Towards a neuroscience of compassion: A brain systems-based model and research agenda

Citation: Ashar, Y. K., Andrews-Hanna, J. R., Dimidjian, S., & Wager, T. D. (2016). Towards a Neuroscience of Compassion: A Brain-Systems-Based Model and Research Agenda. Positive Neuroscience Handbook.

Full Text


Despite substantial progress in the last decade towards understanding the neural building
blocks of empathy, relatively little is known about the neural bases of compassion, a complex
internal state characterized by prosocial motivation to improve the other's condition. In Parts I
and II of this chapter, we integrate existing literature on empathy, altruism, and social cognition
to develop a neuropsychological process-content model of compassion and compassionate
behavior. In this model, compassion is comprised of multiple component processes, including
the generation of affective feelings, inferences about others' mental states, and appraisal of the
meaning of another's suffering in relation to oneself. These component processes are supported
by distinct brain systems, which represent content--specific feelings, judgments, and meaning
representations--in the form of unique spatio-temporal patterns of neural activity. Like an
"attractor network," these activity patterns dynamically interact both within and across networks,
leading to system-wide configurations of network activity that characterize the response to the
suffering individual.
In Part III, we use our dynamic process-content model of compassion as a framework for
suggesting important future directions for compassion research. We highlight the promise of
compassion training interventions to enhance prosocial behavior, and we call for translational
research leveraging the tools of cognitive neuroscience to illuminate the mechanisms of
compassion training. We conclude by applying our model of compassion to some of our own
recent research.