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How Did Humans Become Empathic?

Sunday, May 15th, 2011 by Rick Hanson, Ph.D.

Empathy is unusual in the animal kingdom. So empathy must have had some major survival benefits for it to have evolved. What might those benefits have been?

Empathy seems to have evolved in three major steps.

First, among vertebrates, birds and mammals developed ways of rearing their young, plus forms of pair bonding – sometimes for life. This is very different from the pattern among fish and reptile species, most of which make their way in life alone. Pair bonding and rearing of young organisms increased their survival and was consequently selected for, driving the development of new mental capacities.

As neuroscientists put it, the “computational requirements” of tuning into the signals of newborn little creatures, and of operating as a couple – a sparrow couple, a mountain lion couple, that is – helped drive the enlargement of the brain over millions of years. As we all know, when you are in a relationship with someone – and especially if you are raising a family together – there’s a lot you have to take into account, negotiate, arrange, anticipate, etc. No wonder brains got bigger.

It may be a source of satisfaction to some that monogamous species typically have the largest brains in proportion to bodyweight! (more…)

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Dr. Hanson is a neuropsychologist in San Rafael, California. His practice includes adults, couples, families, and children, as well as psychological assessments of children and adults related to temperament, school performance, and educational and vocational planning. For more information, please visit his listing on the Therapist Directory

Don’t Be Alarmed

Friday, February 18th, 2011 by Rick Hanson, Ph.D.

Why?

The nervous system has been evolving for about 600 million years. During all this time, creatures – worms, crabs, lizards, rats, monkeys, hominids, humans – that were real mellow, watching the sunlight on the leaves, getting all Zen, absorbed in inner peace . . . CHOMP got eaten because they didn’t notice the shadow overhead or crackle of twigs nearby.

The ones that survived to pass on their genes were nervous, fidgety, vigilant, paranoid – and we are their great-, great-grandchildren, bred to be afraid, quick to feel unsettled in any situation that seems the least bit threatening: traffic speeding up, not enough time to get through your emails, a snippy comment from a relative, more news of a struggling economy, a strange new ache in your back, no call after two days from someone you’ve started dating, and so on.
(more…)

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Dr. Hanson is a neuropsychologist in San Rafael, California. His practice includes adults, couples, families, and children, as well as psychological assessments of children and adults related to temperament, school performance, and educational and vocational planning. For more information, please visit his listing on the Therapist Directory

How Did Humans Become Empathic?

Friday, October 8th, 2010 by Rick Hanson, Ph.D.

Empathy is unusual in the animal kingdom. So empathy must have had some major survival benefits for it to have evolved. What might those benefits have been?

Empathy seems to have evolved in three major steps.

First, among vertebrates, birds and mammals developed ways of rearing their young, plus forms of pair bonding – sometimes for life. This is very different from the pattern among fish and reptile species, most of which make their way in life alone. Pair bonding and rearing of young organisms increased their survival and was consequently selected for, driving the development of new mental capacities.

As neuroscientists put it, the “computational requirements” of tuning into the signals of newborn little creatures, and of operating as a couple – a sparrow couple, a mountain lion couple, that is – helped drive the enlargement of the brain over millions of years. As we all know, when you are in a relationship with someone – and especially if you are raising a family together – there’s a lot you have to take into account, negotiate, arrange, anticipate, etc. No wonder brains got bigger.

It may be a source of satisfaction to some that monogamous species typically have the largest brains in proportion to bodyweight! (more…)

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Dr. Hanson is a neuropsychologist in San Rafael, California. His practice includes adults, couples, families, and children, as well as psychological assessments of children and adults related to temperament, school performance, and educational and vocational planning. For more information, please visit his listing on the Therapist Directory

21 Ways To Turn Ill Will to Good Will

Thursday, September 30th, 2010 by Rick Hanson, Ph.D.

My recent posts have highlighted two very powerful, yet opposing forces in the human heart: in a traditional metaphor, we each have a wolf of love and a wolf of hate inside us, and it all depends on which one we feed every day.

On the one hand, as the most social and loving species on the planet, we have the wonderful ability and inclination to connect with others, be empathic, cooperate, care, and love. On the other hand, we also have the capacity and inclination to be fearfully aggressive toward any individual or group we regard as “them.” (In my book – Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom – I develop this idea further, including how to stimulate and strengthen the neural circuits of self-control, empathy, and compassion.)

To tame the wolf of hate, it’s important to get a handle on “ill will” – irritated, resentful, and angry feelings and intentions toward others. While it may seem justified in the moment, ill will harms you probably more than it harms others. In another metaphor, having ill will toward others is like throwing hot coals with bare hands: both people get burned.

Avoiding ill will does not mean passivity, allowing yourself or others to be exploited, staying silent in the face of injustice, etc. (more…)

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Dr. Hanson is a neuropsychologist in San Rafael, California. His practice includes adults, couples, families, and children, as well as psychological assessments of children and adults related to temperament, school performance, and educational and vocational planning. For more information, please visit his listing on the Therapist Directory

You Can Feel Safer

Wednesday, September 15th, 2010 by Rick Hanson, Ph.D.

