Implications of Interpersonal Neurobiology for a Spirituality of Compassion

Implications of Interpersonal Neurobiology for a Spirituality of Compassion

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A version of this essay is forthcoming in Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science. Parts of the paper were presented at the joint annual meeting of the Society for the Study of Psychology and Wesleyan Theology and the Wesleyan Philosophical Society at Duke University in March 2008. I am grateful to Gregory Johanson for introducing me to interpersonal neurobiology. For their very helpful comments on earlier drafts, I thank David Hogue, Joan D. Koss-Chioino, John McCarthy, Michael Schuck, LeRon Shults, and Ryan Cumming.



In the concluding summary of their important volume entitled Altruism and Altruistic Love, editors Stephen G. Post and Lynn G. Underwood spell out what they see as future research needs in the “science of altruism.” In the domain of spirituality and religion, they indicate that one set of questions for future research lies at the intersection of spiritual practices and altruistic love:

What specific spiritual practices (e.g., types of prayer, meditation, silence, worship) might help to encourage altruistic love? How do these practices interact with the biological, social, and cultural substrate of the person?1

Since this volume’s release in 2002, significant scientific advances have been made that can aid in the search for provisional answers to these sorts of questions. Interpersonal neurobiology (IPNB), a term coined by UCLA psychiatrist Daniel J. Siegel, is a growing transdisciplinary field that focuses on ways in which relationships fundamentally shape and change the architecture and functioning of the human brain. In this essay, I argue that IPNB points to a specific set of scientifically-demonstrated conditions that appear to encourage the emergence of empathy; and further, that this set of conditions constitutes the core components of a “spirituality of compassion” by which specific spiritual practices in diverse religious traditions can be evaluated for their potential to cultivate caring attitudes and actions in selves and societies.

Following introductory discussions on definitional and methodological issues, I present key assumptions in IPNB, and demonstrate ways in which IPNB sheds light on important aspects of human empathy and compassion. Then, drawing on this analysis, I introduce four specific conditions that appear to have profound potential to encourage the emergence of empathy in individuals and groups, and suggest that these criteria may function as central elements of a spirituality of compassion. Next, to demonstrate how this set of conditions might function, I offer a case study in which I describe the Native American Ojibwe practice of the “talking circle,” and assess it through the lens of my IPNB-derived spirituality of compassion. I conclude by addressing some questions that remain unanswered, and by suggesting areas for future research.


Since the words “spirituality,” “empathy,” and “compassion” often mean quite different things to different scholars in different fields, it makes sense to begin by clarifying what is implied by them in the context of this essay. In this section, I offer what I judge to be the most helpful definitions of each term, given the goals and purview of the present study.


It is well known that “spirituality” defies definitional consensus. Lucy Bregman has recently argued that the current abundance of definitions for spirituality renders the concept too ambiguous to be coherent or meaningful.2 Yet, despite its annoying inexactness, spirituality seems to represent an important, abiding, “multilevel-multidimentional” phenomenon of human experience that touches on manifold aspects of life, including the socio-cultural, intellectual, emotional, behavioral, neurobiological, and existential.3 For these reasons and others, it continues to be studied, defined, and redefined by scholars from a wide range of disciplines. The plethora of definitions need not necessarily be negative; it may be that the array is due more to the diversity of cultures and traditions in which spirituality finds expression, and the variety of disciplines that examine it, than to any inherent murkiness in the construct itself. Whatever the case, the fact that spirituality’s meaning is somewhat of a moving goalpost ought not to deter us from attempts to understand and communicate its significance, and outline its contours in particular contexts.

I am inclined to favor relational definitions of spirituality—in other words, those which tend to the dynamics of our ongoing relationships with ourselves, others, and that which we deem “sacred.” Following theologian F. LeRon Shults and psychologist Steven J. Sandage, I define spirituality as “ways of relating to the sacred.”4 The phrase “ways of relating” may include an array of relational postures—for example, “searching for,” “abiding within,” or “hiding from.” The term “sacred” may refer to “a divine being, divine object, Ultimate Reality, or Ultimate Truth as perceived by the individual,”5 and may also include persons, rituals, objects, narratives, texts, times, and spaces that are “set apart…as special, uniquely transcendent, and not ordinary or profane.”6

