The Compassion Connection

For various reasons unrelated to lawyering, I recently read a book called “Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain†by Sharon Begley. The book describes how the science of neuroplasticity reveals our extraordinary potential to transform ourselves. I am sharing with you portions of that book that struck me as profoundly related to us as lawyers in 1. the notion that we are not bound by our DNA; 2. the mindfulness that we need to be present in what we do; and 3. our job of finding the compassion in our jurors. I am not providing footnotes or citations to the studies mentioned in this article. Should you wish further exploration, I highly recommend the book.

I. Rewire The Brain

Compassion is normally conceptualized as a state of mind that wishes to see the immediate object of that compassion be free of suffering. There are different degrees of compassion. At one level, compassion remains at the level of wish. But there can be more forceful levels of compassion, where it’s no longer just a wish, but also a willingness to reach out and do something about the suffering. Qualities like compassion and loving kindness have in principal the potential for limitless enhancement.

The human mind has a tremendous potential for transformation. Mental training can change the brain. The brain adapts or expands in response to repeated patterns of activity so that in a real sense the brain that we develop reflects the life that we lead. Evidence that powerful sections of the brain such as the visual cortex can adapt their function in response to circumstances reveals an astonishing malleability unforeseen by earlier and more mechanistic interpretations of the brains workings.

A cardinal assumption of neuroscience has been that our mental processes stem from brain activity, the brain creates and shapes the mind, not the other way around. But the data reported and summarized in Ms. Begley’s book suggests that it is a two way street of causality with systematic mental activity resulting in changes in the very structure of the brain. It is not just that the brain changes its structure throughout life, but that we can be active, conscious participants in that process.

Conventional neuroscience held that the adult mammalian brain is fixed in two respects: 1. no new neurons are born in it; and 2. the functions of the structures that make it up are immutable. So if genes dictate that this cluster of neurons will move the eye and these others move the hand, then that is what they do and nothing else. The changes underlying the learning and memory variety, when we acquire new knowledge or master a new skill, the brain changes in a physical way to make that happen. But those changes are of a retail variety, not changes like altering the wiring that connects one region to another.

Scientific discoveries in the last years of the 20th century demonstrate that the brain retains stunning powers of neuroplasticity. It can be rewired. The adult brain retains much of the plasticity of the developing brain, including the power to repair damaged regions, to grow new neurons, to rezone regions that performed one task and have them assume a new task, to change the circuitry that weaves neurons into the networks that cause us to remember, feel, suffer, imagine and dream. The brain devotes more cortical real estate to functions that its owner uses more frequently and shrinks the space devoted to activities rarely performed. But there are also hints that mind sculpting can occur with no input from the outside world. That is, the brain can change as a result of the thoughts that we have thought. Brain changes can occur as a result of pure mental activity. Something as seemingly insubstantial as a thought has the ability to act back on the very stuff of the brain, altering neuronal connections in a way that can lead to the recovery from mental illness and perhaps to a greater capacity for empathy and compassion. “The science of neuroplasticity has the potential to bring radical changes to both individuals and the world, raising the possibility that we can train ourselves to be kinder, more compassionate, less defensive, less self centered, less aggressive, less warlike.â€

The brain is dynamic, remodeling itself continually in response to experience. Experiments in late 70s and 80s helped us understand how the brain reorganizes in response to life experience. The studies showed that the brain would “rezone†in response to a change in signals from the body. In some areas of the brain, new neurons are being born all the time. The finding brought us a step closer to the finding that we have more control over our own brain capacity than we ever thought possible.

Experiments on mice showed that physical activity alone can generate new brain cells. Voluntary exercise increases the number of neural stem cells that divide and give rise to new neurons in the hippocampus. To test whether it was the volitional nature of the exercise that mattered, scientists put mice on a treadmill and prevented them from getting off. After several days of this, the animals’ hippocampus contained fewer newborn neurons and they learned much less quickly. It was only voluntary exercise that stimulated neurogenesis in the mice. The involuntary activity increased stress levels, which is a good way to kill neurons and rip apart synapses. There are structural reasons for the increased learning and memory capacities observed in animals that exercise. But the birth of new neurons is only one foundation for neuroplasticity. The role of experience in the development of the senses has puzzled scientists for decades. The brain is hardwired and structure seems to determine function. Interestingly, no matter where in the brain a neuron lives, from the visual cortex to the somatosensory cortex, it is basically identical to all other neurons in any other neighborhood. Why then is one clump of neurons visual and another auditory? What if the kind of input a brain receives matters and matters as much as the instructions it receives from its genes? What if, instead, environmental inputs and the experiences a person has shape the development and specializations of the brain’s regions?

