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October 25th, 2021

Your Brain At Work LIVE – S6:E05 – Managing Humans – The Neuroscience of Empathy

In recent weeks, we’ve examined the progression of the workplace as we know it. As organizations work to establish balance, combat burnout, and continue scaling toward the future, it has become increasingly clear it will take more than policies. Leaders are now being challenged to go beyond the surface and resonate with their employees on a human level. 

Empathy is commonly used as a blanket term, but the neuroscience behind it reflects a multi-faceted structure of related emotions. So how do we process these feelings? What practical steps can we take to exercise them in both professional and personal spheres?

This week, Dr. Lisa Aziz-Zadeh of USC and Dr. David Rock discuss the neuroscience behind empathy and how to approach weaving it into the framework of organizational development during this new age of work.

Episode Transcript





[00:00:02] SW: Welcome back to season six, episode five of Your Brain at Work podcast. In recent weeks, we’ve examined the transformation of the workplace as we know it, from surveillance outcomes, to the great discontent. As organizations work to establish balance, combat burnout and continue scaling toward the future, it has become increasingly clear it will take more than policies to keep teams connected, engaged and performing well. Leaders are now being challenged to go beyond the surface and resonate with their employees on a human level. Empathy is commonly used as a blanket term, but the neuroscience behind it reflects a multifaceted structure of related emotions. So how do we process these feelings? What practical steps can we take to exercise them in both professional and personal spheres? 


This week, Dr. Lisa Aziz-Zadeh of USC and Dr. David Rock discuss the neuroscience behind empathy and how to approach weaving it into the framework of organizational development during this new age of work. I’m Shelby Wilburn, and you’re listening to Your Brain at Work from the NeuroLeadership Institute. We continue to draw our episodes from a weekly Friday webinar series. This week, our interview style format is a conversation between Dr. David Rock, CEO and co-founder of the NeuroLeadership Institute, and Dr. Lisa Aziz-Zadeh, associate professor and the Director of the Center of Neuroscience of Embodied Cognition at the USC Brain and Creativity Institute. Enjoy.




[00:01:28] SW: Today’s guest is an associate professor at the University of Southern California. She is the Director for the Center of Neuroscience of Embodied Cognition at the USC Brain and Creativity Institute, and faculty in the USC Psychology Department, the Neuroscience Graduate Program and the division of occupational therapy and occupational science. Her research focuses on understanding how rudimentary sensory motor systems support higher cognitive processing such as social cognition, empathy, language and creativity. She has been published in numerous high impact journals and supported by grants from the National Institute of Health, the Department of Defense, the American Heart Association and other organizations. Please join us in welcoming Dr. Lisa Aziz-Zadeh. Lisa, great to have you here today.


[00:02:17] LAZ: Hi, everyone.


[00:02:18] DR: And for the leader of today’s discussion, an Aussie turned New Yorker who coined the term neuraoleadership when he co-founded NLI over two decades ago. With a professional doctorate, four books under his name and a multitude of bylines ranging from the Harvard Business Review, the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and many more, a warm welcome as I pass the virtual mic to the co-founder and CEO of the NeuroLeadership Institute, Dr. David Rock. Off to you, David.


[00:02:44] DR: Thank you, Shelby. That’s great I really love my job. Those who know me know that to be true. But one of the most fun parts of my job is actually meeting really fascinating scientists and getting to understand things I don’t understand yet. And in the conversations I’ve had with Lisa over the last few – Or really this week, as well as the briefings from my team on her great research, I’m really excited about this session because I feel like I’m finally going to make sense of things I’ve been trying to make sense of for a while. So I’m really excited to have you, Lisa. Thanks for joining us.


[00:03:13] LAZ: It’s great to be here. Thank you for the invitation.


[00:03:16] DR: Yeah. And at NLI we’ve been playing for some time with this question of empathy, perspective taking, compassion a little bit, but we’ve really been focused a lot on kind of empathy. We’ve had a number of sessions at our summits on what is empathy. We had some great work on that. We’ve kind of looked at how SCARF helps with empathy. SCARF being the social domains of interaction. But I, still kind of coming into this week, literally, before speaking with you, still have this kind of fuzziness around what all these things are and how they interrelate. So maybe we can start with that kind of in the first part of today. I would love to kind of get some clarity, some further clarity for myself and for the audience. What is the relationship between empathy, sympathy and compassion? And where does perspective taking and mirror neurons fit in with all that? Because of there’re kind of five things that all seem to be really similar. What’s the architecture of that? How do they fit together? Tell us how it all works. 


