New scientific center to study altruism

| May 1, 2009 | 6 Replies

Consider the mission statement of CCare:

[T]he Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, is an innovative initiative of the Stanford School of Medicine within the Stanford Institute for Neuro-Innovation and Translational Neurosciences that will employ the highest standards of scientific inquiry to investigate compassion and altruism.

Image by Mrpattesonsir at Flickr (creative commons)

Image by Mrpattesonsir at Flickr (creative commons)

The Center will draw on many disciplines (including psychology, neuroscience, economics and contemplative traditions, including Buddhism) in order to

To explore ways in which compassion and altruism can be cultivated within an individual as well as within the society on the basis of testable cognitive and affective training exercises.

The center will be run by James Doty, a physician who is also a professor of neuroscience at Stanford.   According to a recent article in Science (April 24, 2009, p. 458), the Dalai Lama provided $150,000 of the start-up funding.  Unknown to many, the Dalai Lama has long has a keen interest in cognitive science.   According to the article in Science, the aim of the Center seems to be finding that part of at least one religious tradition that actually works to make people compassionate:

[t]o take a centuries-old religious practice and extract from it a set of mental exercises with no religious overtones that can be scientifically proven to change the way people treat each other.

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Category: Community, Psychology Cognition, Religion, Science

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (6)

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  1. Tim Hogan says:

    Erich, When my children were each given a kitten to care for we made an agreement with them. The kitten would be theirs, the children would care for it, and the children would do the "boo-boo" inspections (starting at an early age so as to make it normal for the cat to be handled and probed for boo-boos), and for the first two weeks the kitten would have its food, water and litter in each child's bedroom where the kitten would also stay for the first two weeks.

    My kids each spent most of the next two weeks in their bedrooms with their kittens. We adopted from a no-kill shelter and the kids met with the kittens before adoption and we had to meet certain agreements for neutering, and care before the shelter allowed adoption. My kids were chosen by two kittens and each child named their cat. Ben named his kitten "Spock", Bella named hers "Kiss-Kiss." Spock had these huge ears, and Kiss-Kiss gives two kisses to everybody he met. The cats are now three years old, and are indoor cats.

    I now see the kids and cats playing and sleeping together, and sitting around hanging out with each other. There is an amazing bond between the kids and cats. I see true compassion in how my children relate to their kittens and each other. I see empathy emerging in my son (I think Bella was born with it!).

    One of the names I have given Spock is "Spock the Teacher Cat" because he has taught Benny to know that the truest strengths a man can have are to be compassionate and merciful. Spock for his efforts has a devoted friend, and a place in my heart and home.

    Kiss-Kiss has grown up to be a handsome 15 pound tomcat. If it may be imagined, Kiss-Kiss might love my daughter more than I do. Kiss-Kiss sleeps on the stairs at night and protects us all.

    Bella has a special relationship with both cats, Spock only allows Bella to hold him. I think Bella would make a wonderful vet (or anything else she chose to be!).

    I see that caring for and being responsible for another living being has made my kids more compassionate. I've seen altruism in the kids, too. About once a month we'll go to the no-kill shelter where we adopted and pet all the cats, and as many of the dogs as aren't barking too fiercly. We leave a small donation for the grace we have received. Some of the animals are so old or crotchety they'll never be adopted and these are our favorites to hold, pet and tell them how wonderful they are.

    My kids have decided to make donations to the APA instead of getting gifts for their birthday, supported earthquake victims around the world, collected cans of food for the less well off, and allowed some of their own possessions to be given away for others. Sometimes my kids will pray for others to be well, or return home safely or to get a job. I do much of these activities with the kids, and hope someday to be as good a person as they are.

    If you want to teach compassion and altruism, give a kid a kitten. You might be better for it yourself!

  2. Karl says:

    This sounds like it has promise for research.

    I'm sure even secularitists somehow decide they need to hold off from a quick response once in a while as well.

    Nearly all major religions (even Christianity) is suppose to have similar focus upon such spiritual and mental disciplines.

    Only some Christians pray that their enemies get swallowed by their own self-indulgence. Most Christians I know pray that they themselves can appropriate more and more of what it means to be like Christ while he was here on earth. You may have noticed that he wasn't a lean, mean, attack machine as many evangelical are accused of being. However, he did have some standards that would surely be ridiculed by today's society.

    Whereever they head with this research, they will still however have to come to grips with the non-compassionate side of people who already have habits that are harmful to society and one-another.

    The non-altruistic passions of hate and revenge just seem to crop up without any one having put themselves through disciplined meditation exercises.

  3. glinda says:

    Excellent idea. Our altruistic side is what redeems us. If we abandon traditional ways of fostering altruism, we surely need new ones.

  4. glinda says:

    Secularists tend to make the mistake of believing fundi whackos when fundie whackos claim they're what true Christians look like. That credulousness leads to a very distorted picture of religion. Has it never occurred to secularists that the fundie whackos might be mistaken? And/or lying? They are. If you read the Gospels, you find that Jesus–who was, after all Jewish, a faith notable for its social conscience and avoidance of proselytisizing–said nothing about sex, abortion, or Hell; and what he did say is unexceptionable by any liberal standards. He was opposed to judgmentalism, violence, the pursuit of wealth, and harming children. He told us to love one another. His religious tradition tells us to be open-handed to the stranger, the widow and the orphan.

    There are a whole lot of Jesus followers who take their cue from his words and not right-wing lunatics'. Probably the majority. They aren't as noisy, of course, and they don't try to convert you, so are easily overlooked; but a secular naturalist with half a brain should understand how sampling error occurs and look for what's there, not just what thrusts itself forward.

    Charles Darwin wrote rather ruefully about how much Bible-thumping he did to reluctant listeners on his trip to the Galapagos. He still did great science. Even if the last sentences of The origin of Species are a meditation on God.

  5. Tony Coyle says:

    Glinda – you make a great point.

    As an atheist, a secularist, and a humanist (I see the three aspects as somewhat different) I agree that we often paint religion with a very broad brush. However, it sometimes seems as if we are the only ones actually disputing the more credulous claims of their fundamentalist brethren.

    I would welcome the voices of those more moderate religious adherents in stemming the blatant idiocy. With regards to the fundamentalists, silence is not golden – it is acceptance. If we (secularists) don't hear any dissent from moderates, then what can we think except that they accept the ravings of the fundies in their midst as acceptable preaching.

    I'm very happy to hear you raise your voice here against such blather.

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