Scientist Helen Neville studied a section of people deaf since birth. She measured the strength of a brain’s response to a stimulus, a flash of light, seen only in peripheral vision. She compared the response of the deaf brains with the response of the hearing brains. The evoked potential, the number of neurons firing, in the brains of the deaf was two or three times larger than in people with normal hearing. There was something different about the peripheral vision of the deaf persons. The electrodes that measured the response of the deaf brains were over the auditory cortex. It looked as if auditory regions do not wait patiently for a signal that never comes. When the ears transmit only silence, the brain’s auditory regions begin picking up signals from the retinas. In a series of studies, Neville tried to pin down what visual functions the auditory cortex of deaf people performs. Neville realized that the “where?†pathway might actually benefit from deafness. That is, it might be plastic and malleable, responding to experience. Losing the sense of hearing produces a very specific compensation in the brain, sharpening the ability to see changes in motion. All the functions of the “where?†pathway are enhanced. But none of the functions of the “what?†pathway (color vision, central vision) are changed. Even though genetics constrains the auditory cortex to hear, if this structure has different sensory experiences than what nature expected, that is, silence rather than sounds, it can apparently take on an entirely different job, processing information about movement. Through neuroplasticity, the brain structures are in no way stuck with the career their DNA intended.

Positron Emission Tomography (PET) Scans, developed in the 1980s detect regional blood flow in the brain, determining which regions are active and which are quiescent. How does the brain change as someone learns greater and greater manual dexterity? Experiments with blind and sighted volunteers found that the visual cortex of only the blind volunteers was activated when the volunteers “read†Braille with their fingers. There was no reason to expect the visual cortex would have anything to do with tactile information, yet the studies showed activation of the visual cortex based upon tactile information of the blind volunteers. When people who had been blind from birth read Braille dots, their visual cortex, not just their somatosensory cortex, lights up with activity.

But a sensory cortex is not limited to handling one of the five senses. Language is a step up the neurological ladder of neurological complexity from sensory perception. Another study focused on changes in the sensory cortex without sensory stimulation. When blind volunteers were recalling as many words from a list of words as they could, their visual cortex spiked with activity. No such activity of the visual cortex occurred when volunteers of normal sight recalled lists of words. This occurred with the blind subjects with absolutely no sensory input. Neuroplasicity is not limited to merely reorganizing the brain so that one sensory region handles a different sense. It can reshape the brain so that a sensory region performs a sophisticated cognitive function.

Studies on stroke victims showed that the therapy generated a large use dependent brain reorganization in which substantial new areas of the brain are recruited to take over the function of the region that had been knocked out by the stroke. The studies showed that activity dependent brain plasticity can be harnessed through appropriate behavioral or rehabilitation techniques to produce a clinically meaningful therapeutic effect on chronic motor deficits after neurological damage.

II. Mindfulness


The idea that only brain acts on brain reflects a view that philosophers call casual closure. It holds that only the physical can act on the physical. It is the physical manifestation of the intention, the ensemble of electrical signals pulsing through the brain that moves the body out of bed. How does a mental reality, a world of consciousness, intentionality and other mental phenomenon, fit into a world consisting entirely of physical particles in fields of force? That puzzle, of how patterns of neuronal activity become transformed into subjective awareness, remains a cardinal mystery of human existence. Scientists understand the physiological mechanisms of perception, but we still cannot explain why that perception feels the way it does. A mental state, be it a sense of the color red, or the sound of b sharp, or the emotion of sadness, or the feel of pain, is more than its neural correlates.

