BETWEEN Stimulus & Response
Heartfulness eMagazine|December 2020
In this excerpt from an interview done in August 2016, DR. JAMES DOTY is interviewed by JOHN MALKIN about the science of meditation, the evolutionary advantage of compassion, aspects of human behavior that relate to compassion and collective social issues, and his cherished memories of the remarkable woman who gave him a helping hand up when he was a boy.
JOHN MALKIN

Q: Tell us about the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE) that you founded at Stanford University. Sometimes people think compassion is internal, vague and hard to describe, and that exploring compassion is a soft science. How are you studying compassion and altruism and what are you finding?

There’s been a lot of interest in how the brain responds or reacts to meditation and this research has been going on for the last three decades, initially led by Rick Hanson. But what is interesting to me, and remains interesting, is that what is at the core of many of these meditative practices is compassion: compassion for yourself certainly, and compassion for others.

As I looked at this area, I realized that our survival is related to nurturing and caring for our offspring. And in the human species this involves caring not only for our offspring but for others as well. As a result of this requirement – that our offspring are nurtured for a decade and a half or more after birth, unlike other mammals that just run off into the forest after birth – our offspring require us to essentially teach them, while they mirror our behaviors, so that they will survive. Yet the cost of that to our species – to the parents or the mother – is huge with regard to time, resources and energy. Without that nurturing, caring and bonding, our offspring don’t survive.

As a result, deeply ingrained or hardwired into our brains is a reward system based on us caring for others, primarily our offspring of our own species, but also caring for all beings. What happens is that the areas associated with reward increase their metabolism when we actually care for others. This is a deeply ingrained part of who we are, and what we are, as a species.

As we evolved from the nuclear family in a hostile environment to hunter-gatherer tribes in a hostile environment, in groups of ten to fifty, this requirement that we alleviate suffering or care for and nurture others was even more important. Because if an individual in our tribe or our group was suffering, it meant that potentially they could not do their job. If they did not do their job it could put the whole group at risk. So our ability to read emotional states, micro facial expressions, body language, and even interpret smells, was critically important as we evolved as a species.

Then when we domesticated animals and plants, this led to us having more time. But it’s interesting if you look at how society and religion have functioned; at the core is this absolute requirement for cooperation, caring and nurturing others. In fact it has been shown through a variety of studies that short-term ruthlessness cannot benefit a species. For a species to survive long-term requires the cooperation of the individuals in the group. Certainly this is central to the survival of the human species.

In regard to the creation of the Center at Stanford, I was at a point in my life where I started thinking about these things. As a result, from that research and interest, I realized that understanding how the brain responds to these situations, and how compassion affects our physiology, is really critically important.

As it turned out, there were a few people exploring this area. I then gathered an informal group of scientists at Stanford and we began some preliminary studies looking at some of these issues. Then it struck me that it would be wonderful to have the Dalai Lama come to Stanford to speak. That was in 2007 and as a result I ended up having a meeting with His Holiness.

At the end of our conversation, the Dalai Lama agreed to come to Stanford and was so impressed with the work that he wanted to make a personal donation. It was the largest donation he had ever given to a non-Tibetan cause at that time. That was incredibly overwhelming and moving, and it set the stage for others to make donations to this work and ultimately to formally create a Center at Stanford.

Q: It is beautiful how that came about and evolved over time. I suppose some people might say that humans are born either with compassion or not, or that certain groups of people have it or they don’t. I am guessing that you would say that compassion is something that can be cultivated quite systematically. Is that so?

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