Defining spirituality as “ways of relating to the sacred” has three main advantages in the context of this essay. First, the emphasis on relationality can be utilized to highlight the ways in which interpersonal relationships and representations of the sacred reciprocally influence each other.7 Second, it can support a focus on the dynamism of spirituality; that is, the ongoing transformations in our ways of relating to the sacred throughout life. Third, it is an inclusive and versatile definition, and can function descriptively in relation to a wide range of spiritual practices.8


The English word “empathy” is a translation of the German Einf�hlung, which literally means “in-feeling” or “feeling into.” The idea was first presented in 1873 by Robert Vischer as a term used in aesthetics. In 1903, empathy entered the field of psychology through the work of philosopher Theodore Lipps, who held that empathy is an “objectified enjoyment of self.” 9

Contemporary definitions of empathy often vary according to discipline. Philosopher Susan Langer speaks of empathy as an involuntary breach of individual separateness.10 Primatologist Frans De Wall defines it as “the ability to be affected by the state of another individual or creature.”11 Among social and developmental psychologists, definitions of empathy tend to center on emotional/affective responses to others.12 Neuroscientific definitions generally touch on both the “emotional” and “cognitive” aspects of empathy. Neuroscientists often emphasize that a central aspect of the experience and expression of empathy is the complex ability to make hypotheses about the state of the other while holding onto an awareness of the self.13 Interpersonal neurobiologists propose that empathy involves the complex process of imagining what it is like to be the other while simultaneously holding our own perspective in mind.14

I define empathy as the capacity to be affected by and share in the state of an other (or others) in such a way that we maintain self-awareness even as we “feel into” the other’s experience. Like many social-psychological accounts of empathy, my definition provides room for spontaneous response; we are often automatically (and/or unconsciously) “affected by” the states of others. It also echoes the neurobiological emphasis on knowledge of self and other as integral to empathy. Further, I wish to emphasize that my conception of “sharing in” does not imply “fusing with” the other. Rather, it means allowing the other’s experience to become part of my own in such a way that I am not (on the one hand) engulfed by the other, nor (on the other hand) am I cut off from the other; instead, I relate to the other in a self-differentiated15 manner.


“Compassion” is derived from the Latin pati, meaning “to suffer,” and cum, meaning “with.” Thus, translated literally, compassion means “to suffer with.” As with empathy, definitions of compassion differ according to the contexts, perspectives, and interests of those doing the defining; however, most definitions hew closely to the word’s original etymological meaning.

For Roman Catholic priest and spiritual writer Henri Nouwen, compassion means “going directly to those people and places where suffering is most acute and building a home there.”16 The Dalai Lama believes that human beings are “fundamentally compassionate;” that is, we have a “natural ability to connect spontaneously and deeply with the suffering of others.”17 Clinical psychologists Patrick R. Steffen and Kevin S. Masters speak of compassion as “being moved by the suffering of others and having the desire to alleviate that suffering,” and posit that a “compassionate personality” involves “altruistic behavior with a deep sense of empathy for the needs of others.”18 Like Steffen and Masters, neuroscientist John A. King and his colleagues add the important component of helping action to their definition; in their study, compassion was “exemplified by the Good Samaritan-like behavior of helping an unknown victim encountered on a single occasion.”19 This brief sampling of definitions reveals that sharing in the suffering of others, and wanting them to have respite, is fundamental to compassion.

I define compassion as being empathically connected with others in their suffering, and taking action to ease their distress. This definition presupposes empathy as I have defined it above; however, it also goes beyond empathy in that it involves a component of action, or helping behavior.20 I agree with the Dalai Lama that compassion should not be confused with pity, which can imply that the sufferer is inferior to oneself.21 Rather, compassion is undergirded by a deep sense of respect for the other person. Finally, compassion should not be simply equated with all forms of “prosocial” action; helping behaviors are sometimes carried out in non-empathic, non-compassionate ways. While gauging human motives is always a thorny undertaking, as a general rule, a sense of empathic resonance with the pain of the other—a basic experience of “suffering with”—should be involved to some degree in those individual and communal expressions of care that we label “compassionate.”22

Putting these three definitions together, by “spirituality of compassion” I mean a way of relating to the sacred that cultivates empathic connectedness with others in their suffering and promotes action to ease their distress.