Feeling safer is a tricky subject, with complications that can be both personal and political.

Yes, there are real threats out there, but evolution and other factors have left a lot of us walking around in a kind of paranoid trance. I’ve been there myself, and the results include feeling less peaceful and hopeful, and more worried and cranky, than is right.
(more…)

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Dr. Hanson is a neuropsychologist in San Rafael, California. His practice includes adults, couples, families, and children, as well as psychological assessments of children and adults related to temperament, school performance, and educational and vocational planning. For more information, please visit his listing on the Therapist Directory

The Wolf of Hate

Wednesday, August 4th, 2010 by Rick Hanson, Ph.D.

I heard a story once about a Native American elder who was asked how she had become so wise, so happy, and so respected. She answered: “In my heart, there are two wolves: a wolf of love and a wolf of hate. It all depends on which one I feed each day.”

This story always gives me a little shiver. It’s both humbling and hopeful. First, the wolf of love is very popular, but who among us does not also harbor a wolf of hate? We can hear its snarling both far away in distant wars and close to home in our own anger and aggression, even toward people we love. Second, the story suggests that we each have the ability—grounded in daily actions—to encourage and strengthen empathy, compassion, and kindness while also restraining and reducing ill will, disdain, and aggression.

In my previous post, I explored some of the basis, in the brain, of romance and love. In this one, let’s consider the dark side of bonding: how attachment to “us” both fuels and has been nurtured by fearful aggression toward “them.” (more…)

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Dr. Hanson is a neuropsychologist in San Rafael, California. His practice includes adults, couples, families, and children, as well as psychological assessments of children and adults related to temperament, school performance, and educational and vocational planning. For more information, please visit his listing on the Therapist Directory

The Evolution of Love

Tuesday, July 20th, 2010 by Rick Hanson, Ph.D.

How did we evolve the most loving brain on the planet?

Humans are the most sociable species on earth – for better and for worse.

On the one hand, we have the greatest capacities for empathy, communication, friendship, romance, complex social structures, and altruism. On the other, we have the greatest capacities for shaming, emotional cruelty, sadism, envy, jealousy, discrimination and other forms of dehumanization, and wholesale slaughter of our fellow humans.
(more…)

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Dr. Hanson is a neuropsychologist in San Rafael, California. His practice includes adults, couples, families, and children, as well as psychological assessments of children and adults related to temperament, school performance, and educational and vocational planning. For more information, please visit his listing on the Therapist Directory

Taking in the Good

Tuesday, July 6th, 2010 by Rick Hanson, Ph.D.

Scientists believe that your brain has a built-in “negativity bias.” In other words, as we evolved over millions of years, dodging sticks and chasing carrots, it was a lot more important to notice, react to, and remember sticks than it was for carrots.

That’s because – in the tough environments in which our ancestors lived – if they missed out on a carrot, they usually had a shot at another one later on. But if they failed to avoid a stick – a predator, a natural hazard, or aggression from others of their species – WHAM, no more chances to pass on their genes.
(more…)

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Dr. Hanson is a neuropsychologist in San Rafael, California. His practice includes adults, couples, families, and children, as well as psychological assessments of children and adults related to temperament, school performance, and educational and vocational planning. For more information, please visit his listing on the Therapist Directory

5000 Synapses in the Width of a Hair

Tuesday, June 22nd, 2010 by Rick Hanson, Ph.D.

How much change in the brain makes a difference in the mind?

That’s the issue raised by a very interesting comment regarding my previous blog, “The Brain in a Bucket.”

So I’ve taken the liberty of posting the comment here (hoping that’s OK in blog etiquette; still learning as I go), and then responding. Here it is:
(more…)

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Dr. Hanson is a neuropsychologist in San Rafael, California. His practice includes adults, couples, families, and children, as well as psychological assessments of children and adults related to temperament, school performance, and educational and vocational planning. For more information, please visit his listing on the Therapist Directory

The Brain in a Bucket

Wednesday, June 9th, 2010 by Rick Hanson, Ph.D.

Have you ever seen a real brain?

I remember the first time I saw one, in a neuropsych class: the instructor put on rubber gloves to protect against the formaldehyde preservative, popped the lid off of a lab bucket, and then pulled out a brain.

It didn’t look like much, a nondescript waxy yellowish-white blob rather like a sculpted head of cauliflower. But the whole class went silent. We were looking at the real deal, ground zero for consciousness, headquarters for “me.” The person it came from – or, in a remarkable sense, the person who came from it – was of course dead. Would my brain, too, end up in a lab bucket? That thought gave me a creepy weird feeling completely unlike the feeling of having my heart or hand in a bucket some day – which gets right at the specialness of your brain.
(more…)

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Dr. Hanson is a neuropsychologist in San Rafael, California. His practice includes adults, couples, families, and children, as well as psychological assessments of children and adults related to temperament, school performance, and educational and vocational planning. For more information, please visit his listing on the Therapist Directory