Some argue that there is more to the mind than the brain’s physical activity. There is a theory that a high order property, such as the mind, can effect lower order processes that created it. What emerges has the power to act back on what it emerges from. In the theory of “Mentalism,†mental states can act directly on cerebral states, even affecting electrochemical activity in neurons. “The stuff of the brain can change in response to the whispers of the mind.â€

There are many studies that show that sensory input, signals carried into the brain from the outside world, can alter the structure of the human brain. All of these changes arose from the world outside the brain. But such signals don’t have to come from the outside world, they can come from the mind itself. Mindful awareness is the practice of observing ones inner experiences in a way that is fully aware but nonjudgmental. You stand outside your own mind, observing the spontaneous thoughts and feelings that the brain throws up, observing all this as if it were happening to someone else.
The mind can shape the fundamental biology of the brain. Scientists performed PET scans before and after ten weeks of mindfulness based therapy. Therapy had altered the metabolism of the brain circuitry. The study showed that cognitive behavior therapy has the power to systematically change faulty brain chemistry in a well identified brain circuit. Willful, mindful effort can alter brain function. The mind can change the brain.

One study compared treatment for depression, comparing cognitive therapy versus treatment with anti-depressants. Both groups experienced progress, but when they scanned the patients’ brains, they found that their brains changed differently. Cognitive therapy targets the cortex, the “thinking†brain, reshaping how you process information and changing your thinking pattern. It also increases new patterns of learning.

Scientist Pasquale Leone taught a group of volunteers a five finger exercise on the piano. Every day they practiced for five days. Over the days, they made fewer errors. He had another group merely think about the piano exercise. He had them imagine moving their fingers over the keys. Mental rehearsal activated the same motor circuits as actual rehearsal with the same result, an expansion of that bit of the mental cortex.

How can there be any kind of interaction between an autonomous consciousness, assuming that this is what the “mind†is, and the brain. If all mental states are actually brain states, then the question becomes how can mental training act back on the brain so the brain is more likely to generate attention and compassion. At the gross level of mind, the relationship between mental and physical is very tight, but at a subtle level, there is a state of consciousness which will be autonomous, not dependent on brain function. Even without knowing exactly how mind influences brain, neuroscientists have evidence that it somehow involves paying attention. A conscious, awake mind is bombarded by countless bits of sensory information every second. Without attention, information that our senses take in, what we see, hear, feel, smell and taste, does not register in the mind. What you see is determined by what you pay attention to. Neurons compete. Paying attention physically damps down activity in neurons other than those involved in focusing on the target of your attention.

The intensity of activity in a circuit that specializes in a particular visual task is amplified by the mental act of paying attention to what that circuit specializes in. Attention pumps up neuronal activity. Attention takes a physical form capable of affecting the physical activity of the brain. The pattern of activity of neurons in sensory areas can be altered by patterns of attention. This leaves us with a clear physiological fact. Moment by moment we choose and sculpt how our ever changing minds will work. We choose who we will be in the next moment in a very real sense and these choices are left embossed in physical form on our material selves.

Mothers and fathers pass traits to their children in two ways. The first is through genes. The second way is through behavior. How parents behave can shape their children by altering the chemistry of genes. In lab animals, years of study identified two brain hormones as crucial to establishing social bonds and regulating emotional behavior. The two, oxytocin and vasopressin, are associated with the emergence of social bonding and parental care. Levels of oxytocin rise when you have warm, physical contact with someone you are close to, generating a sense of security and safety. Levels of stress hormones affect how well neural receptors bind oxytocin and vasopressin. The lives we lead and the behavior of those who care for us can alter the very chemistry of DNA. Genes are not destiny.

Neuroplasticity might provide a means for changing the brain circuitry of those whose pasts have wired them for selfishness, bias, defensiveness and other ills. Compassion is a key virtue. Whether one calls it compassion, empathy or altruism, whether a person acts with compassion or not reflects a person’s sense of emotional security which is strongly shaped in childhood. If people tend to feel or act in a certain way, it is because their brain is organized in a certain way. If that can be tweaked, then maybe the circuits that underlie emotional security can also be tweaked. How can we enhance compassion and altruism in the real world?

III. Moving to Compassion

When adults feel threatened or uneasy, they do not necessarily physically seek out the person to whom they are closest, instead, they are more likely to feel comfort in just the thought of that person, calling up memories of the person that once provided love and comfort or who still does. Mental representations of attachment figures can become symbolic source of protection. Attachment styles are developed during childhood and are patterned on the relationships between children and their caregivers.

