In his latest book, Social Intelligence, Daniel Goleman, author of the best-seller Emotional Intelligence, illustrates how new clinical results in the fields of neuroscience and biology show that humans are in fact wired for empathy—that without any conscious effort, we feel the joy, pain, anger, and other emotions of the people around us. Sharon Salzberg, co-founder and teacher at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, spoke to Goleman this summer about the emerging field of social neuroscience and its implications for the principles and practices of Buddhism.


In your book you talk about Freud’s theory that a psychoanalyst attuned to his own feelings has a window into his client’s emotional world. Is that a clue for the rest of us that our own inner experience can be an accurate reflection of what other people around us are going through?  Yes. In fact, there’s a class of brain cells called “mirror neurons,” which act as a neural Wi-Fi, attuning to the other person’s internal state moment to moment and recreating that state in our own brain—their emotions, their movements, their intentions. This means empathy is not just based on reading the external signs of someone else’s feeling, like the hint of a frown, or the irritation in their voice. Because of mirror neurons, we feel with the other. Empathy, then, includes attuning to our own feelings in order to better sense what’s going on with the other person.

So it’s like another whole take on interconnectedness? That’s why I was so fascinated by this new field of social neuroscience. In the last few years researchers have discovered the social brain, the circuitry that connects us intimately in every human encounter we have. This can be for better or for worse, of course. For instance, we can pick up toxic emotions by witnessing violence, something like the emotional equivalent of secondhand smoke. Or we can radiate peacefulness to the people we meet. We’re all part of an invisible emotional economy, a give-and-take of feelings that transpires no matter what else we do in an encounter. The question is, at the end of an encounter, which emotions have been transferred—do people feel better, or worse?

What about delusion? How do we know we’re not just seeing the world through our own habitual reaction? Because of mirror neurons, tuning into our internal feelings gives us a mix of our own responses and what we pick up from the other. So the challenge is to distinguish between what comes from our own reactions and what comes from the other person. Say you’re at a party and you notice the person you’re talking to is not really listening to what you’re saying, but is scanning the room behind you. It’s a common moment that can be interpreted in many ways, depending on our own emotional habits. If you are prone to an abandonment pattern, at that instant you might assume she’s rejected you and is going to leave. Unlovability would trigger the thought “She doesn’t like me.” If you have fears of social exclusion, you might start feeling you’re an outsider in this group. If you’re a narcissist, you might have the thought “This person isn’t worth my spending time on.” Those are all projections. None of them would allow you to sense, for example, that the other person is looking for someone they think you might like to meet.

Or even maybe just to see that that is an interpretation and you don’t know if it’s true or not. Exactly—that’s a mindful response.

The state you’re describing, in which we are so interconnected and responsive to one another, feeling within our bodies what someone else is feeling or even their intention, seems like a world in which we could also be just constantly overwhelmed by input. The dilemma is that the social brain continually makes emotions contagious, which means our empathy also makes us vulnerable to catching distress. The archetype of such empathy distress is compassion burnout in helping professions like nursing or social work. That occurs when people are constantly confronting human pain and distress but have too few inner emotional resources or too little emotional support in their workplace to contain those feelings —they get swamped. The ideal response to suffering is to empathize—be open to the pain—while staying calm and clear. Then we can make the appropriate compassionate response. This is where dharma practice can help enormously: We know that people with a strong practice tend to become more calm and clear, and it’s that even-minded clarity that lets compassionate action be on target. And so the question is, at the end of the interaction, whose emotional state has been transferred to the other person? Is it the distressed person who’s flooding the would-be helper? Or is it the helper who has been calm and kind to the other person, who goes away feeling better?

I see a lot of people who feel overwhelmed at someone else’s suffering. They feel distaste, they feel frightened that empathy and compassion actually seem distinct from one another. Yes, empathy and compassion are two different phases in the arc toward altruism. Empathy simply means “I sense how you feel.” Compassion means “I feel with you enough to be moved to help.”

But not so much that I’m overwhelmed. And I don’t feel so much that I become helpless.