[00:04:14] LAZ: Sure. Okay. So empathy is an umbrella term that we use in everyday language. But really, we can think of empathy as having three different kinds of components. So the first is sympathy. And sympathy is also sometimes called theory of mind. It’s also called perspective taking. And sympathy is a very cognitive process where you really try to understand the other person from a cognitive basis. So the best example of this I can give you is that your husband or your wife is upset at you and they tell you why they’re upset. And it doesn’t really make sense to you. You try to think about it from their perspective though and you’re sort of like, “Well, yes, I could understand why you’re upset. I don’t feel like I would be upset in that situation. But I guess I get it from your perspective.” So that’s sympathy. You don’t feel the person’s pain. But you can sort of cognitively understand it.


[00:05:12] DR: Right. It’s very cognitive. You’re kind of putting these pieces together in your head and saying, “Okay, if I had part A and part B, I could see how I would feel part C. I don’t personally feel it, but I can see the connection.” So it’s going to be more conceptual circuits, not emotional circuits, and less kind of medial prefrontal, more lateral prefrontal, that kind of thing.


[00:05:33] LAZ: Right. So usually we see that in the temporal parietal junction and in the prefrontal cortex. So these are really deductive reasoning, thinking and trying to understand other people’s minds that are different from yours.


[00:05:47] DR: So that’s sympathy. So empathy is an umbrella meaning kind of lots of things. And sympathy is one. What are the other components from your perspective? 


[00:05:55] LAZ: Okay. So then the second one we actually call empathy, which is this kind of emotional resonance. So feeling what the other person is feeling. So if you see someone get cut, you actually kind of feel their pain. Maybe you even have to look away because you’re feeling it too much and so forth. So it’s this resonance of feeling what the other person is feeling. 


[00:06:16] DR: Where do mirror neurons fill in that? Is that like – 


[00:06:19] LAZ: Those are mirror neurons. So those are we think are processed by this kind of mirroring in the brain. Mirror neurons are particular for action processing, but there’s mirroring in other parts of the brain. So we have resonance and pain networks where we feel the pain of other people in our own areas that process our own pain, and somatosensory sensory regions that do similar kinds of mirroring. So if you see a spider crawling on someone’s skin you actually feel it a little bit in your own skin. This kind of mirroring happens in sensory motor regions of the brain. 


[00:06:51] DR: Right. Interesting. So mirroring is quite physical. It’s kind of action-focused in some ways. 


[00:06:57] LAZ: Right. But also emotional regions in the brain. So the insula, amygdala. 


[00:07:03] DR: Fantastic. So we’ve got sympathy. We’ve got empathy, which is also the umbrella term, just to confuse everyone. And then we also have the third one, which is compassion. So how’s compassion different from sympathy and empathy?


[00:07:14] LAZ: So compassion is actually doing something to help the person who’s feeling distressed or sharing their experience in some kind of effortful way. So that is processed by regions in the medial orbital frontal cortex and the striatum. And the striatum we know is these are regions for positive emotions. So when we act compassionately, it’s actually very rewarding to do so. So compassion is different in that it actually involves doing something to help the person. 


[00:07:47] DR: I mean, tell me more about the compassion one. And we can dig into the others as well in a minute. But while we’re on it, tell me more what we’ve learned about compassion from the brain perspective. Like what’s happening when we’re compassionate or we’re not compassionate? What does it look like in the brain? 


[00:08:01] LAZ: Right. So the compassion network is it’s a dopamine-rich network. We know dopamine is really important for positive emotions, for reward emotions. And so when you practice compassion you actually feel this reward network. You have dopamine active. And the more you do it, the more this network becomes integrated together. The cortical thickness of it thickens. The connectivity between these regions thickens and so forth. 


[00:08:31] DR: That’s really interesting. So doing something to help others, it activates strong dopamine systems, dopamine networks. It’s really interesting. I remember a paper some years ago by Richard Boyatzis about this who’s a kind of crossover person like me between neuroscience and leadership, and he’d written a paper on how coaching people. As a senior manager kind of under stress, actually coaching people was one of the ways of being sustainable as a leader because it actually gave you this dose of compassion that you exhibited in your week every week. And he kind of wrote a conceptual paper on this that was very interesting. And it’s something I’d noticed as well. We spent a lot of time in the early years of the business. We’re 23 years old. NLI in the first kind of 15 years, we did a lot of work building teams of internal coaches. And I would kind of train folks. Like I might train a group of 20 senior medical people at MSK, or senior economists at one of the big government agencies with lots of economists. And I come back kind of three months later having – They’d started coaching. And they all looked so much happier. It was like they were different people. 


And if I thought of it at the time, I would love to have measured the allostatic load, which is the whole summary of all the different kind of biological markers of stress. Now, absolutely clear that the allostatic load was down. And I think practicing compassion seems to activate reward networks, but maybe even do a lot more than that. What do we know about compassion more broadly? How does it affect us when we do it? 


