still has missionaries serving in many countries. The shrine remains popular with traditionalist believers and the Charismatic Movement within the Catholic church.

​Our Lady of Happy Meetings, France

Image: AntonyB, CC BY-SA 3.0

The Virgin appears to Benoîte.

In May 1664, Benoîte Rencurel, a 17-year-old shepherdess in southeastern France, saw an apparition of St Maurice, a third-century martyr greatly revered in her home region. He warned her that locals eyed her flock and counseled that she should go to a nearby valley, where she would see the Virgin Mary.

In a grotto in the Valley of Kilns, she discovered Mary, holding baby Jesus. The Virgin directed Benoîte to go to the village of Laus, where she was instructed to build a chapel where sinners would be converted and the Virgin promised to appear often.

Some of the pilgrims to Laus have themselves become saints, including Eugene de Mazenod, founder of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. The Marian apparitions at Laus lasted until 1718. Despite their antiquity, the apparitions of Our Lady of Laus were recognized by the Holy See only in 2008.

​Our Lady of Fátima, Portugal

Image: Centro Televisivo Vaticano, CC BY 3.0

Crowds at the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Fátima on 12 May 2017 for the centennial of the first apparition.

Between 13 May to 13 October 1917, 'a lady more brilliant than the sun' appeared six times to three Portuguese shepherd children, Lúcia dos Santos and her cousins Francisco and Jacinta Marto.

The lady asked them to devote themselves to the Holy Trinity and to pray the Rosary every day; prayer would end the Great War then still raging. She also showed them a vision of hell and entrusted them with three secrets.

The children's visions drew thousands of visitors and upset the political balance in the country, with a young, anticlerical republic fighting off a strong conservative reaction. The children were even briefly jailed, and variously ordered to reveal the secrets or admit that they had lied. The local administrator even threatened that he would boil them one by one in a pot of oil.

At the Virgin's last appearance, many of the up to 100,000 visitors reported a 'Miracle of the Sun': multicolored light and erratic movement from the sun. Others saw nothing out of the ordinary.

As predicted by the Virgin, Francisco and Jacinta died soon afterward, in the Spanish Flu pandemic that started in 1918. Lucia became a nun, and sporadically saw the Virgin again later in life, as well as Jesus. She died in 2005, aged 97.

Already in the first few years after the events, Fátima attracted millions of visitors. Our Lady of Fátima was popular among anticommunist and traditionalist Catholics. Pope John Paul II credited Our Lady of Fátima with saving his life in the attempt on his life of 13 May 1981 – the Feast of Our Lady of Fátima. The Pope donated the bullet that wounded him to the Sanctuary at Fátima. Fátima currently is one of the world's most popular centers of pilgrimage.

Our Lady of Lourdes, France

Image: Jean-Noël Lafargue

Religious souvenirs ('bondieuseries') in Lourdes.

On 11 February 1858, 'a petite damsel' spoke to 14-year-old Bernadette Soubirous in the grotto of Massabielle about a mile from the southern French town of Lourdes. The lady, who appeared 17 further times, revealed herself to be Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception and asked that a chapel be built on that spot.

Bernadette's vision has similarities to that of Anglèze de Sagazan, a 12-year-old shepherdess who in the 16th century saw the Virgin at a spring in nearby Garaison. Pilgrimages to Garaison were soon eclipsed by those to Lourdes.

The Virgin revealed a spring to Bernadette and directed pilgrims to drink from and wash in it. The water, provided free of charge to pilgrims, is a popular memento of a trip to Lourdes. Some have claimed to have been cured by it.

Millions of pilgrims, many suffering from illnesses, travel to Lourdes each year. Lourdes now is a major pilgrimage site, and has more hotel rooms than any other place in France, with the exception of Paris.

The Lourdes Bureau Médical has documented around 70 miraculous healings at the site. Bernadette was canonized as a saint in 1933. The apparition at Lourdes is also recognized by the Anglican church, which has its own Marian Shrine at Lourdes.

​Our Lady of Zion, Italy

Image: Gilabrand, CC BY 3.0

Bust of Marie-Alphones Ratisbonne at the Ratisbonne Monastery in Jerusalem.

On 20 January 1842 while visiting Rome, Marie-Alphonse Ratisbonne, an anti-Catholic Jew, had a vision of the Virgin Mary. He converted to Catholicism and began a ministry for the conversion of the Jews.

Together with his brother, who had converted and become a priest years before, he founded the Sisterhood of Our Lady of Sion. Ratisbonne eventually joined the priesthood himself and becomes a Jesuit.

In 1855, he moved the sisters to Jerusalem, where he founds the Convent of Ecce Homo and the Convent of St John.

