woman with long read hair standing in front of graphic background with the appearance of a squiggly line entering the left of his head and two gently wavy arrows emerging from the right hand side

The US military first coined the acronym VUCA, short for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity, to refer to the extreme conditions in the world.  It has since been used to refer to more general situations and is even used in the workplace.  There is no doubt that we are living in a time of change and uncertainty, which is both unsettling and challenging, often leading to self interested behaviour and disconnectedness.

Can we better equip ourselves to deal with these difficult times and is it possible to build a more cohesive Society?  These questions led me to reflect on empathy, compassion and how mindfulness can help.  An excellent starting point for this is the seminal work of Professor Tania Singer, who I was fortunate to hear speak just last month at the Oxford Mindfulness Centre.

We often use the terms empathy and compassion interchangeably.  However although they are both social emotions, dependent on other people and influence our interaction with others, they are not the same.

Empathy is the sharing of an emotional state with another person while being aware that the other person is the source of the emotional experience.   This means that we can feel sad when another person is sad and happy when another person is happy.  Mostly though when we consider empathy we think of feeling another’s pain. Compassion is not feeling with, but rather feeling for another person, it is a genuine concern for them, which is accompanied by a strong motivation to help.

Science has shown that empathy and compassion activate different networks in the brain.

When we witness others’ distress an empathetic response, causes us to feel emotional distress.  This is accompanied by activations in the brain in the anterior insula and anterior medial cingulate cortex—a core neural network that is involved in both first hand experience of pain and vicarious pain.  While you don’t have the physical pain you still activate this “shared network”.  Basically, you are distressed by what you see, that is you find it deeply unpleasant, which activates stress and withdrawal responses.  Not surprisingly if we empathise until the point of empathetic distress we are more likely to be unwilling and unable to help the other person.

Worryingly, science has shown that stress is “contagious”.  We are all familiar with that rising feeling of stress when see a work colleague who is anxious or stressed, but may be surprised to know that it physiologically has an impact actually causing cortisol levels to rise.  So just being aware of another person’s stress triggers a genuine stress response.  We can see how in the workplace if left unchecked this can lead to a toxic, uncooperative environment.

Compassion, unlike empathy elicits a positive emotional response.  When it is being practised the areas in the brain that are activated include the medial orbitofrontal cortex, putamen, pallidum, and ventral tegmental areas — brain regions that are associated with positive mood and connectedness.  Compassion is also associated with the release of neurotransmitters such as oxytocin and dopamine that are involved in the reward system and make us feel good.

Perhaps surprisingly empathy appears to be bad for us, certainly physiologically, making us feel worse and increasing our tendency to be less altruistic.   However, empathy itself is not “bad”, it is important for us to be able to “put ourselves into another’s shoes”.  It allows us to be more aware of the consequences of our actions, to connect with others and to be human.  It is only when it is allowed to prolong, left unchecked, that it turns into empathetic distress, which causes problems.  This is when suffering is shared to such a point that the experience of negative emotions becomes overwhelming and can lead to withdrawal.  At this stage empathy instead of driving us to help people causes us to back away.  There is, not surprisingly, an increased risk of empathetic distress in the caring professions, which has a negative impact on the care provided and leads to “burn out”.

How best can we deal with the suffering of others in a way that benefits them and doesn’t deplete us?  Of course it is desirable to empathise, to make that initial connection of “I feel with you” we are both human, but rather than going down the route to empathetic distress it is necessary to switch to compassion, to move to “I feel for you” and want to help.   So instead of getting caught up overwhelmed by another’s suffering, which causes us to withdraw and is detrimental to our own wellbeing.  We are able to shift and activate a compassion response, which protects our own resources and wellbeing, as well as allowing us to maintain a connectedness and a desire to help.

We are familiar with the neuroplasticity of the brain; that it can be changed in accordance with experiences.  Scientists have now shown that training compassion changes the brain, increasing wellbeing and prosocial behaviour.

How do we train compassion?  With compassion there is an intention of wishing others well, and so not surprisingly training compassion comes from such practices as Loving kindness.  These are not always easy practices, in part because we usually start with wishing ourselves well and we often confound that with being selfish.  It is important to remember the “oxygen mask” analogy; that you need to help yourself before you can help others.

How can mindfulness help?  Central to mindfulness is not just learning to pay attention to the present moment but cultivating how we pay attention.  It is essential to bring an attitude of kindness and curiosity to our experience.  As we practise mindfulness we learn to be with our own emotions and difficulties, which makes us become more able to deal with others.  We can better empathise, but through the cultivation of kindness and compassion we are able to take care of ourselves and continue to help others.

So coming back to how we can equip ourselves to deal with difficult times and build a more cohesive Society.  We may not be able change the world at large and the conflicts affecting distant peoples, but we can start to make a difference on a small scale, in our communities and at work.  Mindfulness helps improve relationships and develops compassion.  We are more able to see another’s point of view, “stand in their shoes” and rather than simply feel their pain, we can go further and bring compassion.  This allows us to identify with their pain and have the capacity to do something about it.

The desire and ability to help increases interconnectedness and leads to a more cohesive Society.  We have a sense of belonging, pulling together in times of difficulty.  Looking out for each other rather than just ourselves.  A case of the “The whole is greater than the sum of the parts”

If you wish to develop a more compassionate brain you might like to try this mindfulness tip.

Mindfulness tip icon


Klimecki O.M. et al.  (2013) Functional Neural Plasticity and Associated Changes in Positive Affect After Compassion Training.  Cerebral Cortex 23:1552–1561 doi:10.1093/cercor/bhs142

Klimecki O.M. et al.  (2014) Differential pattern of functional brain plasticity after compassion and empathy training SCAN 9: 873-879 doi:10.1093/scan/nst060

Tania Singer & Matthias Boltz (2013) Compassion. Bridging Practice and Science – Free eBook available from www.compassion-training.org

Adam Waytz (2016) The Limits of Empathy Harvard Business Review Jan/Feb