[00:09:59] LAZ: Yeah. So there’re a lot of studies. I think bringing up teams is really important, because there’re a lot of studies on orchestras or children who play music together. And this kind of sharing an activity together like an orchestra where you need to be in sync together where you need to actually listen to other people while you do your own thing, it does build compassion networks. You see that children who do that actually show more pro-social behavior. For example, they’re willing to share stickers with other kids, or their toys with other kids more than kids who don’t do it. And it’s especially effective in kids who had low pro-social behavior before. So it helps people who have pro-social behavior, but it even helps people who maybe were struggling with that even more. 


[00:10:49] DR: That’s interesting. So it’s like a muscle you build that you can build early on that is about kind of practicing, turn-taking, understanding others perspectives. And if I think of it cognitively for a second, and I just I hadn’t thought about this before, but you’re really practicing putting your own goals aside and stepping into someone else’s goals and mentalizing about their goals and working out when to integrate your goals with their goals. And some complex things you probably can’t do it four or five years old. You can probably do it seven or eight as they become more adept. 


[00:11:22] LAZ: I mean, music is a really great one. Another one that’s been researched is kids who participate in drama. So when you do drama or theater, you need to really not only have this kind of perspective taking of the role you’re taking on, but you also need to feel the emotions of the other person and to do it effectively with your whole cast, right? So you’re doing all three of them simultaneously. 


[00:11:47] DR: Interesting practice. Speaking of music, I’m pretty sure that’s not a Zoom background, right? 


[00:11:53] LAZ: No. I have to say this is all my husband’s. It’s not mine. 


[00:11:56] DR: It is. It’s not yours. I was going to ask you what you play and what your experience is. But – 


[00:11:59] LAZ: I play piano. But he’s the real musician.


[00:12:02] DR: Yeah, I played a tiny bit as a kid at piano and then I’d started really slowly learning. And then during the pandemic I took some virtual lessons and been really enjoying learning to play. And I wrote kind of three songs this year that are really much more complex than I’ve ever learned before. It’s such an interesting exercise for my brain to do that. And I think last year, my birthday, I tried playing some songs and performing with someone, and it was completely different. Like, “Oh my God. I’ve got to not focus on me. I’ve got to actually put my attention on them and put aside what I was planning to do, self-regulate.” It’s all these really complex things happening. 


Coming back a little bit to the three, so sympathy, empathy and compassion, right? So sympathy is cognitive. It’s not so emotional. It’s understanding it. Empathy is more feeling it. And that probably has an automatic component, the empathy, through mirroring as well as an active component, or does that take you back to sympathy? How does it work? 


[00:12:59] LAZ: No. Mirroring tends to be really automatic. You do it instantly. 


[00:13:03] DR: Right. But in the empathy component, I’m thinking sympathy, empathy and compassion. In the empathy component, is the kind of feeling of people. Is some of that automatic and some of it effortful?


[00:13:13] LAZ: No. It seems to be all automatic. I mean, I guess you could effortfully do it as well. But for most of us, it’s automati.


[00:13:19] DR: So the empathy components is the more automatic. So the sympathy component is perspective taking is really kind of synonymous with sympathy in some ways or it’s the mechanism for – 


[00:13:29] LAZ: That’s right. 


[00:13:30] DR: Interesting.


[00:13:31] LAZ: And that’s both automatic and something that you work at. So we automatically try to think about what the other person is doing and why they’re doing it. And we can also do it in the example of the partners trying to figure out why the other person is feeling the way they are.


[00:13:48] DR: Right. Yeah. No. That’s really interesting. What are people generally good at naturally? What do you find people good naturally at sympathy, and empathy, and compassion? What do you think comes naturally to people? I guess if it’s automatic, it’s empathy, isn’t it? 


[00:14:03] LAZ: I think so, but you do find – So for example, there’s deficits in different populations for both of these. So in psychopaths, they have a deficit in empathy, which isn’t surprising. And in autism, they have a deficit in theory of mind perspective taking sympathy.


[00:14:20] DR: That’s really interesting. So sympathy is kind of cognitive. Involving a lot of perspective taking. Empathy is more feeling, more emotional, and it’s mostly automatic. And then compassion is more active. It’s actually doing something about it. Does compassion require sympathy and/or empathy? I’m coming at this very logically. I’m sorry. I’m trying to like clean the buckets in my head. 


[00:14:39] LAZ: Right. Yeah. So there are some people who think that first you need empathy and then you can get to perspective taking from there. And then you get compassion. So it’s kind of like this cyclic network. However, I don’t know if that’s really been well it stood up to the research. So because these are three different networks, you could actually have them active in parallel.


[00:15:04] DR: Right. Yeah, that’s interesting. The research is quite confusing because there’s cognitive and affective perspective taking. I agree. The research has been really confusing. We’ve looked into it. And I’m excited by the possibility of kind of clearing it up a little bit and making it more kind of specific. 