Can you trace for us the path from suffering to compassion? In one part of your book, you talk about the role of attention in altruism—that in a way it’s a form of both focusing and opening attention. The literature on altruism points to a three-stage process: We notice someone is in need or distress, we attune and so feel with them, and then we act to help. Empathy naturally leads to compassionate action. But simple inattention kills empathy, let alone compassion. So the first step in compassion is to notice the other’s need. It all begins with the simple act of attention.

That seems like such a radical statement. I think in this day and age it needs to be said more and more. We are tuned out of the present reality by our cell phones, Blackberries, being locked in to our email, and we miss the human moment—we miss the opportunity for attending to what’s going on with the other person, and responding as needed. When our attention gets captured by all these gadgets, we may feel like we’re in touch with someone at a distance while we’re completely indifferent to the person right next to us. Although that may seem self-evident, today it needs to be said because our attention gets split continually. There’s that line from Death of a Salesman, “Attention must be paid . . . ”

And once we notice, the way we’re made to feel empathy takes over. The moment we attune, we feel with, automatically. That’s what the social brain does. Once we shift our attention to the person, we automatically sense their state of mind. And if they’re in immediate distress, we are wired to help them. The design of the social brain creates a three-step process: First we notice, then we feel with, and then we respond to.

It has often seemed to me that there is a phase between empathy and action where we might sense that someone is suffering but be frightened or repulsed. Are you saying that at first there is a compassionate response, but that it can be overridden by our fear or aversion? The Chinese philosopher Mencius gave a famous example, which is that anybody will save a baby poised at the edge of a well. That’s the immediate human response. And remember, in evolution these responses were hardwired in the brain because they helped us survive in small bands in a dangerous world; we’re wired to automatically help others in distress. What happened is that we have become the victims, to use Freud’s phrase, of “civilization and its discontents.” The dilemma is that social arrangements have intervened so that we rarely encounter people in dire need face-to-face. All the more need for cultivating the inner readiness to respond with compassion.

But even when we do see someone in need, can’t other social afflictions—like racism—intervene? If the child at the edge of Mencius’s well is of a race we have been taught to despise, would our instinctive response to help be overridden by intervening thoughts and patterns that tend to arise, like “I don’t like that kind of baby” or “I’m afraid.” Or “Gee, I’ve got an appointment, I’d better hurry.” I think that’s more to the point than “us” and “them” most of the time in our daily lives. If we see the other as an object, not a person, as “it” rather than “you,” we have zero empathy, and are unmoved by their plight. That’s the path toward hatred. But just in terms of helping, most often it’s self-preoccupation that keeps us from noticing what others need in the first place. So the enemy of compassion is preoccupation with the self.


What about when the person we’re interacting with isn’t in distress but is attacking us, expressing anger or hatred toward us? So while we are wired for compassion when the other is in desperate need, other circuitry flips on when we face anger or aggression—wiring for fear, or for anger in ourselves. Psychophysiologists who study marital disagreements call this the “downward spiral,” when one person’s hostility triggers the same in the other, in a reverberating circuit of building recrimination. On the other hand, if one of the two has strong equanimity or compassion—or just a sense of humor about what’s going on—that spiral can be broken.

But you’re implying that all of these obstacles are conditioned, they’re not the way we’re made. That’s not the way we’re wired. The social brain’s design favors empathy and compassion.  

Wow, that’s hopeful. But you see, we live in such artificial circumstances compared with how we lived for most of human evolution; we take our present circumstances to be the human norm when—in the long view of human history—actually it’s an aberration. And so, it may be that the need to cultivate compassion more intentionally arose with the rise of civilization. But I think more to the point is that today it behooves us to cultivate compassion so that our instinctive altruistic response has a chance to operate freely, despite the muffling effects of modern life.

So that we pay attention instead of walking around in the fog that we’re usually in. So that we not only pay attention but also predispose ourselves. I think that by rehearsing the intention of compassion, we make it more likely to operate in moments that require altruism.

That’s right. I think it’s so interesting that part of our work really is to open, to pay attention. Part of our work is rehearsing that compassionate response so that the other kinds of fear or distresses that may arise aren’t so predominant. And part of our work is cultivating equanimity, which in Buddhist terminology is what you were talking about before. That’s right. The equanimity allows us to register another’s pain while staying calm enough ourselves to do what’s called for.