A Postfoundationalist Transdisciplinary Approach

I follow a postfoundationalist model for relating IPNB and spirituality. While it has been spelled out in several different ways,23 in each of its forms, postfoundationalist models emphasize that because all forms of human inquiry (including scientific and spiritual reflection) are irreducibly contextual and social, transdisciplinarity is a practical, embodied skill of particular, historically-situated, persons-in-relation. Practically speaking, postfoundationalism asks transdisciplinarians to assume self-aware, critical postures toward patterns in their traditions, beliefs, cultures, practices, and assumptions, and attempt to make sense of those patterns through ongoing dialogue with scholars in other fields.

I take seriously the postfoundationalist imperatives to integrate self-awareness and communal dialogue into the core of the transdisciplinary task. For the present study, this means that I remain intentionally conscious of the ways in which my own experience as a person who has received graduate education in both psychotherapy and theology has birthed and continues to shape my approach to questions of human nature, compassion, and transformation. In constructing my arguments, I draw not only on scholarly sources, but also implicitly from my experiences working with patients in therapeutic settings, and from my critical self-reflections on those experiences. My thinking has also been enriched by innumerable transdisciplinary conversations I have had over the years with therapists, supervisors, and religious scholars. A postfoundationalist approach, therefore, gives me latitude to intentionally integrate my personal and vocational history, self-consciousness, and relations with others into the very heart of my work.

In addition, postfoundationalism affirms that as we attempt to cross the boundaries of our particular disciplines and traditions, specific meeting-points for mutual understanding and collaboration can emerge. These “transversal spaces”—a notion originating in the work of Calvin Schrag24—are spaces in which different voices are not in opposition, nor in danger of becoming unified, but are dynamically engaged with one another. Transversality occurs when different disciplinary perspectives can lie across, extend over, intersect, meet, and convey without becoming fused or enmeshed.25 Compassion, I submit, may be thought of as one such “transversal space” in which the distinct assumptions and thought patterns of hard science and spiritual practice can meet.

Basic Assumptions of Interpersonal Neurobiology

Drawing richly from many different disciplines (including neuroscience, psychiatry, developmental psychology, social psychology, psychoanalysis, family systems theory, ethology, evolutionary theory, comparative anatomy, and genetics), IPNB aims to paint a picture of human experience and the dynamics of change across the lifespan by focusing on ways in which human bei gs are formed and transformed through relationships.26 IPNB is especially attentive to the processes by which neural systems shape human patterns of attachment, and, correlatively, how those attachment patterns shape neural systems. Louis Cozolino, Professor of Psychology at Pepperdine University and a key figure (with Daniel J. Siegel) in this bourgeoning field, defines IPNB simply as “the study of how we attach and grow and interconnect throughout life.”27

Prior to discussing specific ways in which IPNB sheds light on conditions that encourage the emergence of empathy and thereby opens up space in which to propose a scientifically informed spirituality of compassion, it will be necessary to outline several of IPNB’s basic assumptions.

Brain and Mind

First, IPNB assumes that interpersonal relationships are the natural habitat of the human brain and mind. Cozolino describes the brain as “an organ of adaptation that builds its structures through interactions with others.”28 The brain is a dynamic interpersonal system; just as neurons29 are constituted by their ongoing synaptic connections with other neurons, so too are brains continually being formed and re-formed through ongoing interactions with other brains. Because the brain is best described as an open system that undergoes continuous change in relational contexts across the lifespan,30 the concept of a “single brain” is a misnomer:

Scientists have had to expand their thinking to grasp this idea: The individual neuron or a single human brain does not exist in nature. Without mutually stimulating interactions, people and neurons wither and die. In neurons this process is called apoptosis; in humans it is called depression, grief, and suicide… Thus, understanding the brain requires knowledge of the healthy, living brain embedded within a community of other brains.”31

Not only the brain’s health and vitality—but also its very existence—is essentially dependent upon the myriad relational connections that occur across “social synapses.”32

While Cozolino’s approach to IPNB focuses on the language of “the social brain,” Siegel’s method is marked by more direct concentration on the language of “mind,” which he defines as “a process that regulates the flow of energy and information.”33 For Siegel, the human mind is both neurobiological (involving the flow of energy and information within the body, including the brain) and interpersonal (involving the flow of energy and information between persons). Because “Energy and information can flow within one brain, or between brains,” the mind is said to emerge at the dynamic interface of embodied and relational processes.34 Thus, whether the language is centered on the human social brain and the social synapses that connect brains (Cozolino), or on the emergent processes of the human mind that include neurobiological and interpersonal processes (Siegel), IPNB places face-to-face, voice-to-voice communication at the heart of the human experience of reality.