One of the things that we did in the last few years is we dug into the mechanisms of perspective taking itself. I would put perspective taking now in sympathy, but maybe there’s an element of it in empathy and compassion. Is that correct? Or where does perspective taking live? Is it underneath all of them or is it mostly in – 


[00:15:36] LAZ: No. Perspective taking sympathy. 


[00:15:39] DR: It’s very much under sympathy. It’s synonymous with sympathy. I don’t love the word sympathy. It’s got so many negative connotations. Is there another word people use that’s less kind of negative? 


[00:15:49] LAZ: Perspective taking theory of mind.


[00:15:52] DR: Perspective taking itself, yeah. So we wrote a paper on perspective taking. We did quite a bit of research on it, because we realized it was this mechanism that kind of was at the heart of when things go wrong in interactions. You misread someone’s intentions, right? It’s a lack of perspective taking. It’s an argument where you misunderstand someone’s goals or something they say to you. It turns out perspective taking is really hard to do. And then we had some really interesting insights, which I say so myself, that there are biases that can get in the way of good perspective taking. And we looked at, in particular, experience bias really gets in the way. And experience bias is one of the five big categories of bias we define. Experience vices like the way we see the world through a filter, but then forget that we’re seeing through filters. So a lawyer sees a different meeting than a marketing person in the same meeting. They’re literally in a different meeting with different insights and outcomes. 


So anyway, experience bias makes it really hard to do perspective taking, to have sympathy in that case. Also, expedience bias, which is you kind of jump to the first thing. It’s going to make perspective taking really hard. And then also similarity bias, where you accidentally just assume people are the same as you. Can you speak to that at all? Kind of bias and I guess all three? Yeah.


[00:17:10] LAZ: Right. So a lot of my work has been on mirror neurons. And in mirror neurons, you actually see all of this. So mirror neurons are neurons that are active both when you make an action. So when I pick up a cup as well as when you see someone else do the same thing when you pick up the cup. For example, if I’m watching a gymnast do a routine and I’m not a gymnast. So I don’t have that experience of doing those kinds of movements. They’re not in my motor repertoire. Then I don’t actually activate my system to the same degree that another gymnast watching a gymnast would activate it. 


So motor expertise, so whatever I’m an expert in, will help me activate when I see someone else doing something. So I think that speaks to your example of experience, right? So your experience shapes how much these networks are active. 


[00:18:04] DR: That’s so interesting. If you’ve never had an experience of something, you can’t kind of see it. One of the most infuriating experiences in my life was arriving from across the world to an Airbnb years ago and very late, very tired, and I couldn’t work out how to turn the light off in the bedroom. And I literally spent an hour going round and round around to every single light switch just trying to work out how to turn the lights off so I could go to sleep. And in the end I just physically couldn’t do it no matter how hard I tried. And it was like some time a day or two later that I worked out that these round light switches can be pushed in and pulled out. And I’d never seen one my whole life. I just had no mental map. I think I like accidentally leaned on it or something. And I’m like how is that – My brain was just blown, right? And I think it’s like that. We just don’t have the schema at all.


[00:18:54] LAZ: Yeah, yeah. It’s not in our repertoire. Yeah.


[00:18:56] DR: Which is why books, and fiction, and some degree non-fiction, and theater, and all the arts are really helpful, right? Because you get a broader set of schema of life’s experiences than you might on your own. And now you can understand the felt experience of someone from a really different part of the world, or part of life, or these kinds of things. SO have you looked at the relationships there?


[00:19:18] LAZ: Yeah. And that’s actually been well established. So there’s a lot of research showing that people who read more fiction, particularly fiction, actually have more empathy and perspective taking abilities, and also actually in preschoolers. So preschoolers who are read to more often tend to, again, share their stickers, feel the pain of other people, do pro-social behavior, share their cookies. So reading is really important. And we know that 50% of the population reads much less than they did 10 years ago. And also loneliness, you know? Loneliness makes us shut in and have less empathy, have less sympathy, less compassion. And there’s definitely a lot of loneliness. 


[00:20:04] DR: We did some research years ago about the goal-focused networks versus people-focused networks. And it was really interesting to discover that when you’re basically goal-focused, which is more the outer regions of the PFC, you’re holding in mind kind of what you’re trying to achieve. You switch down the social networks, the more medial prefrontal, and you see faces less quickly. You read emotions less accurately. I had a personal experience of this where I was like running for a taxi in the rain and bowled over an entire family because I literally didn’t see them. I was so goal-focused in rain, in New York in the rain when we used to have taxis. 