That arc seems like the most crucial learning we have to do, especially when it comes to leadership. Absolutely. Before we realized that brains interconnect so much, it seemed that how someone does at work has little or nothing to do with how that person’s boss treats them—that it’s entirely up to the person alone. But the social brain’s interconnectivity means that to some degree the boss’s brain is looped into that person’s brain. And so a leader’s responsibility includes helping that person get into and stay in an internal state where he can do his best work. It’s also a teacher’s responsibility with a student, because there is a strong relationship between maximal cognitive efficiency and a person’s emotional state. When people are in an alert, motivated, and engaged state, the brain operates at a peak efficiency. In fact, when they’re joyous, they’re even more efficient. But if a teacher just angrily scolds a student and expects that student to learn better, he’s basically undermining his own efforts as a teacher. Or if a boss puts someone down or humiliates them, that threatens and undermines the person’s neural ability to be at their best. So the boss or teacher has to understand that they’re partly responsible for the other person’s very brain state and subsequent inability to do better. There is also a power factor: emotions are most contagious from the most powerful person in a group outward. One study shows that people ruminate about negative statements from their boss far more than they remember positive ones. Which means that a small dose of negative feedback gets magnified in your own mind, and can have great power because something coming from this powerful person in your life is amplified emotionally. So people need to be very skillful when giving performance feedback and not be overly harsh. The best is to put negative feedback in a positive context—adding a suggestion for the person to improve, for example. Otherwise all you’re doing is arousing the brain’s centers for anxiety, undermining the very ability to perform well. This is true both in the classroom and the office.

I remember when Munindraji, one of my meditation teachers, said to me very early on in my practice, “The Buddha’s enlightenment solved the Buddha’s problem; now you solve yours.” It was a great moment of confidence in me—I felt like he really believed I could. I’ve often thought that one of the great things we get from our teachers is their faith in us. I think so. There’s a strong tradition among dharma teachers, quite skillful in view of social intelligence, to rejoice in the inherent ability of their students to become more free. We can do this for each other, this rejoicing in others’ abilities, in the sangha, too.

That calls to mind the study of the effect of someone holding your hand in the MRI. That’s a very important study, done by James A. Coan in Richard Davidson’s lab at the University of Wisconsin: A woman lies in a brain-imaging machine and waits to get a mild shock. She’s understandably apprehensive. While she’s lying there, someone comes and holds her hand. If it’s a stranger, her anxiety level falls a bit. If it’s her husband, it plummets to nothing. That study is one of many that suggests we are each other’s biological allies. That one person simply holding someone’s hand, or maybe just being a calm presence, can have a powerful biological effect both emotionally and physiologically. For people who are in very vulnerable, extremely precarious health situations, it might have clinical consequences, too. But apart from that, just in terms of how a person experiences their illness, a calm, loving presence can make a huge difference. This doesn’t cure the disease; it eases the suffering the disease brings. Mindfulness and other meditation practice are things we can do for ourselves. But the interconnections of the social brain suggest that we can then bring our ease of mind to other people. Not just in some metaphorical way, but actually, in hard scientific terms, through emotional contagion. If you have a loved one who is suffering, and you yourself are calm, equanimous, and loving, your presence is going to help them. It’s more than just a nice thing to do; it’s an effective thing to do.

It makes the internal work and the external work the same, because the more you can develop the internal ability to have that kind of presence—which is not getting lost and also not pushing away—toward what’s arising within, then you can have it for others, and that is a gift. It’s the essence, the very expression of compassion, in a rather beautiful, seamless, automatic way. I also think that neural interconnection may partly explain the tradition in Asian cultures of darshan, simply being in the presence of a realized being. People go to be with someone who has stabilized in an equanimous, loving awareness. And because the social brain makes their state of mind contagious to anyone in their presence, those beings transmit a taste of their mind-state to those around them. So the point of darshan is just going to be in that presence, because you come away with a bit of what they have.

No wonder I follow the Dalai Lama around everywhere! I think your research is incredibly hopeful—in a time when a lot of people are in despair, to see: wow, look how we’re wired, it can be better. Yeah, I found it very inspiring, all the data itself. And, you know, it starts right here and now.

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