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Mindful : August 2019
altruistically, but only 8% of those in the US did. By one estimate, culture— what it teaches about responsibility to others, how collectivist or individualist a society is, and other influences—has 10 times more influence on altruism than genes do. That makes sense, since genetically based altruism focuses on relatives and members of our group—that is, those most like us—rather than strangers and “others.” Since extreme altruism is directed at strangers, it, too, likely has a nongenetic explana- tion in addition to a genetic one. Acts of impulsive X-altruism, such as saving a stranger on a subway track, arise from extreme empathy, a brain circuit that kicks in so powerfully that seeing the suffering and distress of another overrides considerations of personal safety. These usually one-off acts sit on the same continuum as everyday altruism, with both driven by a genetically based ability to feel others’ distress and a culturally nur- tured belief in putting one’s own needs aside, at least temporarily, to help someone else. Considered, as opposed to impulsive, X-altruism has different cognitive and emotional roots. When Empathy Isn’t Enough It’s usually not possible to scan the brains of people while they’re in the middle of impulsive X-altruism, but sci- entists have done neuroimaging studies of the kidney donors. When it comes to considered X-altruism, while empathy is necessary, the research shows, it is far from sufficient. Rather, negative emotions such as anxiety are key: a palpable sense of itchy, jumpy, can’t- sit-still angst at the mere thought of not helping compels these considered extreme altruists to act. Amy Donohue, a stand-up comic, donated a kidney when a woman on Twitter pleaded with someone, anyone, to save her mother’s life by doing so. Although friends and family describe Donahue as unusually compassionate, she said she was compelled by a different motivation: a visceral anger at the selfishness she sees throughout society. “ When did we forget to help other people?” she told me when I asked her about this extreme gesture. It was an anxious anger she could calm only by acting as she did. In a brain-imaging study of such donors, scientists found that their right amygdala, which processes the sense of fear, was about 8% larger than in nondonors. The amygdala also became significantly more active, compared to controls’, when donors looked at faces with fearful expres- sions, Abigail Marsh of Georgetown University and her colleagues saw. That suggests greater sensitivity to others’ distress—and, perhaps, a moti- vation for X-altruism: Seeing others’ distress triggers it in themselves. That is classic empathy. Indeed, the brains of Marsh’s kidney donors showed as much pain perception when seeing a stranger’s thumb squashed as when feeling their own squashed. But the amygdala is also responsi- ble for fear and vigilance, scanning the world, and alerting the mind to the presence of danger, generating a palpable sense of fear, foreboding, and anxiety. That supports the idea that empathy alone isn’t enough for con- sidered X-altruism: Instead, compas- sion is the force that compels. The Difference Compassion Makes In her 2018 book Standing at the Edge, anthropologist, hospice caregiver, and Buddhist scholar Joan Halifax draws a distinction between empa- thy and compassion. Empathy, she writes, “is feeling into another, while compassion is feeling for another, accompanied by the aspiration to take action that benefits the other.” Crucially, empathy can be crippling, as when a physician or disaster worker or psychologist identifies so strongly with others’ suffering and anguish that she becomes paralyzed. “If our experi- ence of [oth- ers’] suffering overwhelms us, empathic distress can also cause us to... abandon others in an attempt to protect ourselves from suffering too heavy to bear,” Halifax writes. Compassion, in contrast, comes with less emotional attachment and more motivation. During compassion meditation, the brain’s motor cortex becomes active, as the desire to end the suffering of others is accompa- nied by a propulsive power. In one study, Matthieu Ricard, a French- born Buddhist monk and scholar, engaged in empathy practice, con- sciously trying to feel the distress of others (he focused on suffering Romanian orphans) while fMRI recorded his brain activity. The more he felt their pain and suffering, the more quickly he felt overwhelmed and exhausted. But when he switched to com- passion meditation, focusing on the wish that others’ pain be alleviated but without trying to feel it one- self, Ricard never flagged. Empathy practice and its quick descent into empathic distress activated neural networks associated with the distress of suffering pain oneself and seeing it in others, and can’t be sustained. But compassion meditation activated brain networks associated with con- necting and belonging, with positive emotions, and with maternal love. Compassion, it seems, can make the difference between feeling the pain of others and doing something to help—a lesson worth remembering, even for those of us who are unlikely to play subway-track hero or donate a kidney to a stranger. ● SINCE EXTREME ALTRUISM IS DIRECTED AT STRANGERS, IT, TOO, LIKELY HAS A NONGENETIC EXPLANATION IN ADDITION TO A GENETIC ONE. August 2019 mindful 35 brain science