So goal focus seems to switch off people focus networks, and vice versa. When you’re really thinking about people and kind of what they’re about, you kind of turn down the goal focus networks, right? Leaders often say I don’t do empathy. And I think a lot of leaders are very goal-focused and they’re constantly holding in mind things that are not even there yet that are like in three months, in a year, in 10 years. They’re very goal-focused, very abstract, and often don’t get time to kind of build these or activate this. Can you speak to that at all? What’s your – 


[00:21:18] LAZ: Yeah. So we know that these systems are actually very much shut down by cognitive load. So if you’re under a lot of cognitive pressure, you’re doing multitasking, you have stress, then a lot of these systems tend to shut down and you do them less actively than you would otherwise. So I think that’s part of it.


But I think also part of it is realizing that in leadership, it’s an essential component of leadership to have empathy and compassion. It’s not something that’s like an extra like you can take it or leave it, because having staff or employees that feel happy in the workplace, that feel like they’re getting a meaningful relationships built there, they’re getting meaning out of their job is an essential component of running a good business.


[00:22:09] DR: Interesting. Yeah. I mean, it reminds me of it’s about meaning. It’s something that’s really come up obviously during the pandemic. People suddenly had time to reflect. Netflix ran out. They got to the end of Netflix and had nothing left to distract themselves with and they started thinking about their life and their jobs and all this stuff. And people started really – We’ve had record numbers of people changing jobs you know globally. And I think a piece of it is meaning. They’re looking for meaningful work. Can you speak a little to that, meaning? And I know we’re talking earlier about Viktor Frankl’s work and some of that.


[00:22:41] LAZ: Right. Right. So Viktor Frankl was a psychologist at the turn of the century. He was a contemporary of Freud and Adler. And so at that time, in psychology, there was this desire to try to figure out what’s the fundamental drive of human beings. So, of course, Freud is famed for saying that sex was the fundamental drive, right? And Adler was the one who said the desire for power, right? So he had a lot of ideas about wanting to gain power was the real fundamental drive of humans. And Viktor Frankl, he was in the camps during the Holocaust, and he saw really what was the difference between some people surviving and other people not making it. And he really saw as a doctor in the camps, as a prisoner doctor, that the fundamental difference for people making it if they were sick was if they could find meaning in their experience. He said at that point no one was interested in sex. No one was interested in the will for power. It was really about finding meaning in your situation.


And so his whole basis of his psychological theory is that man is in search of meaning, and that’s the fundamental drive. And so I think like if you have an affiliative compassion-based system at the workplace, that gives people meaning. That gives people the sense of why am I here every day. What are we doing together? And why are we a team? 




[00:24:14] SW: If you enjoy this podcast, you’re going to love our annual conference, The NeuroLeadership Summit coming to you virtually on February 15th through 16th, 2022. We’ll bring business leaders, academics and visionaries from around the globe to an incredible virtual gathering where we’ll zero-in on powerful insights, trends and breakthroughs, as well as the principles of NeuroLeadership all to help leaders and teams adapt faster in a transforming world. Join us online, February 15th through 16th, 2022 and attend sessions available across the globe. You can watch sessions live, participate in breakout rooms, interact with other members of the NLI community, or access content on demand. No matter how you prefer to engage, we promise you won’t want to miss it. To learn more and to save the date, visit summit.neuroleadership.com.




[00:25:11] DR: Let’s go into chapter two in a moment and really talk about like managers in particular and sympathy, empathy and compassion, and which one, and how and all that. Before we do that, just a little bit on empathy fatigue. I know it’s a term that we’ve heard a lot. And we’ve got a lot of healthcare clients really struggling with that. Terrible challenges in that space for so many reasons. But what do you know about empathy fatigue and what can be done with that? 


[00:25:34] LAZ: Right. So empathy fatigue is – So the idea that people are talking about is that they feel other people’s pain too much. And we know from a lot of studies on mirror neurons and empathy that if you feel the pain of other people, you tend to shut down. So you see in healthcare workers, their mirror system actually is not as active as other people when they see people in pain. And that’s natural, right? You couldn’t do your job if you actually felt other people’s pain too much.


However, there is no such thing as compassion fatigue. I mean, people talk about compassion fatigue, and really they should be calling it empathy distress fatigue. There is no such thing as compassion fatigue. We don’t get fatigued on helping other people, on compassion, and that’s because these are reward mechanisms. They feel good. You want to do them again and again. But there are ways to get around empathy distress fatigue. 


For example, you could do emotion regulation, where you try to make a distinction between yourself and other people so you’re not feeling their pain, but you’re able to help them instead. You feel compassion for them. Self-care is really, really important. First of all, realizing that doing self-care is not being indulgent or selfish, but it’s actually something really important to help you to help other people. And that could include like just getting more rest, doing things you enjoy. Seeking professional therapy, exercising, meditation, whatever it is that’s your self-care. And that’s actually a shared responsibility between staff and employees, right? Giving those, having those systems in place so people can do self-care. 


