Below is an outline of selected research projects that CCARE is currently collaborating on and/or funding.
1. Neural Correlates of Compassion in Buddhist Adepts and Novices
Led by noted Stanford psychologist and neuroscientist Brian Knutson, PhD, in collaboration with Thupten Jinpa, PhD
The goal of this research is to characterize neural correlates of components of compassion in volunteers with extensive training in compassion meditation (“adepts”) and meditation-naive age- and gender-matched volunteers (“novices”).
Both adepts and novices will be scanned with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) over two days as they engage in a range of tasks related to perceiving social stimuli and engaging in practices related to compassion meditation.
The researchers anticipate being able to localize critical neural components involved in the exercise of compassion. They predict that the parts of the brain related to anticipation of pleasure and pain, as well as those related to self-similarity and readiness to act, will be activated during the exercise of compassion, and may differ between adepts and novices. These studies will establish an fMRI protocol that can be extended to other adepts (e.g., from other countries and traditions), and which could be used to assess the efficacy of compassion training. They will build bridges between Buddhist theory and neuroscientific findings.
2. Is It Better To Give Or To Receive? A Neuroeconomic Research
This research is being undertaken by neuroeconomists William Harbaugh, PhD, of the University of Oregon, and Jim Andreoni, PhD, of UC San Diego, working with James Doty, MD
While every charitable act involves a recipient and a giver, almost all scientific work on altruism has so far focused on giving. This experiment is designed to provide a neural explanation for what goes on inside the brains of beneficiaries of charity. Knowledge about how recipients feel about receiving help can guide more effective and more genuinely altruistic methods of giving.
This experiment is designed to determine whether recipients of charity care about how they became eligible for the aid and how much the aid to them costs others. College students who have GPAs above 3.0 and receive financial aid will be subjects in this research. Preliminary behavioral studies show that these students are more likely to accept aid when they are qualified with respect to GPA or need; they prefer merit aid to need aid; and they are less likely to accept aid when it reduces what is available for others.
Subjects will turn down charitable gifts when they are not entitled to them, and when they know that taking the money will mean less for other people who are more deserving. There also are circumstances where receiving money can create negative feelings. The investigators have devised an fMRI experiment to compare areas and intensity of neural activation in response to the source of charity.
If the neural data corroborates the behavioral data, the results may significantly change the calculus for donors who want their charity to be effective and generous, in the sense of truly helping the recipients.
3. Does Meditation Increase Compassion? A Psychological Research Study
In previous studies, Stanford psychologist Jeanne Tsai, PhD, and her team found that subjects who took mindfulness meditation training showed increased compassionate behavior compared to a control group that did not receive any training, but to the same degree as a group that took an improvisational theater class.
In this study, the scientists are examining whether compassion meditation increases the different components of compassion more than no training, an improvisational theater class, and a mindfulness meditation class.
The improvisational theater class serves as a control course. Like the meditation courses, the improvisational theater class is social and teaches students a new skill.
Before, midway through, and at the end of the course, participants will complete questionnaires that measure their personality, affect (actual and ideal), empathic concern, and ability to take another person’s perspective. At the end, they will also be evaluated for compassion, using specially devised implicit measurements to test empathy levels and inclinations to charitable giving.
Based on previous findings, Tsai predicts that participants in the compassion meditation class will be more compassionate than those in the improvisational theater and mindfulness meditation classes, while those receiving no training will register the least compassion. The research team expects that these differences will hold even after controlling for any differences among the groups in personality traits and empathic concern.
4. Investigating the Behavioral and Neural Mechanisms of Compassion Training
Stanford psychology professor James Gross, PhD, Stanford research scientist Philippe Goldin, PhD, and James Doty, MD
Running a randomized clinical trial to examine effects of emotional intelligence training, cognitive behavioral therapy and a compassion cultivation training (CCT) developed by CCARE on self-ratings and responses to compassion-eliciting media.