Social and Emotional Neurocircuitry

Second, IPNB assumes that certain brain structures and systems—especially those involving the prefrontal cortex and limbic system—are particularly important for understanding the complex interactions between relationships, neurobiology, and personality development. The classic 1848 case of Phineas Gage—a railroad worker whose personality was significantly altered after an accidental explosion shot a four-foot tamping iron rod through his frontal lobes—is a symbolic marker of the rise of scientific interest in the link between biology and behavior in general, and the brain’s frontal lobes in particular.

The frontal lobes evolved as humans became primates, and among primate species, humans have the most highly developed prefrontal cortices. Located (roughly) behind the forehead and eye area, the prefrontal cortex interacts with other systems of the brain to guide our emotional, social, and moral ways of being in the world. Prefrontal systems mediate many of the functions considered unique to homo sapiens, including the ability to regulate body systems, balance emotions, modulate fear, respond flexibly, exhibit insight, feel empathy, experience intuition, and make moral decisions.35 “An intact and well-developed prefrontal cortex enables us to maintain a simultaneous sense of self and others that is necessary for interpersonal strategizing and decision making.”36

In addition to a general interest in the prefrontal cortex, IPNB focuses on specific cortical and subcortical structures of the brain that are important for understanding social and emotional processes. Many of these structures are considered part of the limbic system, which is closely linked with the prefrontal cortex and supports a variety of emotional, behavioral, and memory functions. Right hemispheric limbic brain areas are integrally involved in socioemotional processing and self-regulation.37 Let us briefly consider six of the most important structures of the social brain—many of which are hidden beneath the brain’s surface. 38

  • The cingulate cortex is associated with long-term emotional bonds, social cooperation, and empathy.
  • The orbital medial prefrontal cortex (OMPFC), anatomically perched at the top of the centrally located limbic system, is responsible for integrating sensory (external) and emotional (internal) information with motivation and reward systems in the guiding of perceptions, actions, and interactions.
  • The hypothalamus is involved in linking conscious experience and bodily processes (such as hunger and thirst), and also regulates sexual behavior and aggression.
  • The insula cortex appears to mediate a vast range of emotions (from intense disgust to passionate love) and, with the anterior cingulate, allows for awareness of bodily states and reflections on emotional experiences.
  • The hippocampus specializes in organizing spatial, sequential, and emotional learning and memory.
  • The amygdala plays a central role in fear responses; it specializes in rapidly appraising danger and initiating automatic fight/flight reactions to threat.

In addition to these (and other) cortical and subcortical structures, the sensory, motor, and affective systems, as well as the regulatory systems,39 are central facets of the social brain. As we will see, many of the neurological structures and systems that IPNB finds indispensable for understanding human social and emotional life play a central role in the experience and expression of compassion.

At the same time that IPNB singles out discrete neurological structures and systems, it also attends to the connections between them in order to better understand the dynamic processes by which the brain regulates the flow of energy and information. The linking up of neural structures and networks in ways that that contribute to the establishment of “a functional flow in the states of mind across time”40 is known as “neural integration,”41 and the middle prefrontal cortex is generally seen as the main hub of this process. Greater levels of neural integration are associated with increased capacities to balance emotion, construct coherent life narratives, experience self-awareness, respond adaptively to stress, form meaningful relationships with others, regulate the body, and (most importantly for our purposes) respond empathically to others. As we will see, there are specific conditions that appear to encourage the process of neural integration.

Attachment Theory

Third, IPNB assumes that attachment theory provides the best available model for analyzing the interaction between relationships and the brain in the unfolding of the human personality. Originating in the 1950’s in the work of British psychoanalyst John Bowlby,42 attachment theory seeks to understand the human person in the context of his or her ongoing embeddedness in close, emotional relationships with significant others.