[00:27:21] DR: Yeah, it’s important. Yeah, leaving space in your calendar for that, yeah.


[00:27:25] LAZ: Right. Just simply, like giving them breaks and saying things like if you go for a walk like you’ll get rewarded, right? Instead of just sitting at your desk.


[00:27:34] DR: Yeah. We’ve been talking about road rules and speed limits that companies need to put in place, like minimal meeting mornings so people can do their quiet reflective, creative work. And 25 and 15-minute meetings obviously – And having whole days where you don’t schedule meetings, like minimal meeting Mondays so people have the space to really kind of get their own things done. And essentially if you leave your calendar open all week within a few hours, it’ll be filled with meetings all week. And we’re just not physically capable of doing that well. So we’ve kind of got to slow it down. Stop trying to go at 150 miles an hour and go a nice 80 miles an hour and do four or five big meetings a day, not 10, and get your own work done as well. And I think we’re slowly going to settle back into that over time. 


Let’s take this to managers, right? Let’s imagine you’ve got a company, or there’s a company out there that has say 10 000 employees, a thousand managers, 100 top leaders, maybe a group of 10 C-suite. But you’ve got this organization, 10,000 folks. Everyone’s saying my boss doesn’t really care about me enough. The company doesn’t care about me enough, this kind of thing. If you’re given the opportunity to teach any of these 10,000 people, would you teach them sympathy, empathy, or compassion, or two of them, or three of them? And what would you teach them from your perspective as a scientist? What would have the biggest impact? 


[00:28:53] LAZ: I think compassion is really the most important. You need all three of them. But if you want to focus on one, I think compassion is a really good one. There’s a ton of studies also that show that there’s differences if you train sympathy, empathy or compassion. You actually show differences in the neural networks for each one of those. And compassion or affective empathy training actually tends to show the most positive results. 


So this is work by Tanya Singer. And she put like 300 people into three different kinds of training. So either they were doing this kind of body scanning where they’re doing meditation about feeling their own body, their breath, their emotions and how they’re feeling. Or they did perspective taking where they’re just like doing breathing exercises and kind of this kind of thinking from a bird’s-eye perspective of what’s going on. Or they did what’s called loving-kindness meditation. I don’t know if you’re familiar with this. But this is basically where you start off thinking about someone who you really care about and generating a feeling of deep loving and compassion toward them. 


For example, in the Buddhist culture, this was your mother typically. So you started out thinking about your mother. The mother figure in Western culture is very complicated, or could be. So you can think about your dog if that’s easier, or your child. And so you start off like feeling this like immense love and caring for this person that you really do feel that for. And you spend a couple weeks nurturing that feeling in meditation. And then after a couple weeks of doing that, you now start to think about someone else in your community who you wouldn’t necessarily feel that way about. So your postman, or the Uber driver you saw, or whoever. And you start to transfer the feeling you had for your mother to this person. And you really imagine them and try to spread this feeling of loving kindness toward this person. 


As the weeks go on, you continue to do this and you continue to expand the network out and out till eventually you get to the person who you actually harbor ill feelings for. So your husband or whatever, right? And so this is someone you actually feel negatively toward, but you start to try to transfer those feelings of loving kindness that you’ve helped develop over these weeks toward that person. 


[00:31:25] DR: Right. Okay. 


[00:31:27] LAZ: So she had to do this for nine months.


[00:31:30] DR: Wow! 


[00:31:31] LAZ: Yeah. And she sees that cortical thickness increases in these brain regions, pro-social behavior increases, being able to focus increases. All of these positive. Less stress, more pro-social behavior and so forth. 


[00:31:47] DR: Right. Nine months, that’s amazing. So let’s take this to organization. So we’ve got 10,000 employees. We’ve decided we want to teach them more compassion. No one’s going in a nine-month program. And straight away, even the word compassion I think will throw a lot of people. If we said how you’re going to go into a program to learn more compassion? I think that’s going to throw people. Are there other words in the research landscape for compassion? Or do we need to invent one? Or I think it has some baggage in some ways. I mean, I think it’s an accurate word, but I think it has a lot of baggage for people. It means different things. I think there’re some ties to religion. It sounds like something your pastor said. What do you think? 


[00:32:27] LAZ: I think you could use the term an affiliative system. So you want to create in the workplace an affiliative system rather than an achievement or fear-focused you know system. You want to create an affiliative system.


[00:32:40] DR: And so that’s bringing people into your in-group, I guess, and it’s having a toward response when you’re thinking about them. So that’s interesting.


[00:32:48] LAZ: Right. Like a team. You really want to develop all the feelings you would have in a team, right?