A person who can tap into his own value, by tapping into memories of being valued, should have less need to fear and disparage members of other groups. Insecure people have a tendency to reject anything that challenges the validity of their beliefs and instead to protect and defend their own beliefs even when presented with evidence that it is wrong. The result is cognitive rigidity and a need to deny that one holds erroneous beliefs. Any training that reshapes the mental circuits to recode a person’s sense of attachment would be a great benefit. Attachment style influences all types of attachment thoughts, including empathy for strangers. Both forms of insecure attachment—anxiety and avoidance—are associated with low levels of empathy for strangers. Those with avoidance style are so deft at maintaining emotional detachment, and so unwilling to become involved with other people s problem that when they witness suffering or need they are unable to muster empathy. In contrast, people who feel attachment anxiety feel such intense personal distress when they see suffering that they become overwhelmed. Those who feel distress and want to be removed from the object of suffering might not do anything to relieve the other person’s burden of suffering if they can simply escape. By causing a person to feel more securely attached, might it be possible to increase altruistic empathy? To help people see others as suffering sentient beings equal to oneself in value?

In two studies conducted in Israel and the US, scientists looked for connections between peoples’ attachment style and their likelihood of engaging in volunteer activities. Each study had volunteers fill out two questionnaires asking questions related to attachment style and volunteer activities. The higher people scored on attachment anxiety, the more weight they gave to self enhancement or socializing as a reason to volunteer. In one of the studies, scientists had 120 student volunteers who were secular Jews rate their willingness to interact with an ultraorthodox religious Jew or with a secular Jew. Some were asked to visualize themselves in a problematic situation that you cannot solve on your own and imagine that you were surrounded by people who were sensitive and responsive to your distress, want to help you only because they love you and they set aside their other activities to assist you. In this study, the “security prime†was conscious versus subliminal. The participants filled out a questionnaire that assessed their attachment style. All then received questionnaires that had demographic information but was supposedly filled out by either a secular Jew or an ultraorthodox Jew. They were then asked about willingness to interact with the other person. Those who had attachment anxiety were less interested in interacting with ultraorthodox Jews. But among participants who imagined receiving emotional comfort and support, there was an equal willingness to interact with secular Jews like themselves or ulatraorthodox Jews, unlike themselves. Activating mental circuits for secure attachment led to greater willingness to interact with an “out†group. By giving people a feeling of attachment security, the researchers were able to reduce negative reactions to members of an out group. Activating this sense of security through priming achieved this beneficent result even in people who are dispositionally anxious or avoidant. Thinking about a time when you felt you could count on someone for comfort or support may remind you of similar memories and as a result you respond to members of an out group in ways consistent with activated memory even if this memory is at odds with your innate attachment style.
It has something to do with love. Attachment words trigger a kind of comfort that makes tolerance for others more available mentally, even in insecure people whose inclination is intolerance and lack of compassion. Subliminal or conscious presentation of security related words such as love, or the name of an attachment figure, visualizing the faces of those to whom you turn for comfort, recalling times when someone cared for you, heightens the sense of attachment, albeit momentarily.
Does attachment security correlate with willingness to reduce others’ suffering? In another study, scientists again used a standard assessment to gauge whether volunteers generally felt anxious, avoidant or secure in their relationships. They then had the volunteers (depending on which version of the experiment they were running) read a story about a student who was in trouble, sought help from his/her parents and received comfort and help from them; recall memories of when someone cared for them; or subliminally encounter words such as “love†and “hug.†The story, the memory and the words were each meant to trigger a sense of attachment security. For comparison, volunteers also read a funny story, to see if their willingness to help another being arose from just being in a happy mood. Finally, the students read a story about another student whose parents had been killed in a car crash and rated how much they felt sympathy or compassion for the student as well as how personally distressed they felt. Volunteers who scored high on attachment anxiety or avoidance and who were not primed with a story about a loving and secure relationship or the memory or the words associated with caring, felt minimal compassion for the student whose parents died in a car crash. Those who were anxious in their own relationships felt distress but hat did not translate into compassion. This attachment style seems to foster a lack of concern for other people and their needs and suffering. However, regardless of whether they were innately secure or anxious or avoidant, volunteer primed with an attachment security story, memory or words reported higher levels of compassion toward the orphaned student than did participants who read the funny story. They also felt less distress, suggesting that their compassion arose from a more altruistic plane.