Mother of the Word, Rwanda

Image: Paroisse de Rango

Joyous entry of Our Lady of Kibeho in the parish of St Jean Bosco in Rango.

On 28 November 1981, the Virgin Mary first appeared to Alphonsine Mumureke, and over the next few years also to two other pupils at Kibeho College, a girls' school in southwestern Rwanda.

She identified herself as Nyina wa Jambo ('Mother of the Word' in Kinyarwanda) or Umubyeyi W'Imana ('Mother of God') and asked everyone to pray to prevent a terrible war – perhaps a premonition of the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, as tensions between Hutus and Tutsis were already rising back then.

The three women reported going on 'mystic voyages' with the Virgin during their individual visions, which could last for hours. Inexplicably, the women seemed to acquire so much weight during their visions that they could not be lifted off the ground.

Four other people in Kibeho reported apparitions – one met Christ in a beanfield – but these have not been approved by the Holy See.

The apparition was named 'Our Lady of Sorrows' two years before the start of the genocide in 1994. Marie Claire Mukangango, one of the three young women receiving visions in the 1980s, was among those killed, together with her family, in a massacre in Kibeho, in April 1995.

​Our Lady of Zeitoun, Egypt

Image: Public domain

Apparition of the Virgin Mary on the roof of the Coptic church in Zeitoun.

On 2 April 1968, a Muslim bus driver thought he saw a lady standing on top of St Mary's Coptic Church in Zeitoun, near Cairo and thought she was about to commit suicide. The police were called, but the gathered crowd quickly identified the figure as the Virgin Mary.

After a few minutes, the figure vanished. The lady returned a week later, again for a few minutes. After that, apparitions occurred up to several times a week, until 1971. The Vatican sent an envoy but left the investigation to the Coptic authorities.

Uniquely, the location of the apparition has a historical link to the Virgin Mary, at least according to Coptic tradition: It is said to be one of the places where the Holy Family rested on their flight from Bethlehem to Egypt.

Also unlike most other apparitions, the Zeitoun Virgin was seen by huge crowds – estimates vary from 250,000 to even millions, over the course of the four years the phenomenon lasted. Included were many Muslims, Egyptian president Nasser among them (Mary features prominently in the Quran as well). The phenomenon was also captured on camera.

Skeptics nevertheless see the apparitions at Zeitoun as a case of mass hysteria in a time of crisis; following Egypt's defeat by Israel in the war of 1967, people felt let down by modernity and turned to religion.

Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mexico

Image: Public domain

The original image of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

On 9 December 1531, the Virgin appeared to Juan Diego, a native peasant, on the Hill of Tepeyac near Mexico City. Speaking to him in the local Nahuatl language, she asked for a church to be built on the site.

Juan Diego reported the sighting to the archbishop of Mexico, but he didn't believe him and asked for a miraculous sign. The Virgin healed Juan Diego's uncle and appeared to him as well, instructed Juan Diego to pick Castilian roses on top of the usually barren Tepeyac Hill, and transformed his cloak into an image of the Virgin.

A few days later, the cloak was displayed in a hastily erected chapel. Miracles started occurring almost immediately. Our Lady of Guadalupe became Mexico's most popular religious symbol, and in the 19th century a rallying point for Mexico's independence struggle against Spain.

Despite the fact that Juan Diego was canonized in 2002, some Catholic scholars doubt he ever existed. According to them, the cult of Guadalupe was designed to increase Catholic devotion among indigenous Mexicans. The image on the cloak, they point out, resembles contemporary Spanish artwork. Many believers nevertheless ascribe miraculous qualities to the cloak, which is exhibited in the Basilica, in a climate-controlled, bullet-proof casing.

Although Nahuatl origins have been proposed, it seems likely that the name Guadalupe, which became attached to the apparition, is a Spanish reference. Extremadura, the Spanish region where conquistador Hernán Cortés was born, has its own cult of Our Lady of Guadalupe, centered on a statue said to be carved by St Luke the Evangelist.

However, for native Mexicans, Our Lady of Guadalupe recalled Tonantzín, an Aztec earth goddess and serpent destroyer, whose temple previously stood on the same hill where the Basilica is now.

Our Lady of Guadalupe is the patron saint of Mexico, of the Americas, and of the unborn – and thus also a symbol for the Pro-Life movement. The Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City is the world's most visited Catholic shrine, receiving millions of pilgrims every year.

