One of the most attractive features in humans is their ability to be kind. Kindness as a trait is almost magnetic in its effect. It draws people closer to each other. As children, we always searched for it, particularly when we were in need. If we fell and cut our knees, we ran as quickly as possible to a loving parent to be lifted up, hugged and attended to. We needed to experience their compassion in our moments of despair. When we entered a room with some strangers in it, it was only when we sensed kindness from one of them that we eventually dared to glance, acknowledge his or her presence and eventually speak. Sometimes it was merely a kind smile from the doctor that eased the tension during a visit to the clinic. The kind teacher was always our favourite teacher. As teenagers, we became upset when a compassionate response to our crises was not forthcoming. We wanted empathy and some flexibility from parents and siblings when we experienced friendship conflicts or romantic heartbreak. It was not just knowing that someone loved us that was important but also feeling it. When family reached out to us in kindness we felt that love. That feeling was always magical.
My late mother was a nurse. She was full of kindness. She mothered me into my forties, worrying about me, offering advice but essentially spoiling me with an enormous degree of endless kindness. I miss that compassion so much nowadays. As a nurse I often felt that whoever was in her care was so privileged. Her former patients and colleagues always highlight this characteristic when remembering her with me. She worried about her patients, monitored their progress with a kind eye, eased their anxieties and harnessed hope for them. I often remarked that it was a crucial characteristic in a happy nurse – that ability to be compassionate. She was always so happy at nursing because she was tapping into her strength – compassion.
We know that anger and hostility affects our physiology in a very dramatic way. Planning vengefulness towards a work colleague can keep us awake during the night. As we script a row or argument for the next day, we twist and turn in our beds. Our heart races and our adrenaline pumps throughout our system. We have an innate ability to facilitate this fight or flight response. We know how to defend and attack. It’s almost a spontaneous response to challenge. There is an inner biology required to facilitate this.
Some scientists have made the case that the ability to be kind and reach out to others in compassion also has a biological basis. In one study, unique activity in the region of the brain associated with positive emotion was recorded in subjects as scientists tested for this biological basis to compassion. The study conducted by psychologist Jack Nitschke at the University of Wisconsin showed how mothers when shown photographs of numerous babies responded differently on seeing their own child. They not only reported feeling more compassion but also demonstrated unique activity in the region of their brains associated with positive emotions. It seems to be the case that the brain is attuned to the first objects of our love – our offspring.
In another study at Princeton University, when participants contemplated scenarios in which harm may be done to others a similar response occurred in their brains. The same network of neurological regions lit up. The feelings of compassion could be mapped in the brains of the subjects. Two very different experiments provoked similar neurological reactions. Maybe, compassion is an innate response within humans. The latest science suggests that just as we have an innate response to fight or flight, we also have an innate response to be loving and compassionate. We just need more practice at compassion. Then it will flow in abundance.