With regard to individuals who completed CCT, there was significant improvement from pre- to post-CCT in multiple psychological domains. In the domain of compassion/empathy/mindfulness (targets of CCT), there were significant increases in compassion for others and for self and also in ease with being the target of others’ compassion, empathy for others, mindfulness skills, and decentering from the contents of awareness. There was also evidence of improved emotional processing as indexed by greater frequency and self-efficacy in cognitive reappraisal of emotion, as well as lesser psychiatric symptoms, social anxiety, and depression symptoms. In the domain of wellbeing, there were significant increases in global self-esteem and satisfaction with life, as well as lesser worry, rumination, and loneliness.
5. Convergences between Heroism, Compassion, and Altruism
Stanford professor emeritus of psychology Philip G. Zimbardo, PhD, and his team, in collaboration with James Doty, MD
They will conduct several types of surveys to probe the perceptions and attributions that regular citizens have about heroism, altruism, and compassion. Related experiments will focus on the behavioral precursors of defying unjust authority and becoming a whistleblower hero. The goal is to examine whether the subjects comply with the experimenter’s request to continue the comments or defy the latter’s authority. The question is whether this act of heroism can be predicted by pre-knowledge of participants’ scores on measures of empathy, compassion, and altruism.
One survey will be used to analyze perceptions people have of the nature of various actions that qualify as altruistic and or heroic when practiced by various people, such as police, firefighters, military, or ordinary citizens. In another survey, the team has identified those who believe that they have acted heroically and in what manner. A content analysis of those acts will establish ordinary people’s definition of heroism by specific behaviors.
Subjects will be placed into the roles of coaches giving increasingly hostile comments to a performer, ostensibly to help improve his performance. At some point, the performer will seem to personally suffer from the hostile comments and begin to cry. In a companion study, new subjects will be asked to ostensibly help the researchers recruit others for the coaching study by making a videotape encouraging them to sign on. In their preparation, subjects will view a video from the prior study showing the student-performer breaking down from the hostile feedback. Compliers and defiants will be given an opportunity to support or publicly challenge the research. A subsequent debriefing will serve as a moral education opportunity, with compliers, defiants, and whistleblowers separately discussing what should be learned from this experience to guide future behaviors.
6. Neural Networks of Social Compassion and Nurturing: Optical Deconstruction of Altruistic Behavior
Stanford psychiatrist and bioengineer Karl Deisseroth, MD, PhD has invented a new field called optogenetics, combining optics and genetics to probe mammalian neural circuits at the high speeds (millisecond-timescale) needed to understand brain information processing.
Dr. Deisseroth proposes to use this technology to study the neural basis of social compassion in the mammalian brain. He and his team, in collaboration with James Doty, MD, and CCARE, will undertake a focused and ambitious definition of the causal neural codes that underlie the most fundamental of mammalian social behaviors.
Dr. Deisseroth’s lab will use mutant mice lines with altered social behavior, including stunted nurturing, decreased sociability, and increased social behavior. Nurturing is a fundamental form of socially compassionate and empathetic behavior that can be readily studied in animals. The mutant mice with altered nurturing leave their young scattered around the nest to die of exposure.
Dr. Deisseroth’s team will use their optogenetic tools to see if they can switch on the social behavior-associated neural networks in the mice exhibiting a lack of compassion to their young and change them into parents exhibiting socially-appropriate care. In the others, they will analyze the mice’s social approach, social novelty, and social communication.
7. Creating a Partner — What Makes People Under Conflict Adopt a Peaceful Position? Research on Heroism and Transformational Processes Among Former Gang Members Who Now Engage in Prosocial Behaviors
Stanford professor emeritus of psychology Philip G. Zimbardo, PhD, and his team, in collaboration with Yotam Heineberg, PhD (project leader in the United States), and Rony Berger, PhD (who is situated in Israel), are conducting research on heroic transformational processes from violence to peace.
This study aims to decipher the “psychological code” of those who have been adversely impacted by violent conflicts and yet have managed to adopt a peaceful, dialogical approach toward the “other.” The researchers would like to learn about the life stories of those who were once heavily involved with gang life, but who have found a way to pull out of the gang-affiliated cycle of violence and now work to support at-risk youth by encouraging compassion, nonviolent dialogue, and a humanizing perspective on outgroup members.
This exploration will be done using in-depth narrative interviews (approximately four hours per interview, with 30 participants) tracing early life history and family of origin, the process of transformation from being a gang member to becoming involved with violence reduction, including views of oneself and others, as well as personal characteristics and worldview. Quantitative measures on trauma symptoms, compassion, forgiveness, and posttraumatic growth will be administered as well.
