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Are Compassion and Pride Mutually Exclusive?

Carrie Steckl earned her Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology with a Minor in Gerontology from Indiana University – Bloomington in 2001. She has spent over ...Read More

It’s time to put on our scientific caps again and consider such pithy subjects as compassion and pride within the context of neurology.

Before your eyes glaze over, consider the question at hand. It’s kind of important. Can compassion and pride occur at the same time (within the same person), or are they incompatible states of being?

This conundrum occurred to me after reading about a study recently published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience called “An fMRI Study of Caring versus Self-Focus during Induced Compassion and Pride.”

Wow! I must be a nerd because this title really excited me. We often think of our emotional states separately from the biochemical mechanisms occurring in our brains. But really, the brain is the source of our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, even if we don’t notice it on a daily basis. If we can learn what happens in the brain when we experience certain emotions, perhaps we can begin to understand how emotions might be cultivated or tamed (depending on the emotion in question).

In this study, researchers from The Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (How cool is that?) at Stanford University used visual slide sequences to evoke two different emotions as well as a neutral emotional state. The two emotions they evoked were compassion, which they defined as an emotion that orients us toward vulnerable others and prompts caregiving; and pride, which they defined as a self-focused emotion signified by personal strength and status.

The participants allowed pictures of their brain activity to be taken during the slideshow using technology called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). This allowed the researchers to see what parts of the brain were activated while different emotions were being experienced. Participants were also asked to report what they were feeling while watching the various slides.

Not surprisingly, different parts of the brain were activated when different emotions were felt. When participants felt compassion, the midbrain periaqueductal gray (PAG) area lit up; when pride was in play, the posterior medial cortex was engaged. Theoretically, both of these areas could be active at the same time, though this wasn’t witnessed during the study.

But here’s where it gets really interesting. When compassion was induced, there was increased activation in an area of the brain called the inferior frontal gyrus (IFG). When pride was induced, there was reduced activation in the IFG.

Do you see where I’m going with this? If one emotion increases activation in a specific part of the brain while another emotion decreases activation in the same area, can those two emotions occur simultaneously?

If not, this would make it almost impossible for us to experience compassion and pride at once. Could this explain why compassion is sometimes associated with being selfless, while pride is (in come cultures and religious traditions) viewed as being selfish?

I do hope there is more research to come regarding this important subject. We need more compassion in this world, but I don’t know if we can cultivate it at the expense of pride, especially in cultures that cling to rugged individualism. Perhaps there’s a way to experience both compassion and pride in a delicately balanced way of being that results in overall wellness for everyone.

Keep Reading By Author Carrie Steckl, Ph.D.
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