The Science of Compassion: Kindness Is a Fundamental Human Trait

Thupten Jinpa explains how recent advances in neuroscience have allowed for a better understanding of the science of compassion.

Thupten Jinpa: When we talk about the science of compassion, it’s also tied down with science of empathy. Empathy is compassion, altruism, kindness. They are all very interrelated and much of the current scientific studies really fall into two main categories. One is the study of altruistic behavior, particularly in animals and very young children. And the thinking is that if we can see altruistic behavior in animals and very, very young children, that it must have very deep biological roots. So that’s the kind of logic behind why they are focusing more on animal studies and children. The other important area that overlaps the science of compassion is the study of empathy. And again here, a lot of the work has been done on nonhuman primate studies and there is an American professor at Emory by the name of Frans de Waal and he was one of the pioneers. Many people might have seen the video of apes, you know; there were two juvenile apes fighting and one of them loses and another ape who’s not a blood relation comes over and hugs him and consoles him. So it clearly is an indication that empathy can be found in nonhuman primates as well.

And then there are some interesting studies coming from the studies of meditators who meditate many hours on compassion and then looking at their brain. You can actually see the brain’s expression in action. So this is called functioning in an MRI, which has the ability to look at a brain in action as it were. At least the claim is that the meditators are, unlike novices like us, have some ability to consciously direct their attention and thoughts so in the scanner, the brain-imaging scanner, you can ask the meditator: Can you do this? Can you do that? Can you just stay on the level of empathy and feel the pain? Now can you move onto compassion, wishing the other person to be free of suffering or wanting to do something about it. And try to tease out what brain signature, brain regions get activated when you are just in empathy feeling and when you are moving onto compassion when you are wishing to see the relief. In this way, the whole mapping of the brain regions that are involved in something like compassion is beginning to be done.

Throughout his life, Thupten Jinpa (the Dalai Lama's primary English translator) has studied the connections between science and compassion. In his latest book, A Fearless Heart, Jinpa builds off a landmark lecture given at Stanford Medical School to explain how we can take a scientific approach to train our compassion muscle to relieve stress, fight depression, improve our health, achieve our goals, and change our world.

China's "artificial sun" sets new record for fusion power

China has reached a new record for nuclear fusion at 120 million degrees Celsius.

Credit: STR via Getty Images
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

China wants to build a mini-star on Earth and house it in a reactor. Many teams across the globe have this same bold goal --- which would create unlimited clean energy via nuclear fusion.

But according to Chinese state media, New Atlas reports, the team at the Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST) has set a new world record: temperatures of 120 million degrees Celsius for 101 seconds.

Yeah, that's hot. So what? Nuclear fusion reactions require an insane amount of heat and pressure --- a temperature environment similar to the sun, which is approximately 150 million degrees C.

If scientists can essentially build a sun on Earth, they can create endless energy by mimicking how the sun does it.

If scientists can essentially build a sun on Earth, they can create endless energy by mimicking how the sun does it. In nuclear fusion, the extreme heat and pressure create a plasma. Then, within that plasma, two or more hydrogen nuclei crash together, merge into a heavier atom, and release a ton of energy in the process.

Nuclear fusion milestones: The team at EAST built a giant metal torus (similar in shape to a giant donut) with a series of magnetic coils. The coils hold hot plasma where the reactions occur. They've reached many milestones along the way.

According to New Atlas, in 2016, the scientists at EAST could heat hydrogen plasma to roughly 50 million degrees C for 102 seconds. Two years later, they reached 100 million degrees for 10 seconds.

The temperatures are impressive, but the short reaction times, and lack of pressure are another obstacle. Fusion is simple for the sun, because stars are massive and gravity provides even pressure all over the surface. The pressure squeezes hydrogen gas in the sun's core so immensely that several nuclei combine to form one atom, releasing energy.

But on Earth, we have to supply all of the pressure to keep the reaction going, and it has to be perfectly even. It's hard to do this for any length of time, and it uses a ton of energy. So the reactions usually fizzle out in minutes or seconds.

Still, the latest record of 120 million degrees and 101 seconds is one more step toward sustaining longer and hotter reactions.

Why does this matter? No one denies that humankind needs a clean, unlimited source of energy.

We all recognize that oil and gas are limited resources. But even wind and solar power --- renewable energies --- are fundamentally limited. They are dependent upon a breezy day or a cloudless sky, which we can't always count on.

Nuclear fusion is clean, safe, and environmentally sustainable --- its fuel is a nearly limitless resource since it is simply hydrogen (which can be easily made from water).

With each new milestone, we are creeping closer and closer to a breakthrough for unlimited, clean energy.

The science of sex, love, attraction, and obsession

The symbol for love is the heart, but the brain may be more accurate.

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Golden blood: The rarest blood in the world

We explore the history of blood types and how they are classified to find out what makes the Rh-null type important to science and dangerous for those who live with it.

Abid Katib/Getty Images
Surprising Science
  • Fewer than 50 people worldwide have 'golden blood' — or Rh-null.
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There never was a male fertility crisis

A new study suggests that reports of the impending infertility of the human male are greatly exaggerated.

Sex & Relationships
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