In addition to work in the United States, a separately funded parallel project is currently taking place in Israel with 30 Jewish and Arab former combatants who have engaged in violence in the past and are now collaborating to actively engender joint dialogue between Jews and Arabs via various peacemaking activities. The mirror project’s academic home in Israel is the Interdisciplinary Center Hertzlia (IDC). Yoav Shamir, an award-winning filmmaker, is following both projects to further amplify the message of the research team and help advocate for future on-the-ground intervention work. In addition to publications, data harvested from this line of research will be used to create interventions to support at-risk youth in war zones and American inner cities and facilitate them in avoiding the cycle of violence and hatred and engaging in compassionate, prosocial, and heroic behaviors. Relationships and agreements were formed with Youth Uprising (a community center in Oakland) to conduct the interviews at their offices, as well as potentially in other secured community centers in California. Recruitment for the first wave of interviewees has successfully taken place, using the snowball methodology, with additional recruiting successfully deployed for the rest of the sample all over California. The researchers are conducting pilot interviews. The separately funded Israeli-Palestinian mirror project has completed more than half of the interviews.
8. A Multimodal Study of the Neural Correlates of Experiencing Admiration and Compassion
This project is a collaboration between Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, Ed.D., at the University of Southern California, Josef Parvizi, MD, PhD, in the Department of Neurology and Neurological Sciences at Stanford University, and James Doty, MD
This interdisciplinary research project combines the use of fMRI data and iEEG (intracranial electroencephalography) to detail the highest temporal- and spatial-resolution imaging to date of the neural correlates of admiration and compassion. The specific aim of the study is to characterize the activity of brain regions involved in moral processing and judgment. To date, the researchers have recorded iEEG from five subjects and analyzed the data from four.
These researchers are studying the neural basis of moral judgments by recording electrophysiological activity directly from the cortical surface of human subjects implanted with intracranial electrodes as part of their pre-surgical epilepsy evaluations. By recording directly from the brains of conscious human beings while they are making moral judgments, Dr. Purvis’s team will be able to take the first steps toward addressing precisely when and in what order different brain areas contribute to judging an act to be morally wrong. Subjects were shown fifty short statements describing acts that most people judge to be immoral (e.g., “murder” or “robbing a bank”), fifty statements describing acts that most people judge to be morally guided (e.g., “giving to charity” or “helping”), and fifty statements describing acts that most people judge to be morally controversial (e.g., “euthanasia” or “abortion”). These judgments often serve as the necessary intermediate step between perceiving a social situation and interacting with people compassionately.
In four subjects, the electrode coverage included both sides of the medial temporal lobes (including the hippocampus, which plays important roles in long-term memory and spatial navigation, and the amygdala, which performs a primary role in the processing and memory of emotional reactions) and the orbitofrontal cortex (which is involved in emotion and decisionmaking). In the fifth patient the coverage included the temporoparietal junction, which plays a crucial role in self-other distinction processes and theory of mind.
Although preliminary, the findings are very encouraging. First, Dr. Parvizi and his collaborators have demonstrated that a selective neural response can be recorded from specific brain sites during moral value judgment processing. Second, they have demonstrated that the response can be different during the early or late phases of the moral value judgment processing. Finally, they have shown that the iEEG data can be used to understand the timing of moral value judgment in various brain regions.
9. Compassion in the Political Arena
Matthew Feinberg, PhD and postdoctoral fellow with CCARE
For many political theorists, the foundation of political liberalism is compassion. This implies, then, that political conservatism involves the absence of compassion. Is this truly the case, or might conservatives experience a more bounded form of compassion than liberals?
Dr. Feinberg will test this hypothesis and examine an underlying mechanism for this effect — the tendency for conservatives to employ emotion-regulation strategies that attenuate compassionate responding for outgroup members. He will also explore how knowledge of the different ways liberals and conservatives experience compassion can be utilized to increase overall compassionate responding and enhance the greater good.
This research area hypothesizes that whereas liberals generally experience compassion for suffering individuals, conservatives experience a more nuanced compassion directed primarily toward those perceived as ingroup members.