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Like Tsai, Koopman-Holm specializes in how culture can shape our emotional life. She regards compassion meditation as a Buddhist cultural practice, but concludes that deep methods that evolved in one culture may well be applied effectively in other cultures. “Our research gives me some hope that these practices could work just as well with people of many different cultures.”

CCARE has more than half a dozen research projects in various stages of completion. In addition to the work at Google and the Tsai and Zimbardo projects, the research agenda includes a comparison of the neural activity of compassion meditation adepts with that of novices; an investigation in the new field of neuroeconomics to determine the effect of charitable giving on its recipients; a clinical trial examining the effects of compassion-cultivation training on the empathetic engagement (bedside manner) of medical students; and a study in mice to try to determine the neural networks in the mammalian brain that underlie social compassion and nurturing.

James Doty’s enthusiasm for this work is infectious, and it has clearly infected Joel Finkelstein, a soon-to-be neuroscience graduate student recruited to be CCARE’s program director and Doty’s go-to guy. If you have an hour or so and you can catch him, Finkelstein will share with you the activities the center is sponsoring with the bubbliness generally reserved for summer camp counselors, while describing CCARE’s varied research efforts with the precision of a well-tuned academic mind.

Finkelstein is particularly excited about the development of a for-credit meditation course using the Jinpa protocol. The course would be open to any interested undergraduate at Stanford, and he thinks there would be lots of interest, given that two recent lectures sponsored by CCARE attracted packed houses. In October, Matthieu Ricard—a longtime monk who has been one of the subjects in fMRI studies of the effects of lifelong meditation practice—discussed the roots of altruism, a topic that plays an important role in his book Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill.

And in January, Philip Zimbardo delivered the inaugural lecture of CCARE’s Meng-Wu Lecture Series. (Upcoming speakers include renowned emotion-researcher Paul Ekman and theologian Karen Armstrong, who is spearheading the multi-faith Charter for Compassion campaign). Zimbardo designed the celebrated Stanford Prison Experiment, which pitted students identified as guards against students identified as prisoners in a mock prison in the basement of the Stanford psychology building. The experiment had to be stopped after just six days, when the jailers’ cruelty reached levels that shocked and disturbed participants and researchers alike. (The experiment attracted recent interest in the wake of the Abu Ghraib scandal.) Zimbardo, who sits on CCARE’s board, discussed how his research focuses on the causes of heroism and whistle-blowing, in his view a form of altruism.

These lectures, along with conferences and symposia sponsored by CCARE, help build the networks and thought partnerships that can get a new academic discipline off the ground. CCARE’s first conference, in March 2009, invited scholars from psychology, neuroscience, philosophy, religion, and economics to discuss how each discipline presents its own perspective on the meaning of compassion, altruism, and empathy. The aim is to help scholars from diverse disciplines effectively discuss compassion-related topics among themselves and develop findings that more readily complement and integrate with each other—the essence of interdisciplinary work.

CCARE’s second conference, the Conference for the Language of Mental Life, to be held this July in Telluride, Colorado, will consider the way Western psychology talks about the mind and mental events in the light of descriptions in the Pali, Sanskrit, and Tibetan Buddhist canons. One of the participants will be Philippe Goldin, a clinical psychologist and neuroscientist who also trained in Buddhist monasteries in Nepal (and leads the CCARE research on compassion in medical professionals). Goldin points out that, “There are many Buddhist texts but little research, in the way Western science would use the term. Also, the texts might offer gradations of experiences such as the four brahmaviharas [usually rendered as loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity], but they are described in words we’re not clear about, even after we translate them into English.” As an example, Goldin, who knows both Sanskrit and Tibetan, mentions the Tibetan word that is generally translated as equanimity, noting that the average person, when told to develop equanimity, would likely ask what “equanimity” specifically means. Furthermore, a term used in science must be not only precise but demonstrable through observation or experimentation. It can’t be merely descriptive; it must be “operational.” The Telluride conference will start a dialogue about key words that indicate mental states and qualities. The result will be a published lexicon that will help shape how researchers talk about key terms.

The crowning event for CCARE this year, Finkelstein says, will be an October state-of-the-field conference at Stanford that will update the cutting edge research on compassion in all the various disciplines CCARE is interested in. It will be followed by a public event with the Dalai Lama, who has expressed strong interest in keeping abreast of CCARE’s progress in creating usable definitions for compassion-related terminology and a methodology for measuring results.

Measurable results are key because many sectors of our society—schools, corporations, and healthcare organizations, to name just a few—demand research-based proof of the efficacy of any training before they will incorporate it in their institutions. And large public institutions will generally only accept training methodologies that have a secular rationale and can be carried out using secular language and methods. Religious devotion and ritual cannot form the basis of a public school program, for example. Philippe Goldin feels this is one of the great contributions CCARE can make. “People are very hungry for evidence. The Dalai Lama himself told us to ‘measure, measure, measure.’ If we can show other research institutions and other sectors of society that this work is legitimate and helpful, that will be a big contribution.”

Goldin points out that traditionally there haven’t been many objective tests for compassion, but he firmly believes that altruism and compassion can be tested. “We can test resilience, attention, emotion regulation skills, whether people can stay clear under pressure. We can see heart rates, skin conductance, whether the quality of someone’s voice or language changes. We can see whether they’re able  to recognize their own emotions in the moment, and modulate those.

“It would be good to do a study like that, and it would be good to provide an interpersonal challenge, like someone rubbing you the wrong way. The Indian sage Atisha, who brought lojong meditation to Tibet, also brought along an obnoxious Bengali cook to teach him patience. Well, let’s give everybody an obnoxious cook and see how cool or not cool they are. That would test compassion.”

Originally published in the May 2010 Shambhala Sun magazine.

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