[00:32:55] DR: Right. Yeah, it’s interesting. How would you explain compassion in a purely brain-based way if you were trying to explain it to people who were, say, engineers and didn’t want to hear anything except the real science? How would you explain it?


[00:33:07] LAZ: Right. So I would say you have these regions in the brain. One is in the orbital frontal cortex and one is in the basal ganglia, which is part of your reward system. And these are active when you do positive things for other people, when you help people, when you nurture people, when you care for people. And that these are reward circuits that actually not only are active and rewarding when you do things for other people, but they also feel good for the recipient, and it helps build affiliation.


[00:33:41] DR: Fantastic, yeah. We’ve been talking about similar things in our allyship solution. So we’ve been doing a lot of work on developing allies in organizations, and we’ve been kind of touching on this, but we might go deeper in it in there. I’ve been touching on it that helping other people is intrinsically rewarding. And there are reasons to do it beyond just to help people. It’s also really helpful to society and helpful to your organization, but also actually feels good. And most people most people know that. Most people have had an experience, whether it’s coaching a soccer team, or helping a friend. Like most people, no matter how kind of even anti-diversity they are, have had an experience of what it’s like to really help someone and how good that feels. And we were trying to sort of tap into that and say, “It might not be intuitive to do that for someone who you think is really different to you, but actually it’s really important because that’s how we’ll really expand, particularly equity, but also just diversity and inclusion, is if people actually do those kinds of things for folks who are really different. Not just folks. Because I think it sort of intuitively feels like it’s going to be rewarding if it’s in your in-group to kind of be supportive and nice to someone who feels really different to you. Does it intrinsically feel rewarding? Or can you speak to that at all?


[00:34:56] LAZ: Yeah. So in compassion, I don’t know about so many studies on that. But definitely with mirror neurons, there is an in-group effect. So you’re more likely to have this kind of emotional resonance for people who are in your in-group. However, there’s ways to get beyond that. So if you just change the motivation about why you’re feeling resonance with someone, it could change the activity level. So if that person is someone you want to impress or that person is someone you want to become friends with or someone you admire, then you tend to change that affiliation.


[00:35:32] DR: Right. Interesting. Yeah, that’s interesting. Early on in the pandemic we went back to our research on kind of surviving crises that we’ve done over about 10 years. And we came up with a set of tools for staying sane amidst chaos and maintaining deep thinking when the world seems to be falling apart. And one of the things that we said was you’ve got to put in place these buffers against all the negative. You’ve got to put these positive buffers in. And we organize them by SCARF. So we said, in particular, you’ve got to put in certainty buffers. Are you’re feeling more certain? You’ve got to put in autonomy buffers so you feel more control, like manage your diet, manage your exercise and sleep. But the big one we thought at the time, and now I’m seeing the science of it, is where you can give back even though you’re really exhausted and stressed. Like if you can find a way to give back to people who are in even more need in this time, you’ll create this deep sense of relatedness. But from what I’m hearing from you now, it’s also activating deep reward networks, which would also be the theat. 


[00:36:29] LAZ: That’s right. And in the beginning of the pandemic you saw people offering all sorts of free stuff on Zoom. So like I’m going to teach a dance class. Everyone join in. I’m going to teach a guitar lesson. Everyone join in. And that was actually quite beautiful when that happened. 


[00:36:44] DR: Yeah. It was beautiful. We ended up and sort of tying in with the racial crisis that happened. We ended up designing a whole program for the police forces on turning down emotions and kind of deactivating the stuff that was going on. So de-escalation training basically. So we built a de-escalation training and gave it away to police forces across the nation. And lots of people experienced that. And that was really rewarding, intrinsically rewarding for us to kind of know we were doing something. And the team working on it were really inspired by that as well. So I think, yeah, it was really moving some of the stuff that you saw that people were doing in many, many ways. 


Tell us about the minimum dosage for building compassion. So we started at nine months. Go the other extreme now.


[00:37:26] LAZ: So a lot of people ask that, and there is no – I mean, really, like they see effects after a couple weeks of training. But the more you do it, obviously you’ll the more effects. You want things to become a habit. And there’s a lot of work on habit formation. And it really seems to indicate that if you really want to build something that becomes a really, really strong habit, you need to do it almost every day for a year. No one wants to hear that because that seems like a lot. But we all know intrinsically that’s true, right? I mean, people go through diets and they stop after a couple weeks. Or you go through an exercise program and you stop. But if you really want to be a runner, you have to do it at least a couple days a week for a long period of time. However, there is no minimum. Like if you do just – It’s not all or none, right? If you practice this a couple times every month, you’ll still get rewards.


[00:38:22] DR: Yeah. I mean, we’ve been doing really huge experiments on this question for the last seven years. So in the early days of NLI, we’re 23 years old, in the early days, we went really deep with a small number of people. Like in that company of 10,000, we might take 20 liters and spend three months with them. And then a few years later we were like taking 100 leaders and spending three days with them. And then nowadays our hypothesis is actually taking a thousand of the ten thousand people and spending very little time with them, an hour with them, but teaching them how to spend maybe an hour or two with the entire company. And so giving a lot of people a little bit of insight and using the social pressure to create change. So we’re going to be wondering, “Hey, what’s the most effective kind of habits and actions to get a thousand managers a little more compassionate and even get them to teach it to their employees?” And just a little more compassionate, because making 10,000 people like 10% more compassionate actually is a lot more compassion than making 100 people 100% more compassionate. 


[00:39:23] LAZ: And a lot of it is, first of all, role modeling by the boss, right? And then second is just having really simple things in place. Like, again, taking breaks, or having a group picnic, or having these like times where people can gather together and do something for another like celebrating birthdays or whatever. Something that builds affiliation. The boss needs to be genuine though in their compassion and not just playing the role that they know they should play. And I think that’s so true. Like we intrinsically do pick up genuineness in compassion and empathy because we’re so good at reading other people’s minds and reading other people’s emotions, right? 


[00:40:07] DR: Yeah, we can tell if you pay attention, we can tell if someone is saying something the first time, or they’ve said it three times, or they’ve said it 50 times, or they’ve said it 100 times and we can really hear it in the way people communicate. And we discount a lot of things that we feel people are not really authentic about, which is really interesting. I’ve got a couple of closing questions and comments. Lisa, as you think about compassion and kind of this time, are you optimistic? Are you hopeful? Are you sad? How do you feel about humanity and what we’ve all been through in the last 18 months as it relates to compassion? 


[00:40:41] LAZ: I mean, I think just the fact that we see over 400 people here tells us that people are interested. And it’s very hopeful that people want to implement these kinds of measures in the workplace. And I think that anytime you go through a crisis, it does actually bring people together.


[00:40:59] DR: Yeah, I heard this a lot from organizations in the last couple of months that in the first six to twelve months it was kind of really easy to motivate everyone. We were all in it together and we were sort of a team. Engagement was up because we’re all surviving this real crisis. And then kind of the last three to six months, it’s been much, much harder to motivate people. And I think there’s been more kind of tensions as you have some people back in the office saying why isn’t everyone here and some people at home saying why do I have to go to the office? There’s been a lot more tensions. 


I mean, what I’m hearing is compassion is a really important thing for organizations to exhibit. We might just have to give it a different name and explain it in a really brain-based way, because I do think it kind of immediately shuts people off. Folks who say I don’t do empathy definitely will say that I do compassion. Particularly for hard driving leaders, it reeks of being people-focused, which feels like letting go of your goals.


[00:41:55] LAZ: Part of it is education, right? So teaching people what these terms really mean and what their effects are.


[00:42:01] DR: Yeah, and what the benefits are and kind of why you should do it. And so part of our mission is kind of taking these things that are generally considered soft and maybe fuzzy and actually showing the kind of really tangible mechanisms involved and the benefits and making this accessible to kind of a broader range of people. And I think that you’ve been really helpful in our journey towards that. We’ve got more work to do. But I’m excited and inspired to do more work on compassion or whatever we ended up calling it. And at the same time, really, educating around this language. And I think with the great resignation that’s happening, the kind of burnout that’s happening, teaching these positive experiences might be a really important piece of the process, of the healing that we all need to go through. We’ve been in these three stages, shock, pain, rehabilitation. We’re just eking to the rehabilitation stage. We all experienced literally acute distress disorder or psychological trauma. We’re coming out of a huge pain hopefully. And I think compassion in this third stage is going to be important to turn down the strong emotions. 


So any closing comments, Lisa? 


[00:43:05] LAZ: This is a great discussion and really, really important. So thank you for inviting me.


[00:43:10] DR: Great conversation. To be continued in a bunch of ways. I look forward to continuing to deepen this dialogue with you and other experts in here. Thanks, Lisa. Take care of yourself. Look after each other and keep studying what matters.




[00:43:24] SW: Your Brain at Work is produced by the NeuroLeadership Institute. You can help us make organizations more human by rating, reviewing and subscribing wherever you listen to your podcast. Our producers are Matt Holidack, Daniel Kirschenblatt, Ted Bower, Shadé Olasimbo, and me, Shelby Wilburn. Original music is by Grant Zubritzki. And logo design is by Catch Wear. We’ll see you here next time for a discussion about the neuroscience of human cognitive capacity to better understand limits, explore how we can work within them and discuss what our brains need each day to progress without burning out on October 22nd. The link to sign up can be found under learning events on our website. 



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