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Mindful : August 2019
own—plays a much larger role in one than the other. The Roots of Altruism Garden-variety altruism—French philosopher Auguste Comte coined the word in 1830, deriving it from vivre pour autrui, “to live for other people”—is driven by empathy, which children become capable of by age two, when they’re able to perceive others’ distress. That’s a prerequisite for offering help, which most toddlers the world over do even when it brings them no tangible benefit. The early emergence of empathy and altruism suggests that humans are genetically wired for such proto- altruism, but the wiring can last or wither depending on the culture where a child grows up. A classic examina- tion of six cultures (Kenya, the island of Okinawa, India, the Philippines, Mexico, US), published in 1975, found that all the elementar y-school-age children studied in Kenya behaved reason for the altruism,” meaning unselfish actions undertaken to reduce the suffering or enhance the well-being of others at some cost to the self. “There’s a lot of suspicion of people who want to donate a kidney to a stranger.” Psychologists, in contrast, aren’t exactly suspicious of extreme altruism, or “X-altruism,” which is defined as unselfish caring for the well-being of strangers to the detri- ment of oneself. But they do view it the way ornithologists do a mandarin duck (home turf: East Asia) in New York’s Central Park: as so outside the norm that it requires explanation. Among the key findings from brain imaging and lab experiments are that X-altruism has two forms, one impulsive and one considered. Impul- sive X-altruism is rescuing two girls being threatened by a knife-wielding, Muslim-insulting man on a com- muter train (in Portland, Oregon; May 2017) and dying as a result. It’s jumping onto subway tracks to save a woman who fell. It’s pulling strangers from burning cars, as recipients of the Carnegie Medal for extraordinary civilian heroism have. Considered X-altruism manifests itself not in spur-of-the-moment actions but in thought-out ones such as adopting 20 orphaned or aban- doned children, or founding a leper colony in a panther-filled wilderness, as Larissa MacFarquhar recounts in her 2015 book Strangers Drowning: Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Urge to Help. It’s repeatedly parachuting into war zones as an aid worker, as David Eubank has, dodging sniper fire to rescue a young girl who survived an ISIS massacre in Iraq. It’s thinking hard, answering the questions of doctors who suspect you’re crazy, and still donating a kidney to a stranger. According to researchers, these two varieties of X-altruism are driven by different emotions and cognitive processes, and empathy—experienc- ing others’ distress as if it were your HOW TO CARE DEEPLY WITHOUT BURNING OUT Learn to recog nize the signs of empathy fatigue and maintain a balanced, mindful, compassionate response. mindful.org/ care-deeply/ m brain science 34 mindful August 2019