March 26th, 2008: Can we train ourselves to be compassionate? A new study suggests the answer is yes. Cultivating compassion and kindness through meditation affects brain regions that can make a person more empathetic to other peoples' mental states, say researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.(1).....
March 26, 2008: Meditate on This: You Can Learn to Be More Compassionate. A new study shows that meditation opens the gateway to compassion.(2).....
October 8, 2008: Data from a new Emory University study suggests that individuals who engage in “compassion meditation” based on a thousand-year-old Tibetan Buddhist mind-training practice (called “lojong” in Tibetan), appears to effectively reduce the inflammatory and behavioral responses to stress that have been linked to depression and a number of physical illnesses. The practice revolves around fostering a sense of heightened compassion for others.(3)
Can we really train ourselves to be compassionate? Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe all of us can’t.
I began reading more or less steadily about Eastern religions and the variety of religious experiences in about 1972, just after my decision to stop hurting animals. I quit eating them and began trying to avoid harming them. Even then I was convinced by the even-then-existing body of evidence that the animals closest to us in evolutionary time and descent are very like us cognitively and emotionally. Darwinian evolution predicts this.
Personal experience substantiated my belief. The insects, lizards, snakes, frogs, and toads I caught seemed less like me than the dogs and cats I knew. And although the dogs and cats I knew were somewhat like each other, they all seemed to have distinct personalities, and they looked back at me when I looked at them.
Certain eastern religions’ positions on the way animals should be treated seem to acknowledge our similarities and the ethical implications that arise from them. Most well known might be Buddhism’s First Precept: Harm no sentient being. This is a response to Buddhism’s First Noble Truth: Life is suffering. Although we are all likely to suffer, we shouldn’t harm each other. In Christianity, this sentiment is expressed in The Golden Rule, though The Golden Rule seems limited to avoiding harm to other humans only.
Buddhism has moved as far astray from Gautama’s teachings as Christianity has moved away from the Sermon on the Mount. Today, people purporting to have discovered evidence that compassion meditation can make one kinder, people who themselves are practitioners of logong, don’t seem to be all that kind and concerned for the happiness of all beings. To at least some, the admonishment about all sentient beings can be matter-of-factly dismissed with an off-hand claim that hurting them is good and right if it might benefit us. I’m reminded of the climax in Stephen King’s Dead Zone when the Hitler-esque politician uses a child to shield himself from a sniper.
All of this has an odd intersection with anxious children.
Researchers at the University of Wisconsin, Madison have identified monkeys with “a ‘trait-like’ characteristic analogous to human behavioral inhibition.” They claim that young monkeys with trait-like anxious temperament (as opposed to all the other monkeys in the lab with learned anxious temperament) are good models of shy children. They say that “because of the similarities between rhesus monkey threat-induced freezing and childhood behavioral inhibition, [their research is] relevant to understanding mechanisms underlying anxious temperament in humans.”
… Our studies have provided evidence for an anxious endophenotype in primates. Monkeys with this temperamental disposition are similar to extremely inhibited children that are at risk to develop anxiety disorders in that they engage in excessive freezing behavior when confronted with a threatening situation. The rhesus monkey is ideal for this work because of similarities in brain structure and social behavior between rhesus monkeys and humans. In addition, compared to other species, rhesus monkeys have a well developed prefrontal cortex allowing for studies aimed at prefrontal-limbic interactions in relation to emotion regulation. The proposed studies will build on our previous work by systematically examining, in rhesus monkeys, the neural circuitry that mediates the regulation of long term anxiety responses. Long term anxiety responses are important because they reflect temperamental dispositions and, when extreme, are characteristic of human psychopathology…(4)One of these scientists, Dr. Ned Kalin, about whose work the paragraph above was written, has himself written about some of the other similarities between monkeys and humans:
Animals do a lot of things instinctively…. But people—and probably monkeys—have the ability to think 20 steps into the future: “In the end I'm going to feel great, because I worked hard to get there,” or “I'm going to get a lot of credit for this.” It’s the prefrontal cortex that brings those emotions into play and guides us in our behavior. If we didn't have a sense of what would be wonderful or awful in the future, we would behave very haphazardly.(5)According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) (an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, anxiety disorders in children come in a variety of forms.
Given the variety of more or less definable types of anxiety disorder in children, the modern view is that these variations are due to the complexity of the brain: the large number of possible neuronal pathways, the complexity of the neurochemistry, and our basic ignorance of the biology of emotion and thought. Anxiety isn’t a uniform emotion with a common cause; it is a set of complex emotions with some similarities – particularly the very basic emotion of fear.
Basic emotions are just that, basic. We don’t need to be fluent, or even slightly informed about someone’s culture and beliefs to recognize their fear. We easily recognize fear in each other, even in other species. Even Seligman recognized fear in the dogs he tortured.
