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Blog

Compassion in the brain

Posted on January 8, 2014 at 4:52 PM
Professor Paul Gilbert gives the Meng Wu lecture at CCARE (Stamford University). He is currently developing the Compassionate Mind Training Mind programme in the UK. In this lecture Prof Gilbert describes the interaction of three different types of affective regulator system: the drive/seeking system, the threat system and the affiliative (care) system. Prof Gilbert has developed a training programme to support clients from shifting from the threat system into the care system, by expanding their ability for compassion. 

Prof Gilbert comes from a tradition (clinical psychology), which understands compassion as primarily a cognitive and motivational process. The attributes of compassion are: sensitivity, care, non-judgement, empathy (understood here as perspective taking), distress tolerance and sympathy (understood here as the ability to feel the pain of another). 

Compassion can be seen as a brain-organising process. His research suggests that compassion can be increased through the training of particular skills: 
Attention - Choosing to pay attention to what is helpful to us, to the positive things that happen to us and turn attention away from the negatives (we are more inclined to focus on the negative) 
Imagery - Being able to activate an internal nurturing Parent. Soothing self-talk. 
Reasoning - "Compassion isn't stupid". It's important that we are able to reason and reflect, standing back and understanding things, thinking about the wider picture, not just about our immediate circle of concern. 
Behaviour - The behaviours of compassion are often courageous. Doing the things one needs to do in order to flourish. Paying attention to one's breathing, one's tone of voice, one's posture (all of which stimulate the vagal system). Feeling the anger but not reaching for the hammer. 
Feeling - Enhancing positive, warm feelings, kindness. Expanding our window of affective tolerance. Descent into suffering, pain, anger but not being overwhelmed by it. The point of mind-training is not to get rid of feelings. 

Categories: Compassion

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