LOS ALTOS, CA, October 19, 2012 – To be honest, most of the evening’s presentation – although fascinating in a sort of “I have no idea what she’s saying but she says it so well” sort of way – left me wanting.
Of course, there’s really no one to blame but myself. There I was, a former liberal arts major, listening to a lecture by a well-respected psychologist and research scientist on “The Neurobiological Basis of Compassion and Implications for Inflammatory Disease.” What was I thinking?
Fortunately the lecturer, SUNY Stony Brook associate professor of preventative medicine, Dr. Stephanie Brown, started off with a pretty basic definition of compassion – “A type of helping behavior and/or the motivational state that gives rise to this behavior.”
Okay. I got that.
Then she introduced her theory of how an innate desire to form social bonds with others motivates us to be compassionate; that is, to be helpful, often under trying circumstances that cause us to suppress other, less helpful, instincts like self-interest.
So far, so good.
Moments later, though, I found myself awash in so much biological and neurological gobbledygook that I could hardly keep my head above water.
Of course, this wasn’t Dr. Brown’s fault. She was simply describing compassion and its impact on mental and physical health (in short, more compassion = less stress = better bodies) from her perspective as a medical researcher. And, as I said before, even if I didn’t understand most of what she was saying, she was doing such a good job of saying it. So I did my best to stay afloat.
And boy am I glad I did, because right in the middle of this detailed discussion about telomeres, dopamine, and the medial preoptic area of the hypothalamus, Dr. Brown said something astonishing, even to a neurological novice like me:
“Rather than wondering how compassion can flourish within a society made up of people who are generally geared toward self-interest, often resulting in cruelty and violence, the real question should be, how is it that cruelty and violence can flourish within a society of people who are generally geared toward compassion?”
What I love about this line of reasoning is that it effectively undermines the apparent adamancy of evil by reminding us of the self-evident preponderance of good.
Which got me to thinking…
Given the connection Dr. Brown draws between compassion and health, might it be possible to undermine other elements of evil, including disease, simply by asking better questions; that is, through a greater awareness and consistent acknowledgement of our inherent and instinctive capacity to be and to do good?
While this approach to health care may appear to be little more than positive thinking, there’s mounting evidence to suggest that the underlying principles are decidedly scientific – measurable, provable, and repeatable.
I may not remember much about Dr. Brown’s lecture, but her brief comment about the power and pervasiveness of compassion has at least taught me this: Better questions beget better perspectives which, in turn, can – have and will – beget better health.
Eric Nelson is a Christian Science practitioner, whose articles on the link between consciousness and health appear regularly in a number of local, regional, and national online publications. He also serves as the media and legislative spokesperson for Christian Science in Northern California.
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