Two Different Phenomena Associated with Different Brain Activity Patterns

by Dr. Chris Kukk

The horrific case outlined in many New York papers of four year-old Myls Dobson’s death by his “caregiver” of three weeks caused me not only to ask “why” but to dive deeper into recent research into the difference between compassion and empathy.  When I read the word “caregiver” for the person who abused Myls, I couldn’t help but think of some of our society’s real caregivers such as nurses, paramedics and social workers; while most people simply read about traumatic stories, they live the stories.  They live with addressing traumatic incidents everyday at such an intense level that psychologists have coined the term “compassion fatigue” (a.k.a. secondary traumatic stress) to explain how and why some nurses and social workers go through “a unique form of burnout.”  Recent research in the field of neuroscience, however, indicates that the term is a misnomer that conflates compassion with empathy.  In short, there is a distinct difference between compassion and empathy and defining compassion without empathy as part of its definition could lead to a better understanding of “burnout” and more effective ways of avoiding it.

Where empathy is about stepping into the shoes of another to understand and share their feelings, compassion is about acquiring a 360 degrees understanding of the suffering or problem that a person is experiencing.  Empathy is emotionally absorbing the feelings of another and, in contrast, compassion is holistically learning about their problem and taking action to resolve it.  The distinction is important for any discussion about the “unique burnout” of caretakers.  Emotionally absorbing another’s feelings, which empathy entails, is physically draining and can make you feel metaphorically stuck in quicksand.  Compassion, on the other hand, keeps the emotional quicksand at a distance by using a cognitive understanding of a person’s suffering when attempting to alleviate the pain: understanding without absorbing.

Tania Singer, a director of neuroscience at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Lepzig, has used MRI scanners to show that compassion and empathy “are two different phenomena associated with different brain activity patterns.”  Dr. Singer saw different regions of the brain “light up” on people whether they were thinking empathically or compassionately.  When thinking compassionately, brain “areas associated with romantic love or reward, such as the nucleus accumbens and ventral striatum, were activated.”  Compassion’s strength as a power source for helping others is that it is not only derived from the same areas of our brain as love but it is centrally focused on the concern and care of others.   When empathy is used as the source for helping another, the central motivation is to alleviate your own pain and stress.  And that egocentric motivation is, I believe, one of the keys for understanding why burnout occurs much easier when caregivers are thinking empathically.  If you are thinking and trying hard to alleviate your own pain, you tend to fall deeper into the pain.  An easier way to think of this is: try hard to not think of something, say a black dog.  How did you do?  Psychologists call this the “ironic process of mental control.”  It is the caregiver’s emotional quicksand.  The distinction between compassion and empathy may be, according to Dr. Singer’s work, hardwired in the brain.  There needs to be more research and discussion regarding the differences between compassion and empathy but if caregivers learn how to harness the power of compassion, they will—ironically—help themselves while helping others.

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