Compassion, like physical and academic skills, appears to be something that is not fixed, but rather can be enhanced with training and practice. "The fact that alterations in brain function were observed after just a total of seven hours of training is remarkable," explains UW-Madison psychology and psychiatry professor Richard J. Davidson, founder and chair of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds and senior author of the article.
"There are many possible applications of this type of training," Davidson says. "Compassion and kindness training in schools can help children learn to be attuned to their own emotions as well as those of others, which may decrease bullying. Compassion training also may benefit people who have social challenges such as social anxiety or antisocial behavior."
The first reaction of many reading this article will be "The horror! The horror!" Communists! Social Engineers, committing sociology in our schools and on our streets! Man is born independent and free and must remain that way, unfettered by the chains of civilization!
Which, you know, is true and all, except where it comes to complex consumer goods (requiring centrally-coordinated labour and accommodation to make), education (basic social skills like reading, writing, math and work skills ranging from widget-making to project management) healthcare (which is reengineering human evolution, for Pete's sake) and the like are concerned.
Here's the thing, Randian purists; our "natural", pre-civilization state as a species was lived on the plain, being chased by predators and picking each other's lice as a pass time. Individual strength (and luck) allowed for survival in the face of predators and the acquisition of goods that would otherwise go to weaker members of the species (today we call "take what you want by force" crime, but whatever). Natural disasters, bad storms, plagues, etc. were all things that were beyond control.
The double-horror to which Conrad refers in Heart of Darkness is the primal, bestial, emotional creature that lies in the heart of men (and women). This is the reactionary self, the selfish persona, the hyper-focused perspective we are told is desirable for success in a competitive world. Charity begins at home, etc.
But that's not the history of history, is it? Civilization began with an altruistic urge; the same neurochemical-motivated urge can be witnessed in a host of other species, ranging from apes to elephants to those rascally birds and bees. Environment plays a big factor; for the same reason human societies in rugged, hard-to-access mountainous terrain are more likely to be and stay tribal than on flat, lush flood plains, animals under certain environmental threats are more likely to be selfish.
As homo sapiens have increasingly flexed our altruistic, forward-thinking and planning abilities, we have strained that part of our brain that is more developed in humans than any other species. Think about that for a second; the brain of a modern human is more capable of altruism than our ancestors would have been, or our nearest relatives like bonobos and chimps are (though they're starting to catch up). Natural selection has increasingly favoured altruism and pro-social behaviour as favourable adaptations.
It's worked, too - for all our many continued faults we have cured illnesses, extended life, helped the blind see and can even return the clinically dead back to the living. Where there were barren wombs before the genesis of life can now take hold. All of these innovations have been possible as a result of collaboration, critical thinking and evidence-based policy development. Cooperation, social co-habitation, public transit, shared communications systems, mass media, all of it is only possible because we have it in ourselves to give to each other and gain something personal through the process.
To become more than the sum of our parts, collectively, we've had to tame the selfish beast within.
But we still have crime, greed, reactive behaviour, leaders without vision and strategists without plans. Some of this is genetic - inherited from parents or attributable, at least in part, to faulty cognitive wiring. What we find, though, is that certain environmental conditions (poverty, abuse, access to social programs and positive role models, social inclusion, etc.) create conditions that favour selfish, aggressive behaviour. This is why slums are breeding grounds for crime; it's also why from a strictly free-market business model, criminals are actually the fittest operators. If you put differing people in those same conditions, they will face the same likelihood of succumbing to the same pressures.
Of course, nobody who doesn't have to proactively moves into a slum because the property's cheap, right? There are real risks to being the only rich guy on the block; unless you want to protect yourself with firewalls and drones, giving a bit back is the surest way to build your own sustainable safety.
Our "natural" state is selfish; everything from "Johnny, share your toys with your brother" to "do unto others as you would have them do unto you", even including the language we speak and the fashions we prefer are all a matter of social programming. That's why so many reactive people are suspicious of education; it's like a contagion, softening the aggressive edges that are designed to help us survive in the wild.
Whatever our programming might lead us to feel, though, we're selfish actors living in a social setting; in urban environments, everything from driving to work to having clean streets and accessing public transit requires social skills that must be leaned.
Humans are the domesticated ape - it's us that's made it so. Even wilderness survival has to be trained.
With all this in mind - why not explore the potential of social-emotional learning, positive psychology, occupational mental health design and restorative justice? Whatever we might feel about "social engineering" the evidence weight far more heavily on the side of proactive, prosocial approaches (including training) than selfish, laissez-faire ones (including tough-on-crime policies in the absence of committing sociology). We can train our youth to be more resilient, adaptive and effective in a modern economic context. We can empower our cognitive labour, reducing presenteeism and increasing both output and innovation. We can manage down our growing mental-health crisis. We can even start addressing the root causes of crime, starting in the Justice system but moving out to touch the front line and our varied communities.
It's literally our future.