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.

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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.