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Dalai Lama and Stanford researchers explore science of compassion and altruism

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At yesterday’s conference on “Scientific Explorations of Compassion and Altruism,” Stanford researchers and colleagues engaged in a dialogue with the Dalai Lama about the neural, genetic and behavioral mechanisms associated with compassion, altruism and other pro-social emotions.

Stanford psychologist and neuroscientist Brian Knutson, PhD, started the conversation with a review of his work using fMRI to identify pathways involved in the exercise of compassion. “We’re at the very beginning of this research, but there’s good evidence that compassion can be elicited in the laboratory,” said Knutson.

The discussion continued with a presentation by William Harbaugh, PhD, a neuroeconomist at University of Oregon, on a neural explanation for what goes on inside the brains of beneficiaries of charity. “This research shows that people do get a neural reward form charitable giving,” said Harbaugh. “This activation tends to be higher when people make the choice voluntarily.”

At the conclusion of the discussion, Stanford psychiatrist and bioengineer Karl Deisseroth, MD, PhD, who invented the new field of optogenetics, explained his work studying the neural basis of social compassion in the mammalian brain. “The goal is to slowly start to piece together how mammals value social behavior and this is ultimately, we think, linked to compassion,” said Deisseroth.

The daylong conference was sponsored by the School of Medicine’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. Video of the entire conference and the Dalai Lama’s other events at Stanford will be available on iTunes U and Youtube next week.

Previously: Stanford to live webcast Dalai Lama events Oct. 14 & 15 and Dalai Lama coming to Stanford in October
Photo by L.A. Cicero

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