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Wired for Empathy

written by Amanda Horne 3 August 2011

Amanda Horne is an executive coach and facilitator whose business theme is "Thriving People and Workplaces." She is an Authentic Happiness Coaching graduate and a founding member of Positive Workplace International. Full bio.

Amanda's articles are here.

At the recent Happiness and Its Causes Conference in Brisbane, Australia in June 2011, a Science of the Mind Forum was held. The panel comprised His Holiness the Dalai Lama, psychologist Paul Ekman, neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni, Buddhist scholar B. Allan Wallace, and psychiatrist Patrick McGorry. The panel was moderated by ABC Radio National’s Natasha Mitchell. It is with thanks to the ABC that this panel was broadcast here on national radio, making it available to those (like me) who did not attend the conference.

Below is a selection of the thoughts and comments from the panel conversations.

Our mind and our emotions

Many of the emotions that disturb our minds are due to incorrect perceptions and occur because we too quickly allow our emotions to take control. We need to provide time and space to disconnect reality from appearances.

The Dalai Lama

Sadness is neither good or bad. “If the sadness brings that kind of enthusiasm, determination, then that sadness is good. But sadness that just overwhelms your mind like that, that’s bad. ….and anger – sometimes positive; sometimes negative. .. anger is positive, when motivated by compassion. Desire: positive, negative. You have to judge, moral scientist!” (Dalai Lama)

“The reality is always changing and our perception still remains the old way of thinking.” (Dalai Lama)

“There are ways of training the mind, balancing the mind, with concentration, with insight, with analysis, that you can really gain legitimate, authentic, replicable insights, discoveries, without relying upon the methods of modern science.” (Allan Wallace). These are not matters of religion. We can use our human intelligence and reasoning to achieve this mental training.

“We too much pay attention about our intelligence. And then more ambitions. So we really need to pay more attention [to] the basic human values.” (Dalai Lama)


Allan Wallace

“Genuine happiness arises by leading a truly ethical way of life: this is a quality of well-being that comes not from what we’re getting from the world, but from what we’re bringing to the world.” (Allan Wallace)

“Genuine happiness coming from cultivating your heart and mind, through the cultivation of loving kindness, compassion.” (Allan Wallace)

“Another sense of genuine happiness that comes from deepening insight, really understanding the nature of our own minds, our own identity, our relationship with the world.” (Allan Wallace)

“One may feel sad and flourish at the same time.” (Allan Wallace)

Empathy and Compassion

“We are wired for empathy.” (Marco Iacoboni)

Altruism and compassion, warm-heartedness: brings people together. “Extremely useful for my own health, for my peace of mind, my own community.” (Dalai Lama).

Marco Iacoboni

“And now we have finally discovered a system in the brain that suggests that evolution has devised something in our brain that makes us connect with others in a very simple way.” (Marco Iacoboni)

“…the idea that humans are selfish beings is so wrong.…through neuroscience, through this discovery [mirror neurons], you can actually make an argument that in fact we are really a global civilization for empathy.” (Marco Iacoboni)

“The discovery of these cells in the brain [mirror neurons] really tells us that our brains are connected.” (Marco Iacoboni)

“The more you are empathic, the more you tend to be concerned about the emotions of others, the more you activate these brain regions.” (Marco Iacoboni)

“I believe in the Western world we get a lot of things wrong. We are all so focused on the individual. There is this idea of the self that is detached whereas in Eastern philosophies there’s this notion of connectedness. I think that what mirror neurons do when we do interact like this, I’m no longer Marco, you’re no longer the Dalai Lama, we are ‘us’ in this interaction.” (Marco Iacoboni)

“Corruption is possible because of lack of moral principle. If you have respect and concern for the well-being of others, then there’s no basis for cheating, no basis for bullying or lying or exploitation because you love them, you respect them. I feel that if you taught people the importance of love and compassion, people may not sort of listen very seriously but when a scientist explains it is important and as you mentioned we have these potentials, then I think people may look more seriously. And that’s why I consider it’s very, very important to have this kind of a dialogue.” (Dalai Lama)

And why is this of interest to us? Because it helps us to live a meaningful life..

References and Guests

Refer to the ABC’s All In The Mind website for a comprehensive list of references associated with this panel.

The discussion is posted there in two parts:

Dialogue with the Dalai Lama – Part 1 – happiness, sadness and everything in between

Dialogue with the Dalai Lama – Part 2 – Mirror neurons, our intersubjective minds and the limits of compassion

The 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet

Marco Iacoboni
Professor of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences
Director of the Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation Lab at the Ahmanson-Lovelace Brain Mapping Center, University of California Los Angeles USA

B. Allan Wallace
Buddhist Scholar and author
President and founder, Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies

Iacoboni, M. (2008). Mirroring People: The Science of Empathy and How We Connect with Others. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

The Dalai Lama & Ekman, P. (2008). Emotional Awareness: Overcoming the Obstacles to Psychological Balance and Compassion. Times Books.

Wallace, B. A. (2007). Contemplative Science: Where Buddhism and Neuroscience Converge (Columbia Series in Science and Religion). Columbia University Press.

Wallace, B. A. (2006). The Attention Revolution: Unlocking the Power of the Focused Mind. Wisdom Press.

Photos are from each guest’s website.

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Elaine O'Brien 4 August 2011 - 5:51 pm

Thank you for this gift of an article, Amanda! You transported me to a place of compassion, empathy understanding and love with the valuable quotes, and story. (I could actually feel my blood pressure go down, relaxing, as I was reading.).

Your “The Happiness and Its Causes” conference in Brisbane report was splendid Glad to hear about the news, and findings on neuroplasticity, mirror neurons, the power/joy of “we,” and love. The lovely Dalai Lama embodies empathy, harmonious passion for compassion, joy and wisdom. How positively inspiring!

It seems like “love” is growing in human labs, aiming for a better understanding. Barbara Fredrickson’s recent superb IPPA keynote presentation: ‘Love: A new lens on the Science of Thriving,’ new ways of looking at love research, should be available soon on the IPPA website. It’s riveting. Cheers!

Edwin Rutsch 4 August 2011 - 6:06 pm

May I suggest a further resources to learn more about empathy and compassion.
The Center for Building a Culture of Empathy
The Culture of Empathy website is the largest internet portal for resources and information about the values of empathy and compassion. It contains articles, conferences, definitions, experts, history, interviews,  videos, science and much more about empathy and compassion.

I posted a link to your article in our
Empathy and Compassion Magazine
The latest news about empathy and compassion from around the world

Amanda Horne 29 August 2011 - 3:56 am

Elaine and Edwin – belated thanks for your contributions to the comments.
In the years to come it will be heartening (no pun intended) to seeing more acknowledgement of empathy, compassion, love and so on in our schools, boardrooms, offices. It’s there a little, but I wonder what the future will hold as more research becomes available.

Edwin, many thanks for the link – you have a fantastically comprehensive website! I look forward to delving into it.



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