May 12th, 2009

Difficult to Detect a Broken Heart


The Neuroscience of Compassion

Targets of bullying experience rejection by cowardly co-workers, indifference from HR and senior management, and limited tolerance by friends and family. Why aren’t people more compassionate? Why don’t they see the pain and help more? Brand new research suggests that we humans are wired to quickly and empathically react to the physical pain of others. For example, watching someone break an ankle and step on it triggers pain centers in our own brains nearly immediately.

However, social pain or the mental anguish of others takes longer to trigger a response and that reaction requires much more brain work. For example, when a woman with cerebral palsy laments that she has never been kissed and probably will never have a romantic relationship, it should trigger a compassionate response. It does, but it takes time. The latency and location of neurological responses are tracked by fMRI. The research was done by Mary Helen Immordino-Yang and Antonio Damasio at USC’s Brain and Creativity Institute. (Paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences)

I extrapolate the findings to the real world of workplace bullying. Effortful cognitions, hard mental work, is nearly always avoided. Most people seek low challenge activity that sustains comfort and predictability. The vicarious experiencing of the pain of others can be circumvented if the witnessed events pass quickly by, preventing the time it takes for our brains to adequately process the mental pain witnessed. Averting eye contact and turning or walking away allows witnesses to skip the mental work and the discomfort that would result if they stayed long enough to notice the undeniable pain. Disengagement from the target blocks compassion. It makes it easier to side with the bullying abuser. Another layer of denial may even come into play. By refusing to acknowledge what was seen or heard, not only does the pain not get through, but the witness convinces him- or herself that nothing was actually heard or seen (that’s the rationalization driven by cognitive dissonance).

At the broadest level, the lack of compassion by lawmakers is simple to understand. They delve deeply into nothing; they skim everything due to overload from so many people seeking their attention. I’m not letting them off the hook, but clearly attention spread too thin undermines compassion. Most lawmaker sponsors of our bills are people with direct or family experience with bullying. They do not need to be convinced. Their experience is deep and undeniable. They have seen the pain bullying causes.

Brain science is fascinating because it shows how social/environmental factors are filtered through our personal biological lenses often in interaction with learned social ways of coping with stress and interacting with others.

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This entry was posted on Tuesday, May 12th, 2009 at 6:35 pm and is filed under Bullying & Health, Bullying-Related Research, Neuroscience & Genetics, Tutorials About Bullying. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.



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  1. Too Much Stress says:

    Too Much Stress…

    [...] Brain science is fascinating because it shows how social/environmental factors are filtered through our personal biological lenses often in interaction with learned social ways of coping with stress and interacting with others. … [...]…

  2. [...] militarism and individualism run counter to genuine human altruistic impulses. Elsewhere, we cited the neuroscience of compassion. In America, showing concern for a fellow human’s wellbeing is frequently mocked as being [...]

  3. LB says:

    Perception is everything.

    Our realities are our perceptions, and our perceptions are our realities.

    I am in total agreement that most people seek their comfort zones, and it makes no difference where they are or what they are doing.

    Thinking? Oh, don’t you know, that’s just another “fault” of target’s, they think too much…

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