Of the 386 claims of Marian apparitions in the 20th century, eight were approved and 79 rejected by the Catholic church, with no definitive verdict on the rest. In 2010, bishop David L. Ricken of Green Bay recognised the apparition of the Virgin to Adele Brise in 1859. Our Lady of Good Help, whose shrine is located in Champion, Wisconsin, is the first Marian apparition approved by the Church in the U.S. (although not yet by the Vatican).

The number of apparitions peaked in 1954 but has been on a steady decline since the mid-1980s, perhaps due to a lack of underage shepherds roaming the countryside.

Here's one Marian apparition you've probably never considered: it's on the flag of the European Union. Officially adopted by the (then) European Economic Community in 1985, the EU flag shows a circle of 12 gold stars on an azure background. It had originally been the symbol of the Council of Europe, who adopted it in 1955 on December 8, the feast of Mary's Immaculate Conception.

Konrad Adenauer (Germany), Robert Schumann (France) and Alcide de Gasperi (Italy) were not just some of the major driving forces behind early European integration, they were also devout Catholics. In 1956, the Council of Europe donated a stained-glass window to Strasbourg Cathedral, showing the Virgin surrounded by twelve stars on a blue field.

European flags fluttering in front of the Berlaymont building in Brussels.Image: Thijs ter Haar, CC BY 2.0

Arsène Heitz, designer of the 12-starred flag, credited a passage in chapter 12 of the Book of Revelation as a source for the image. It refers to a woman "clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and on her head a crown of twelve stars."

And that is why the number of stars on the flag does not refer to the number of member states (28 now, 27 after Brexit), but is in fact an emblem of Catholic devotion to Mary – despite the fact that the European Union is a non-religious entity.

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The team caught a glimpse of a process that takes 18,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 years.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Why compassion fades

A scientific look into a ubiquitous phenomenon.

Photo credit: Adrian Swancar on Unsplash
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One victim can break our hearts. Remember the image of the young Syrian boy discovered dead on a beach in Turkey in 2015? Donations to relief agencies soared after that image went viral. However, we feel less compassion as the number of victims grows. Are we incapable of feeling compassion for large groups of people who suffer a tragedy, such as an earthquake or the recent Sri Lanka Easter bombings? Of course not, but the truth is we aren't as compassionate as we'd like to believe, because of a paradox of large numbers. Why is this?

Compassion is a product of our sociality as primates. In his book, The Expanding Circle: Ethics, Evolution, and Moral Progress, Peter Singer states, "Human beings are social animals. We were social before we were human." Mr. Singer goes on to say, "We can be sure that we restrained our behavior toward our fellows before we were rational human beings. Social life requires some degree of restraint. A social grouping cannot stay together if its members make frequent and unrestrained attacks on one another."

Attacks on ingroups can come from forces of nature as well. In this light, compassion is a form of expressed empathy to demonstrate camaraderie.

Yet even after hundreds of centuries of evolution, when tragedy strikes beyond our community, our compassion wanes as the number of displaced, injured, and dead mounts.

The drop-off in commiseration has been termed the collapse of compassion. The term has also been defined in The Oxford Handbook of Compassion Science: ". . . people tend to feel and act less compassionately for multiple suffering victims than for a single suffering victim."

That the drop-off happens has been widely documented, but at what point this phenomenon happens remains unclear. One paper, written by Paul Slovic and Daniel Västfjäll, sets out a simple formula, ". . . where the emotion or affective feeling is greatest at N =1 but begins to fade at N = 2 and collapses at some higher value of N that becomes simply 'a statistic.'"

The ambiguity of "some higher value" is curious. That value may relate to Dunbar's Number, a theory developed by British anthropologist, Robin Dunbar. His research centers on communal groups of primates that evolved to support and care for larger and larger groups as their brains (our brains) expanded in capacity. Dunbar's is the number of people with whom we can maintain a stable relationship — approximately 150.

Some back story

Professor Robin Dunbar of the University of Oxford has published considerable research on anthropology and evolutionary psychology. His work is informed by anthropology, sociology and psychology. Dunbar's Number is a cognitive boundary, one we are likely incapable of breaching. The number is based around two notions; that brain size in primates correlates with the size of the social groups they live among and that these groups in human primates are relative to communal numbers set deep in our evolutionary past. In simpler terms, 150 is about the maximum number of people with whom we can identify with, interact with, care about, and work to protect. Dunbar's Number falls along a logorithmic continuum, beginning with the smallest, most emotionally connected group of five, then expanding outward in multiples of three: 5, 15, 50, 150. The numbers in these concentric circles are affected by multiple variables, including the closeness and size of immediate and extended families, along with the greater cognitive capacity of some individuals to maintain stable relationships with larger than normal group sizes. In other words, folks with more cerebral candlepower can engage with larger groups. Those with lesser cognitive powers, smaller groups.

