You are likely familiar with the idea that you can feel too much of the suffering of others. This is sometimes called “burnout,” a word that was coined in the 1970s. But it’s not a new insight; the idea has many origins, including, to my surprise, in Buddhist theology.
I first learned this from a discussion I had with Matthieu Ricard, the Buddhist monk and neuroscientist described by many as “the happiest man on Earth.” Our meeting was by chance—we were checking into a hotel on the outskirts of London for a conference where we were both speaking. I recognized him at the front desk (saffron robes, beatific smile, hard to miss) and introduced myself, and we got together later for tea.
It was an interesting meeting. He really does exude inner peace, and he told me that he spends months of each year in total solitude, getting deep pleasure from this. (It was this conversation that has led me to adopt meditative practices myself, however unevenly.) At one point he politely asked me what I was working on. Now it seemed at the time that telling someone like Ricard that you’re writing a book against empathy was like telling an orthodox rabbi that you’re writing a book in favor of shellfish, and I felt awkward describing my project. But I did, and his reaction to my empathy trash talk surprised me.
He didn’t find it shocking; rather, he found it obviously correct and went on to describe how well it meshes with both Buddhist philosophy and his own collaborative research with Tania Singer, a prominent neuroscientist.
Consider first the life of a bodhisattva, an enlightened person who vows not to pass into Nirvana, choosing instead to stay in the normal cycle of life and death to help the unenlightened masses. How is a bodhisattva to live?
In his book on Buddhist moral philosophy, Charles Goodman notes that Buddhist texts distinguish between “sentimental compassion,” which corresponds to what we would call empathy, and “great compassion,” which is what we would simply call “compassion.” The first is to be avoided, as it “exhausts to bodhisattva.” It’s the second that is worth pursuing. Great compassion is more distanced and reserved, and can be sustained indefinitely.
This distinction between empathy and compassion is critical for the argument that I make throughout my book Against Empathy. And it is supported by neuroscience research. In a review article, Tania Singer and Olga Klimecki describe how they make sense of this distinction: “In contrast to empathy, compassion does not mean sharing the suffering of the other: rather, it is characterized by feelings of warmth, concern and care for the other, as well as a strong motivation to improve the other’s well-being. Compassion is feeling for and not feeling with the other.”
The neurological difference between the two was explored in a series of fMRI studies that used Ricard as a subject. While in the scanner, Ricard was asked to engage in various types of compassion meditation directed toward people who are suffering. To the surprise of the investigators, his meditative states did not activate those parts of the brain associated with empathic distress—those that are normally activated by nonmeditators when they think about others’ pain. And Ricard’s experience was pleasant and invigorating. Once out of the magnet, Ricard described it as: “a warm positive state associated with a strong prosocial motivation.”
He was then asked to put himself in an empathic state and was scanned while doing so. Now the appropriate empathy circuits were activated: His brain looked the same as those of nonmeditators who were asked to think about the pain of others. Ricard later described the experience: “The empathic sharing… very quickly became intolerable to me and I felt emotionally exhausted, very similar to being burned out. After nearly an hour of empathic resonance, I was given the choice to engage in compassion or to finish scanning. Without the slightest hesitation, I agreed to continue scanning with compassion meditation, because I felt so drained after the empathic resonance.”
One sees a similar contrast in ongoing experiments led by Singer in which normal people—nonmeditators—were trained to experience either empathy or compassion. In empathy training, people were instructed to try to feel what others were feeling. In compassion training—sometimes called “loving-kindness meditation”—the goal is to feel positive and warm thoughts toward a series of imagined persons, starting with someone close to you and moving to strangers and, perhaps, to enemies.
There is a neural difference: Empathy training led to increased activation in the insula and anterior cingulate cortex. Compassion training led to activation in other parts of the brain, such as the medial orbitofrontal cortex and ventral striatum.
There is also a practical difference. When people were asked to empathize with those who were suffering, they found it unpleasant. Compassion training, in contrast, led to better feelings on the part of the meditator and kinder behavior toward others.
In a summary of her research, Singer makes the following point:
When experienced chronically, empathic distress most likely gives rise to negative health outcomes. On the other hand, compassionate responses are based on positive, other-oriented feelings and the activation of prosocial motivation and behavior. Given the potentially detrimental effects of empathic distress, the finding of existing plasticity of adaptive social emotions is encouraging, especially as compassion training not only promotes prosocial behavior, but also augments positive affect and resilience, which in turn fosters better coping with stressful situations. This opens up many opportunities for the targeted development of adaptive social emotions and motivation, which can be particularly beneficial for persons working in helping professions or in stressful environments in general.
This connects nicely with the conclusions of David DeSteno and his colleagues, who find, in controlled experimental studies, that being trained in mindfulness meditation (as opposed to a control condition where people are trained in other cognitive skills) makes people kinder to others and more willing to help. DeSteno and his colleagues argue that mindfulness meditation “reduces activation of the brain networks associated with simulating the feelings of people in distress, in favor of networks associated with feelings of social affiliation.” He approvingly quotes the Buddhist scholar Thupten Jinpa: “meditation-based training enables practitioners to move quickly from feeling the distress of others to acting with compassion to alleviate it.”
Less empathy, more kindness.
These studies bear on the claims of those psychologists and neuroscientists who believe that compassion and empathy are necessarily intertwined. In critical responses to an earlier article I wrote, Leonard Christov-Moore and Marco Iacoboni claimed that “affective empathy is a precursor to compassion,” and Lynn E. O’Connor and Jack W. Berry wrote, “We can’t feel compassion without first feeling emotional empathy. Indeed compassion is the extension of emotional empathy by means of cognitive processes.”
It’s hard to know what to make of these claims, given all of the everyday instances in which we care for people and help them without engaging in emotional empathy. I can worry about a child who is afraid of a thunderstorm and pick her up and comfort her without experiencing her fear in the slightest. I can be concerned about starving people and try to support them without having any vicarious experience of starving. And now the research we just discussed supports an even stronger conclusion. Not only can compassion and kindness exist independently of empathy, they are sometimes opposed. Sometimes we are better people if we suppress our empathic feelings.
Paul Bloom is the Brooks and Suzanne Ragen Professor of Psychology at Yale University. His has written for Science, Nature, the New York Times, and The New Yorker. He is the author of Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, from which this article is adapted with permission from Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins.