In this interview, psychologist and author Daniel Goleman, spoke with NPR Radio about compassion and why compassion is often absent in human behavior. After defining and describing current scientific thinking about compassion, he summarized current thought on compassion based on social neuroscience. Social neuroscience, he explained, is a subfield of brain science that looks at circuitry in the brain during the interactions between people. According to Goleman, “the new thinking of compassion, according social neuroscience, is that our default wiring is to help. That is to say, if we attend to the other person we automatically empathize, feel with them.” This happens in part via a type of newly-identified neurons, referred to as mirror neurons. As he explained, these neurons “act like a neural wi-fi. We feel with automatically. If that person is in need, if that person is suffering, then we are automatically prepared to help.”
This led into the central question of the interview- given our neural wiring for compassion, why are we not more compassionate? Perhaps the reason that we aren’t, according to Goleman, is that we are often highly self-focused. He explained, “if we are focused on ourselves, if we are preoccupied, which we so often are, we don’t fully notice the other.” He argued that mindfulness and face-to-face connection with others are both strong facilitators of compassion. This means being aware of what is happening in your own stream of consciousness and how that affects how you respond to others. He stated that there needs to be a channel to a social brain that comes from face-to-face interaction (as opposed to electronic communication) to activate the “caring” centers in the brain.