What happens when you bring together a bunch of neuroscientists, psychologists, educators, medical researchers and a scholar of Eastern religion who happens to be the Dalai Lama’s own editor in the creative, academic setting of Stanford University? You get CCARE, the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education.
Founded by Dr. James R. Doty, a clinical professor of neurosurgery at Stanford, CCARE is at the forefront of a growing number of research centers where scholars, researchers, and philosophical and contemplative thinkers are turning their attention to the science of compassion.
But CCARE also focuses on applying the results of those efforts in practical ways, particularly through an innovative teacher-training program that instructs people on how to teach compassion.
I spoke with Leah Weiss Ekstrom, director of compassion education at CCARE, about the programs she’s developing. Ekstrom has been active in the world of compassionate education for years. She’s a co-founder of the Foundation for Active Compassion, a nonprofit organization that teaches compassion-based meditation practices to individuals involved in social service and social change — people whose daily work includes a great deal of stress and the potential for rapid burnout.
THE CHANGING WAY OF LOOKING AT THINGS
According to Ekstrom, there are number of research groups interested in mapping out compassion and empathy in the brain. It’s part of a changing mindset in scientific study, she says.
“The last generation focused on amoral behavior as the way in; the new generation is looking a pro-social behavior. They are asking what prompts more compassion and what prompts more empathy. The questions were really not framed that way before, and it’s really exciting that you can ask a new question and open up a whole new world of information.”compassion words
For Ekstrom, as an educator, and for CCARE, the main point is to demonstrate not only that you can map the presence of empathy and compassion in the brain but that you can demonstrate that these things are trainable.
“We’ve had a sea change in valuing social and emotional intelligence, but let’s get specific: How do we really go about embedding that in education for children and adults?”
Ekstrom says that people often react with astonishment when she tells them about her work at CCARE. “I can’t believe that you can train in compassion,” they say.
Ekstrom told me about two groups she’s currently working with: military veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder and Stanford freshmen who are very likely to go pre-med. The veterans, she says, are often troubled by their inability to feel the way they should when they’re back with their friends and families. The students can’t yet conceive of a way to motivate themselves without large portion of self-criticism, even beating up on themselves for beating up on themselves. Her regime helps them combat these patterns.
THE TEACHING PROGRAM
CCARE’s unique new teacher-training program is designed to train the trainer — to create a whole group of people from all walks of life who can pass their compassion training from CCARE on. The program’s students range from social workers and business people to clinicians and meditation practitioners. Designed by Thupten Jinpa, the course covers neuroscience, philosophical, religious and humanistic aspects of compassion, as well as the art of teaching. Check back for a full course listing here soon.
A visit to CCARE’s website lists highlights of the group’s current research programs, including titles like “Neural Networks of Social Compassion and Nurturing: Optical Deconstruction of Altruistic Behavior,” which loosely translates to using lasers on rats’ brains to stimulate pro-social behavior. Another large research study is following the turns of behavior of former gang members to discover what makes them more compassionate.
And CCARE is planning further courses for the Stanford student body. Students can already take courses on compassion that combine neuroscience, philosophy, psychology and religious studies. Medical schools are particularly interested in setting up compassion training programs through CCARE and similar research institutions at Emory University, Boston University and the University of Wisconsin, signaling a shift away from the traditional “strict boundaries” approach to a more empathetic relationship between doctor and patient.
Ekstrom is also in the process of designing a course with the Stanford School of Business that would feature business leaders interested in compassion and would ask the question: Why would you be afraid of being compassionate?
“I want to get it all out on the table,” she says, “with a problematizing rather than a whitewashing perspective — to get the whole idea that if you’re compassionate, you’re a sucker out there on the table and get it engaged with.”
All of which bodes well for the future. “If you can convince the healthcare world and corporations it’s worth their time,” Ekstrom says, “you’re on your way.”