On one of my visits to Africa I was a nursemaid to a rescued young putty-nosed guenon whose mother had ended up in a stew pot. We hung out in the forest for hours on end, him scampering through the trees, investigating flowers, vines, and bugs, and me hoping that a group of monkeys would show up and that he would run off with them. Once when returning to camp, we heard a noise in the treetops coming toward us; we stopped to see what it might be. We watched as a large bachelor male guenon passed overhead. I was quiet and in awe, but my ward jumped from my shoulder and crouched motionless on the path in clear and unmistakable fear. I recognized his emotion in spite of the fact that he was a monkey and I am a man. Fear is a feeling we share.
Fear isn’t fun. Merriam-Webster says that fear is: “an unpleasant often strong emotion caused by anticipation or awareness of danger.” It notes that ‘terror’ is “the most extreme degree of fear” and gives an example of that usage as “immobilized with terror.”
This has all been prelude—background needed to understand the heinous nature of what comes next.
Monsters at the University of Wisconsin, Madison have discovered a way to identify young monkeys that are particularly anxious – like very shy children. They then frighten them – no, they terrorize them – with snakes, humans in lab coats, and unfamiliar adult male monkeys, do experimental brain surgery on them, frighten them again, kill them, and then examine their brains.
One of the monsters that repeatedly puts his name on these experiments is Richard Davidson. He is better known and promoted by the university as a personal friend of the Dalai Lama and a proponent of “compassion mediation,” or lojong. He is the lead author of papers that news articles at the start of this essay are calling attention to. Davidson was named one of Time magazine’s “Most Influential Persons” in 2006. In 2007, Madison Magazine named him Madison’s “Person of the Year.” Neither Time nor Madison Magazine mentioned his experiments on fear using young particularly anxious monkeys. [Original drawing. On the occasion of Richard Davidson being named one of Time magazine’s “100 Most Influential People of 2006.” Click image for a larger version.]
Try to imagine if you can, someone who quotes Einstein in his public lectures on “compassion meditation”:
Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty,yet who seeks out the animals with emotions most like our own, the most easily frightened young of those animals, and then frightens them, hurts them, and then kills them. Is it even possible to hold in your mind the conception of an honest human being who holds such divergent views? Davidson tries to sell the idea publicly that sending out waves of love will make you more loving and compassionate and yet defends and embraces experiments terrorizing young monkeys. I can’t reconcile such dramatic logical incongruity; and so, I can only explain someone like this by concluding that they aren’t human.
But it isn’t that Davidson holds grossly inconsistent and contradictory opinions about hurting others that brands him a monster. Davidson and his collaborators are monsters for the same reason that the doctors in my dreams who experimented on Wayne and Gary are monsters.
I wonder what Davidson’s monkeys are actually experiencing?
SAMHSA lists the anxiety disorders of children:
Generalized Anxiety Disorder – Children engage in “extreme, unrealistic worry about everyday life activities.”Assuming that Kalin and Davidson are correct in their assertion that excessive freezing behavior in threatening situations is similar in young monkeys and human children, and that this temperamental disposition puts them at risk of developing anxiety disorders, just what might the monkeys be experiencing?
Separation Anxiety Disorder – Children have “difficulty leaving their parents to attend school or camp, stay at a friend's house, or be alone.”
Phobias – Children have “unrealistic and excessive fears of certain situations or objects.”
Panic Disorder – Children have repeated ‘panic attacks’ without an apparent cause.”
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder – Children “become trapped in a pattern of repetitive thoughts and behaviors.”
Post-traumatic Stress Disorder – Children “experience the event over and over through strong memories, flashbacks, or other kinds of troublesome thoughts.”
Do they worry about what is going to happen to them? Given Kalin’s observation that primates can plan ahead and see into the future, isn’t it likely that exceptionally fearful monkeys might be worried all the time, especially since, and unlike children with a Generalized Anxiety Disorder, really bad things have happened to them and are very likely to happen again?
Are monkeys with an anxious endophenotype more traumatized by the laboratory-typical early separation from their mothers than are the monkeys without this trait? Wouldn’t they be? They are probably all suffering from a Separation Anxiety Disorder.
We can probably rule out Phobias since none of these monkeys’ fears can be fairly called unrealistic or excessive.
And we can rule out Panic Disorder since any episode of panic they have is completely understandable and has a clear cause.
I wonder if these monkeys have an Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder? The only way to find out would be to videotape them to see whether they are behaving like the large number of other monkeys in the labs who have become trapped in a pattern of repetitive behavior. One author lists repetitive behaviors in lab-born monkeys: “body rocking, body twirling, head rolling, head banging, self-clasping, weird limb and body posturing, digit sucking, eye poking and gouging, self-biting, and complex hand movements.”(6) Another source offers this list: bizarre postures, floating limb, self-biting, self-clasping and self-grasping, saluting, stereotyped pacing, head tossing or weaving, bouncing in place, somersaulting, rocking, and a host of others.(7) These lists were made from observations of “normal” monkeys, not the exceptionally fearful animals used by Kalin and Davidson.