The number that triggers "compassion collapse" might be different for individuals, but I think it may begin to unravel along the continuum of Dunbar's relatable 150. We can commiserate with 5 to 15 to 150 people because upon those numbers, we can overlay names and faces of people we know: our families, friends and coworkers, the members of our clan. In addition, from an evolutionary perspective, that number is important. We needed to care if bands of our clan were being harmed by raids, disaster, or disease, because our survival depended on the group staying intact. Our brains developed the capacity to care for the entirety of the group but not beyond it. Beyond our ingroup was an outgroup that may have competed with us for food and safety and it served us no practical purpose to feel sad that something awful had happened to them, only to learn the lessons so as to apply them for our own survival, e.g., don't swim with hippos.


Imagine losing 10 family members in a house fire. Now instead, lose 10 neighbors, 10 from a nearby town, 10 from Belgium, 10 from Vietnam 10 years ago. One could almost feel the emotion ebbing as the sentence drew to a close.

There are two other important factors which contribute to the softening of our compassion: proximity and time. While enjoying lunch in Santa Fe, we can discuss the death toll in the French revolution with no emotional response but might be nauseated to discuss three children lost in a recent car crash around the corner. Conflict journalists attempt to bridge these geotemporal lapses but have long struggled to ignite compassion in their home audience for far-flung tragedies, Being a witness to carnage is an immense stressor, but the impact diminishes across the airwaves as the kilometers pile up.

A Dunbar Correlation

Where is the inflection point at which people become statistics? Can we find that number? In what way might that inflection point be influenced by the Dunbar 150?

"Yes, the Dunbar number seems relevant here," said Gad Saad, PhD., the evolutionary behavioral scientist from the John Molson School of Business at Concordia University, Montreal, in an email correspondence. Saad also recommended Singer's work.

I also went to the wellspring. I asked Professor Dunbar by email if he thought 150 was a reasonable inflection point for moving from compassion into statistics. He graciously responded, lightly edited for space.

Professor Dunbar's response:

"The short answer is that I have no idea, but what you suggest is perfect sense. . . . One-hundred and fifty is the inflection point between the individuals we can empathize with because we have personal relationships with them and those with whom we don't have personalized relationships. There is, however, also another inflection point at 1,500 (the typical size of tribes in hunter-gatherer societies) which defines the limit set by the number of faces we can put names to. After 1,500, they are all completely anonymous."

I asked Dunbar if he knows of or suspects a neurophysiological aspect to the point where we simply lose the capacity to manage our compassion:

"These limits are underpinned by the size of key bits of the brain (mainly the frontal lobes, but not wholly). There are a number of studies showing this, both across primate species and within humans."

In his literature, Professor Dunbar presents two reasons why his number stands at 150, despite the ubiquity of social networking: the first is time — investing our time in a relationship is limited by the number of hours we have available to us in a given week. The second is our brain capacity measured in primates by our brain volume.

Friendship, kinship and limitations

"We devote around 40 percent of our available social time to our 5 most intimate friends and relations," Dunbar has written, "(the subset of individuals on whom we rely the most) and the remaining 60 percent in progressively decreasing amounts to the other 145."

These brain functions are costly, in terms of time, energy and emotion. Dunbar states, "There is extensive evidence, for example, to suggest that network size has significant effects on health and well-being, including morbidity and mortality, recovery from illness, cognitive function, and even willingness to adopt healthy lifestyles." This suggests that we devote so much energy to our own network that caring about a larger number may be too demanding.

"These differences in functionality may well reflect the role of mentalizing competencies. The optimal group size for a task may depend on the extent to which the group members have to be able to empathize with the beliefs and intentions of other members so as to coordinate closely…" This neocortical-to-community model carries over to compassion for others, whether in or out of our social network. Time constrains all human activity, including time to feel.

As Dunbar writes in The Anatomy of Friendship, "Friendship is the single most important factor influencing our health, well-being, and happiness. Creating and maintaining friendships is, however, extremely costly, in terms of both the time that has to be invested and the cognitive mechanisms that underpin them. Nonetheless, personal social networks exhibit many constancies, notably in their size and their hierarchical structuring." Our mental capacity may be the primary reason we feel less empathy and compassion for larger groups; we simply don't have the cerebral apparatus to manage their plights. "Part of friendship is the act of mentalizing, or mentally envisioning the landscape of another's mind. Cognitively, this process is extraordinarily taxing, and as such, intimate conversations seem to be capped at about four people before they break down and form smaller conversational groups. If the conversation involves speculating about an absent person's mental state (e.g., gossiping), then the cap is three — which is also a number that Shakespeare's plays respect."

