The science of compassion and empathy

Compassion research is becoming recognised as a rapidly emerging field.

Researching the scientific understanding of empathy and compassion has never been more important as the world continues to grapple with the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic and a volatile political landscape, a Federation University Australia researcher says.

Dr Lynne Reeder, Adjunct Research Fellow in the School of Science, Psychology and Sport, and National Director of the Australian Compassion Council (ACC), said compassion research is becoming recognised as a rapidly emerging field with significant implications for improving human wellbeing.

Research from leading academics and university centres specialising in compassion will be showcased at the first Compassion Research Forum, organised by the ACC’s Scholars Network in partnership with the University of Sydney’s, Body, Heart and Mind in Business Research Group.

Dr Reeder said the forum would share the wide diversity of compassion research taking place around Australia and internationally.

Developments in neuroscience can now demonstrate how and where empathy and compassion can be ‘seen' in the brain. MRI technology is providing an important collection of data demonstrating that empathy and compassion, and the underlying brain structures, can be strengthened through training.

“The science is now showing us how parts of the brain respond to the way people are feeling and how they feel when they act in specific ways. So empathy and compassion have come from something that was inherent, or a value, to something that is attracting great interest in science and other disciplines,“ she said.

Dr Reeder said Federation University researchers were involved in several compassion projects. This includes the Think Equal program – which is introducing social and emotional learning into the earliest years of formal learning.

Another project led by Professor Britt Klein, CompassionateUs, is an eight-week web and mobile program designed to help people increase compassion for themselves and others.

Another ground-breaking study in healthcare – Compassion at The Heart of Well-being – has recruited hundreds of nurses and midwives from the Sydney Local Health District to investigate how the well-being of these key workers could be improved, as well as their ability to provide compassionate care for their patients.

“This research discipline is quite new, and Federation is playing a leading role in bringing together this group of scholars from around Australia who are focused on really growing and assembling a critical mass of research,” Dr Reeder said.

“Compassion research is just so important. COVID is having such a big impact and even if we were to get a vaccine soon, the effects of the pandemic are still working their way through economic systems. It’s also affecting our youth; the many young people who are trying to finish year 12 and get into uni or begin their working lives.” Dr Lynne Reeder

Dr Reeder said the aim of the ACC’s Scholars Network was to become a ‘one-stop shop’ for global research partnerships.

“Compassion research is an emerging area of multidisciplinary study and this research forum will support Australian researchers in being better informed when discussing new methodologies and specific research measures,” she said.

This research discipline is also being applied in many sectors including health, education, and business and the research outcomes from these areas will also be discussed at the forum.

Dr Reeder said a recent philanthropic donation of $US100 million to an empathy and compassion institute at the University of California San Diego, demonstrated the growth of compassion research internationally. Director of the institute, Professor William Mobley, will be keynote speaker at the forum.

The ACC Scholars Network, in partnership with the University of Sydney’s, Body, Heart and Mind in Business Research Group, has organised the first National Compassion Research Forum. Managing Change and Complexity with Compassion: New Research and Application will be held online on 9 November 2020 from 9.30am-12.30pm. Click here to register.

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