In experiments carried out in Israel and the United States, these scientists examined whether enhancing attachment security would change not only how people said they felt and thought about, say, people different from themselves, but how they acted. University students completed the standard questionnaire assessing their attachment style. Three or four weeks later, they returned to the lab. Each volunteer was told that a young woman, also a volunteer and a student had been randomly assigned to perform some unpleasant tasks while the volunteer receiving the instructions had been randomly chosen to watch and evaluate her performance. They were told the woman was in the next room being videotaped connected to a monitor the volunteer could watch. In reality, she was a researcher and was on a previously recorded video. Each volunteer was subliminally exposed to the name of someone they regarded as an attachment figure; the name of someone close to them but not an attachment figure; or the name of a casual acquaintance. The volunteers were told that the female on the video monitor would be asked to perform several unpleasant and even painful tasks and that she was free to stop whenever she chose. After a series of tasks in which the monitored “student†became more and more distressed, the volunteers were asked to rate their compassion, sympathy, distress, etc. The researchers then told the volunteers that the monitored “student†couldn’t go on and asked the volunteer to replace her in a series of even more unpleasant tasks. The test would come when people would move beyond characterizing their feelings to acting on them. Participants who scored high on attachment avoidance reported lower levels of compassion and were less willing to help the other “student.†Those who scored high on attachment anxiety reported personal distress while watching the suffering woman but were no more willing to help her. When you have a strong feeling of compassion, you experience a form of distress but the distress experienced when cultivating compassion is very different than the distress of one’s own suffering. In the latter case, there is no real choice. Suffering grips you and overwhelms you. When you experience distress as a result of deliberate cultivation of compassion, there is a sense of strength and resilience. When volunteers were subliminally primed with the name of someone that they had said they could rely upon for support, they not only reported higher levels of compassion, and more willingness to help (compared to those who had been primed with neutral names), they were more willing to take her place.

The brain can change. Attachment style is rooted in the brain. There is every reason to think that the circuitry underlying attachment can change as well. Exposing people to conscious or subliminal reminders of security leads to greater compassion and willingness to help, whatever someone’s inherent sense of attachment, suggesting that compassion can be enhanced. Temporary activation of a sense of attachment security allows even chronically insecure people to react to other’s needs in ways similar to people with a more secure attachment style, causing them to become more compassionate and helpful. Because attachment patterns can change, there must be considerable plasticity in the brain circuits that underlie them.

This is not to suggest that we should manipulate anyone into feeling compassion for our clients. It is to suggest both that we can be moved to help others as much by compassion as by fear and that we can consciously choose to tell our stories in a way that fosters that compassion. When we take people to a place that allows them to connect with their own experience of love, support and comfort, they are better able to offer it up themselves.

While I don’t doubt the efficacy of connecting to a person’s desire to make our world a safer place and to play by the “rules,†there is a balance with an approach that also moves people to help through their compassion. The language of “danger†is powerful. Yet even more powerful words are those of love, comfort and support. People can be moved to altruism and compassion through more than a sense of self preservation. Beyond danger and self preservation is a place of comfort and security that allows people the security to help others.

IV. Making The Connection

In trial, voir dire presents an opportunity for a lawyer to ask the jurors about their own attachment connections, to find a time in their lives when they felt supported, loved, secure, comfortable. Let them sit with that feeling. Maybe the lawyer does that by talking to them about the beliefs and attitudes they were raised with, bringing their parents or caregivers into the conversation. Maybe the lawyer talks about how, as we grow up, we are influenced so much by our surroundings, our environment, taking them back to times when they learned important lessons from those who guided them, no matter the topic. From Opening on, the story must include relationships—relationships that will connect the jurors to their own attachment stories. The “reptile†methods appear to be very effective in moving jurors to act to preserve self and community, to punish the villains, but attachment connections can move them to connect with and help our clients.