Compassion - Bridging Practice and Science - page 235

increases in blood oxytocin levels of almost 50%, which were, in turn, related to subsequent increased
generosity towards other
The breakthrough in oxytocin studies came when researchers realized that the hormone could be delivered to
the brain when given as a nasal spray. Subsequent studies have shown that intranasal oxytocin produces
multiple effects of direct relevance to compassion, including increasing 1.) generosity towards others
feelings of trust
; 3.) time spent in gazing at the eyes of other people
; and 4.) ability to accurately read
the emotional states signaled by facial expressions of other people
Oxytocin administration increases
people’s sense of empathic concern for crime victims without increasing the desire to punish the criminal
, and, in response to hearing the crying of infants, induces changes in brain activity that have
been repeatedly associated with empathy
. Finally, studies have shown that intranasal oxytocin directly
enhances feelings of empathy in both men and women, and in fact increases men’s empathy ratings to the
baseline level of females prior to oxytocin administration
But recent studies have revealed a potential dark side to oxytocin, at least in relation to the expression of
universal compassion that is the goal of many meditative and spiritual practices. It has been known since time
immemorial that people tend to favor other individuals they view as being similar to themselves and/or who
belong to one’s in-group. It appears that oxytocin actually enhances the distinction between in-group and out-
group by making people more cooperative and caring towards in-group members and more defensive towards
out-group member
. Oxytocin does not appear to make people more hostile or hateful towards out-group
members (i.e., people perceived as different from oneself), but neither does it appear to extend the range of
people towards whom one feels empathy or concern. These findings have led some to suggest that rather
than being the “love hormone”, oxytocin should perhaps be characterized as the “tribal hormone”. This raises
an extremely important and interesting question about the relationship of oxytocin to compassion meditation
practices that, to our knowledge, has never been tested. Do compassion practices “piggyback” onto oxytocin
systems in the brain by making practitioners see more and more people as belonging to their in-group (and
thereby increasing oxytocin function in response to these people), or do compassion practices have, in one
way or another, the ability to suppress oxytocin’s tendency to only care for those one perceives as belonging
to one’s in-group?
Cortisol, the Stress Response and Compassion
We all know from personal experience that being stressed out does not typically bring out our most caring
behavior towards others. Studies tend to confirm this, especially when the stressor is social in nature. For
example, people who are socially excluded in an experimental paradigm show less subsequent prosocial
behavior towards others
. It is important to note in this regard that oxytocin has been shown to reduce
stress-related patterns of brain activation (i.e., activation of the amygdala) in response to socially threatening
images and to reduce cortisol and autonomic nervous system responses to laboratory social stressors[7],
. Similarly, the same oxytocin receptor gene that has been associated with reduced empathy has also
been shown to promote increased autonomic stress responses[7].
These findings might suggest that cortisol and other stress mediators are “anti-compassion” molecules, but as
with so many things in biology the truth is more complex, and more interesting. In fact, significant data show
that people who are unable to effectively activate stress responses either in response to social stressors or in
response to the distress of others are at increased risk of a trait called callousness, which is diametrically
opposed to empathy and other core components of compassion in general and with social threats in particular
(reviewed extensively in Shirtcliff et al
). This effect has been extensively studied for cortisol. In children,
adolescents and adults, lower levels of cortisol have been repeatedly associated with a lack of empathy and
other traits that contribute to psychopathy, which includes an inability to love or establish meaningful personal
relationships among its diagnostic elements. These reductions have been observed at rest and for cortisol
responses to social stressors. In addition to reductions in cortisol production/release, lack of empathy has also
been associated with a flattening of the diurnal pattern of cortisol release, an abnormality that is observed in
many medical conditions and in major depression, another condition associated with impairments of
. Interestingly, and important for the experimental findings we will describe next, the literature
suggests that environmental adversity may be an important factor in a subset of children who display chronic
antisocial behavior who also have elevated circulating concentrations of cortisol
. In contrast, early life
adversity does not appear to play a role in children who exhibit callous and unempathic traits who also display
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