It’s NOT All in Your Head – Here’s How Humans Physically Respond to Suffering

Many of us are familiar with the physical reaction our bodies have when we observe suffering in others. It almost seems as if time stands still – everything slows down including our breathing and heartbeat – when we witness heartache and distress in our fellow humans, even if they are not our close friends or family. It turns out that compassion is not all in the head. Recent studies show that our bodies do have a measurable series of physiological responses to compassion.

The authors of a recent article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology explored how our bodies react when we are experiencing the emotion compassion. Over the course of four studies, Jennifer E. Stellar, Adam Cohen, Christopher Oveis, and Dacher Keltner induced compassion by having participants watch videos or view slides of others suffering, for example a video of a student discussing her grandfathers death. At the same time they used physiological sensors to measure the participants’ physical responses – including heart rate, respiration, skin conductance and respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA – a measure of vagal activity). The authors found that their participants exhibited higher RSA during compassion induction compared to: (a) a neutral control where no emotion was induced (Study 1), (b) other positive emotions such as pride (Study 2) and (c) other pro-social emotiosn not linked to suffering like inspiration (Study 3). In all of these three studies, the participant’s exhibited increased RSA in the compassion condition of any of the others. The elevated level of RSA was often accompanied by a lower heart rate and respiration but no change in skin conductance. In Study 4, the social psychologists found that a participant’s increase in RSA during compassion positively predicted: (i) continuous self-reports of compassion, (ii) non-verbal displays of compassion and (iii) use of an established composite of compassion-related words.

While many of us may often feel at a loss when witnessing the suffering of others, it turns out that our bodies seem to have a preprogrammed physical reaction that accompanies the onset of compassion. These four recent studies demonstrate that during compassion induction the human body also activates the parasympathetic autonomous nervous system through the vagus nerve. The studies also disprove a previously held social psychology belief that resting RSA could predict emotional reports or physiological responses to compassion. So the natural and very human feeling of compassion (sorrow or concern for the suffering of another person coupled with the desire to alleviate that suffering) contains both a physiological as well as a psychological element. Not only does this important pro-social behavior benefit other people and society as a whole, it seems to also use a negative emotion (suffering) to trigger a positive one (compassion). Suffering is a large part of the human social experience. Many people do not know how to manage the suffering of others. So it is very important to understand out body’s natural reaction. Compassion is very important in a world where suffering is such a large part of the human experience and is perhaps critical to the survival of the human race.

Stellar, J., Cohen, A., Oveis, C., & Keltner, D. (2015). Affective and Physiological Responses to the Suffering of Others: Compassion and Vagal Activity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.


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