And Post-traumatic Stress Disorder? How could these particularly vulnerable young monkeys not be suffering from post-traumatic stress?
… Seventeen animals (15 males and 2 females) underwent lesioning procedures at an average age of 27.9 months. Ten unoperated controls (nine males and one female) were used for comparison and were on average 22.5 months of age at the beginning of the study… Testing. When possible, behavioral tests and physiological data were collected before and after surgery. … Human intruder paradigm. For testing, animals were placed in a cage that was 79 X 76 X 71 cm. The alone condition lasted for the first 10 min that the animal was in the cage by itself. After 10 min, a human entered the room and presented her profile to the monkey, standing 2.5 m from the cage while remaining motionless and avoiding any eye contact with the animal (NEC). The human left the room after 10 min and reentered the room 3 min later for the stare condition (ST). During ST, the intruder remained motionless 2.5 m from the cage while staring with a neutral face, directly at the animal. The human left the room 10 min later… Snake fear testing. To test for snake fear, monkeys were presented with the stimulus box that contained one of four stimuli: (1) nothing (empty box); (2) tape (8.8cm diameter roll of blue masking tape); (3) fake snake (a curled black rubber snake 120 cm in length); and (4) snake (a live northern pine snake, Pithucus melanoleucusi…. The animals were observed to withdraw to the back of the cage when presented with the snake stimuli. Therefore, the number of times animals withdrew during each stimulus presentation was assessed by reviewing the videotapes of each stimulus trial…. Social threat paradigm. The test animal was placed in a large cage partitioned with a transparent plastic divider separating it from a threatening novel adult male rhesus monkey. Exposure to the threatening male lasted 1 hr; the behavioral responses were recorded on videotape for later scoring with a standard scoring system.(9)So that brings us back to my original question: Can we train ourselves to be compassionate? I suspect that humans can. But not monsters. Apparently, using Davidson as a single data point, no matter how much love they think they are radiating, no matter how they might try to convince themselves that they care about all beings, they simply can’t escape their basic nature. If “compassion meditation” could make a monster be more compassionate, we would expect to see Davidson’s experimental methods become more humane and less invasive over time, but the opposite is the case. He and Kalin are damaging larger parts of monkeys’ brains and subjecting them to grossly more invasive brain surgeries. This suggests that monsters need to be taken off the street, to eliminate them and their morbid influence over the rest of us who struggle with our moral imbecility. Apparently, even if monsters want to be kind, they remain very dangerous and willing to act on their urges to do cruel things to helpless victims.
(1) University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Compassion Meditation Changes The Brain.” ScienceDaily. March 27 2008. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/03/080326204236.htm.
(2) David Biello. “Meditate on This: You Can Learn to Be More Compassionate.” Scientific American, March 26, 2008.
(3) Medical News Today. “Compassion Meditation May Improve Physical And Emotional Responses To Psychological Stress.” October 8, 2008. http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/124680.php
(4) University of Wisconsin, Madison. Waisman Center. Intellectual & Developmental Disabilities Research Center. Project Title: Development and Regulation of Emotion in Primates. Principal Investigator: Ned Kalin, MD. http://www.waisman.wisc.edu/iddrc/project036.html, 2009.
(5) Ned Kalin. Wired For Sadness. Discover. April, 2000.
(6) G. Mitchell. Abnormal behavior in primates. In (Leonard A Rosenblum ed.) Primate Behavior: Developments in Field and Laboratory Research. Volume 1. New York: Academic Press, 1970.
(7) J. Erwin and R. Deni. Strangers in a strange land: abnormal behavior or abnormal environments? In (J. Erwin, Terry L. Maple, and G. Mitchell eds.) Captivity and Behavior: Primates in Breeding Colonies, Laboratories, and Zoos. New York: van Nostrand Reinhold, 1979.
(8) “lesioning procedures” In this set of experiments, Kalin and Davidson injected acid into a deep brain region called the amygdala. There is one on each side of our brain and they are believed to somehow mediate basic emotions. In subsequent studies, their lesioning procedures have become even more invasive. They write
An experienced surgeon made an opening in the frontal bone posterior to the brow ridge to expose the frontal cortex. Both hemispheres were lesioned in a single procedure by lifting the brain to expose its ventral surface. Using microscopic guidance, electro-cautery and suction were applied to the targeted brain area.From: Role of the primate orbitofrontal cortex in mediating anxious temperament. Kalin NH, Shelton SE, Davidson RJ. Biological Psychiatry. 2007.
(9) Kalin NH, Shelton SE, Davidson RJ, Kelley AE. The primate amygdala mediates acute fear but not the behavioral and physiological components of anxious temperament. Journal of Neuroscience, 2001.