June 21, 2009

Stanford University’s Search for Compassion (Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education)

Nagarjuna famously said, “emptiness is the womb of compassion.” His proclamation, intended to point the direction for fostering compassion may or may not help the team of philosophers, neuroscientists, psychologists, and theologians who are being tapped to work with Stanford’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE). The express goal of the center (via Sciencemag.org) is to:

Study the biological roots of benevolent behavior and investigate whether mental exercises derived from the centuries-old tradition of Buddhist compassion meditation—but stripped of religious trappings—can foster compassion in nonbelievers.

CCARE’s mission statement as posted on its website is:

To undertake a rigorous scientific study of the neural, mental and social bases of compassion and altruistic behavior that draws from a wide spectrum of disciplines including psychology, neuroscience, economics and contemplative traditions.

To explore ways in which compassion and altruism can be cultivated within an individual as well as within the society on the basis of testable cognitive and affective training exercises.

James Doty, a neurosurgeon and investor is the co-founder and current director of CCARE. The impetus for the center occurred when the Dalai Lama came to speak to a group of scientists and doctors back in 2005. Also the Dalai Lama has given significant support to fund the project, the most in fact that he has given to any research project. CCARE is beginning studies including brain imaging of inexperienced as well as experienced meditators. They are also planning research on the effects of charity. Will CCARE re-discover the tenets of Buddhism to be true? Whether they do or not is of little consequence, what is significant is that this group of researches may demonstrate to the scientific community and the world, altruistic behavior is, beyond any doubt, of greater benefit to the individual and society than self-centeredness and greed. To many of us this may seem obvious, but for the majority it is not reflected through behavior. Perhaps science can help us make the shift from ideals to reality.

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