We cannot mentalize what is going on in the minds of people in our groups much beyond our inner circle, so it stands to reason we cannot do it for large groups separated from us by geotemporal lapses.

Emotional regulation

In a paper, C. Daryl Cameron and Keith B. Payne state, "Some researchers have suggested that [compassion collapse] happens because emotions are not triggered by aggregates. We provide evidence for an alternative account. People expect the needs of large groups to be potentially overwhelming, and, as a result, they engage in emotion regulation to prevent themselves from experiencing overwhelming levels of emotion. Because groups are more likely than individuals to elicit emotion regulation, people feel less for groups than for individuals."

This argument seems to imply that we have more control over diminishing compassion than not. To say, "people expect the needs of large groups to be potentially overwhelming" suggests we consciously consider what that caring could entail and back away from it, or that we become aware that we are reaching and an endpoint of compassion and begin to purposely shift the framing of the incident from one that is personal to one that is statistical. The authors offer an alternative hypothesis to the notion that emotions are not triggered by aggregates, by attempting to show that we regulate our emotional response as the number of victims becomes perceived to be overwhelming. However, in the real world, for example, large death tolls are not brought to us one victim at a time. We are told, about a devastating event, then react viscerally.

If we don't begin to express our emotions consciously, then the process must be subconscious, and that number could have evolved to where it is now innate.

Gray matter matters

One of Dunbar's most salient points is that brain capacity influences social networks. In his paper, The Social Brain, he writes: "Path analysis suggests that there is a specific causal relationship in which the volume of a key prefrontal cortex subregion (or subregions) determines an individual's mentalizing skills, and these skills in turn determine the size of his or her social network."

It's not only the size of the brain but in fact, mentalizing recruits different regions for ingroup empathy. The Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education published a study of the brain regions activated when showing empathy for strangers in which the authors stated, "Interestingly, in brain imaging studies of mentalizing, participants recruit more dorsal portions of the medial prefrontal cortex (dMPFC; BA 8/9) when mentalizing about strangers, whereas they recruit more ventral regions of the medial prefrontal cortex (BA 10), similar to the MPFC activation reported in the current study, when mentalizing about close others with whom participants experience self-other overlap."⁷

It's possible the region of the brain that activates to help an ingroup member evolved for good reason, survival of the group. Other regions may have begun to expand as those smaller tribal groups expanded into larger societies.

Rabbit holes

There is an eclectic list of reasons why compassion may collapse, irrespective of sheer numbers:

(1) Manner: How the news is presented affects viewer framing. In her book, European Foreign Conflict Reporting: A Comparative Analysis of Public News, Emma Heywood explores how tragedies and war are offered to the viewers, which can elicit greater or lesser compassionate responses. "Techniques, which could raise compassion amongst the viewers, and which prevail on New at Ten, are disregarded, allowing the victims to remain unfamiliar and dissociated from the viewer. This approach does not encourage viewers to engage with the sufferers, rather releases them from any responsibility to participate emotionally. Instead compassion values are sidelined and potential opportunities to dwell on victim coverage are replaced by images of fighting and violence."

(2) Ethnicity. How relatable are the victims? Although it can be argued that people in western countries would feel a lesser degree of compassion for victims of a bombing in Karachi, that doesn't mean people in countries near Pakistan wouldn't feel compassion for the Karachi victims at a level comparable to what westerners might feel about a bombing in Toronto. Distance has a role to play in this dynamic as much as in the sound evolutionary data that demonstrate a need for us to both recognize and empathize with people who look like our communal entity. It's not racism; it's tribalism. We are simply not evolved from massive heterogeneous cultures. As evolving humans, we're still working it all out. It's a survival mechanism that developed over millennia that we now struggle with as we fine tune our trust for others.

In the end

Think of compassion collapse on a grid, with compassion represented in the Y axis and the number of victims running along the X. As the number of victims increases beyond one, our level of compassion is expected to rise. Setting aside other variables that may raise compassion (proximity, familiarity etc.), the level continues to rise until, for some reason, it begins to fall precipitously.

Is it because we've become aware of being overwhelmed or because we have reached max-capacity neuron load? Dunbar's Number seems a reasonable place to look for a tipping point.

Professor Dunbar has referred to the limits of friendship as a "budgeting problem." We simply don't have the time to manage a bigger group of friends. Our compassion for the plight of strangers may drop of at a number equivalent to the number of people with who we can be friends, a number to which we unconsciously relate. Whether or not we solve this intellectual question, it remains a curious fact that the larger a tragedy is, the more likely human faces are to become faceless numbers.