Attachment theory postulates the existence of an inborn, evolutionarily-formed attachment system that enhances infant survival by recruiting relational resources from the primary caregiver in order to successfully regulate anxiety and fear in the face of perceived threat. As the child grows, early relational patterns become internalized dispositions (“internal working models of attachment”) that profoundly and implicitly shape the way the individual relates to others (and to the self) throughout life. In other words, early relationships become “hard-wired” in the brain, and later function as unconscious “templates” that structure relationships in adult life—for good or ill.

In recent decades, attachment theory has garnered significant empirical support and has gained acceptance in a wide range of social-scientific fields. Overall, it has proven a reliable model for analyzing not only infant-caregiver bonds, but also romantic bonds in adult life.43 Many controlled studies have confirmed its usefulness for explaining and predicting various aspects of human experience over the lifespan, including adult behavioral tendencies, developmental patterns, relational styles, cognitive processes, and self-regulatory abilities.44

By observing hundreds of primary caregiver-infant dyads in controlled settings, early attachment researchers45 proposed the existence of three main bonding styles (or “attachment schemas”): secure, avoidant, and anxious-ambivalent. Secure attachment is promoted by sensitive, consistent, and responsive care from the primary caregiver. A secure attachment bond nurtures infant development by providing a “secure base” for environmental exploration, a reliable relational context for learning how to adaptively regulate cognitive and affective processes in the face of anxiety, and an orientation to human relationships marked by a balance of separateness and connectedness.

Insecure attachment bonds “bias the infant’s relational development toward either an excessive preoccupation with maintaining proximity or toward a persistent avoidance of closeness.”46 Avoidant attachment is associated with dismissive parenting, and contributes to a “deactivation” of the infant’s attachment system. Since they have learned to expect indifference and/or unavailability from their primary caregiver, in stressful situations, avoidantly attached infants prefer emotional and physical isolation. Anxious-ambivalent bonds are related to inconsistent, imperceptive, unresponsive, and/or enmeshed47 parenting. Here the child’s attachment system is “hyperactivated,” resulting in anxious clinging to the parent (intense “proximity-seeking”), and angry, distressed, frightened, and inconsolable affect. Later research also identified a fourth “disorganized/disorienting” category of attachment48 that appears to result from frightened or highly disoriented communication from the parent. A disorganized bond points to a combination of “deactivation” and “hyperactivation” in the infant’s attachment system, and is marked by chaotic, trance-like, and/or self-injurious behaviors.

The basic attachment categories outlined above provide interpersonal neurobiologists with a theoretical construct to describe how “relationships become biological structure.”49 Along with gene expression, early communications between parent and infant “literally shape the structure of the child’s developing brain.”50 In the simplest of interactions between a parent and baby—for example, a game of peek-a-boo—interpersonal experience is being “transducted” into biology. Each instance of attuned51 communication contributes to the creation of key structures and systems in the baby’s rapidly developing brain. The neural circuitries responsible for organizing one’s relational behaviors and “stress coping capacities” throughout life are formed in and through the countless verbal and nonverbal interactions that transpire between a parent and child during the infant and toddler years.52

IPNB emphasizes that, on the one hand, secure internal working models of attachment are related to greater capacities for self-regulation, empathic attunement with others, self-love, abilities to form coherent life narratives, and expectations of positive outcomes. On the other hand, insecure attachment schema are associated with difficulties in regulating emotions and impulses, problems in maintaining memory for future consequences, struggles in keeping long-term goals in mind, low problem-solving abilities, high levels of internalized shame, poor memory and planning, incoherent and brief life narratives, and difficulties in empathizing with the needs and perspectives of others. Although attachment patterns are consistent from childhood to adulthood and tend to be transmitted generationally, as we will see, there is growing evidence that attachment schema can be changed for the better through loving, attuned relationships with others and conscious control of attentional processes.53


Fourth, IPNB assumes that neural change occurs throughout the lifespan. Several decades ago, there was general scientific consensus that lower brain and neocortical areas were unchangeable after early child development. While experiences with attachment figures in infancy and childhood do have a disproportionate effect on the growth and development of neural systems, more recent research suggests that the human brain is endowed with a lifelong ability to restructure itself with each new experience. Interpersonal neurobiologists thus maintain a constant emphasis on “the change[s] in neural connectivity induce by experience.&rdquo