Modern Good Feelings

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Empathy & Compassion in the brain

Empathy is a complicated task for the brain.

Reptiles probably can’t do it and it’s going to occur in pretty simple forms for most mammals. But in humans, it really engages the frontal lobes: these newer regions of the brain that are involved in more complex symbolic processes like language, considering alternatives and imagining the future. Empathy requires that you think: there’s someone else out there who has feelings and thoughts that may be different from mine.  That’s a complicated cognitive achievement!

Compassion —the caring instinct— is located down in the center of the brain, near the top of the spinal cord where a lot of our basic instincts are regulated. It’s a very old part of the brain called the periaqueductal gray, which is common to mammals when they take care of their young.

So that’s striking: there’s one kind of thing —empathy— that’s really about understanding people (very complicated!) in the frontal lobes. But caring is is really old in the nervous system.

Learn about the evolutionary roots of compassion & empathy  →