Dalai Lama backs new center to study neurology of altruism and compassion

L.A. Cicero

The Dalai Lama presented William Mobley with a traditional Tibetan gift during his visit to Stanford in 2005.

Jim Doty

A new Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education has been launched at the School of Medicine, with the aim of doing scientific research on the neural underpinnings of these thoughts and feelings.

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, provided $150,000 in seed money for the center—the largest sum he has ever given for a scientific venture—and has agreed to return to Stanford for a future visit, according to Geshe Thupten Jinpa, a translator for the Dalai Lama.

The center is the brainchild of Jim Doty, MD, a clinical professor of neurosurgery who recently returned to Stanford after a period of entrepreneurship, and neurologist William Mobley, MD, PhD, the John E. Cahill Family Professor in the School of Medicine. Doty is the director of the center, which is housed within the Stanford Institute for Neuro-Innovation and Translational Neurosciences.

The impetus for the center began in November 2005, when the Dalai Lama visited Stanford for a dialogue with scientists and Buddhist scholars that was moderated by Mobley and focused on spiritual and scientific explorations of human experience in the areas of craving, suffering and choice.

Following the visit by the Dalai Lama and based on his own experiences and interest in these areas, Doty initiated informal meetings with a number of Stanford scientists including Mobley, who is co-director of the center; Brian Knutson, PhD, associate professor of psychology; and Gary Steinberg, MD, PhD, professor and chair of neurosurgery, in an effort to spur rigorous scientific research in mind/brain interactions focused on compassion and altruism. He also connected with University of Oregon neuroeconomist Bill Harbaugh, PhD, who examines altruistic giving using functional magnetic resonance imaging.

In March 2008, a delegation from Stanford flew to Seattle, where the Dalai Lama was attending a conference related to compassion. On hearing about the planned center's goals and the pilot studies under way, the Dalai Lama agreed to a return visit to Stanford and spontaneously volunteered the $150,000 gift to spur continuing exploration in this area. This event marked the transition from what was initially an informal gathering of like-minded scientists to the formal creation of the center by medical school Dean Philip Pizzo, MD.

"As a neurosurgeon, I can only affect a few patients each day," Doty said. "Through the activities of the center, we have the potential to impact thousands to millions of people to live fuller and more positive lives."

The center has now raised more than $2 million in donations and has initiated a number of pilot studies, some involving Buddhist and Catholic contemplative practitioners. For example, brain-imaging studies have demonstrated a burst of activity in an area of the brain known as the nucleus accumbens when these practitioners think compassionate thoughts. The center is also examining individuals' response to the suffering of others, which can be either disgust or recognition of another's suffering, followed by empathy and a desire to take action (this is signaled by activation of the prefrontal cortex, the seat of initiation of motor movement).

Questions the center wishes to address include:

  • Is it possible to create a set of mental exercises that individuals can be taught to make them more compassionate without them having to spend thousands of hours in meditation (common for Buddhist monks)?

  • Is there an explanation for why a child becomes a bully?

  • Are there ways in which children or their parents can be taught to be more compassionate?

  • Can we create a set of exercises that will address the issue of "compassion fatigue" in clergy and hospital personnel?

  • Would such training benefit prison inmates to decrease violence and recidivism?

  • Is there a place for such training in the corporate environment to decrease the incidence of depression and anxiety in workers?

  • The center is also sponsoring a symposium, slated for March, that will bring together a multidisciplinary group of scientists from around the world. Attendees will include philosophers, contemplative scholars, psychologists, developmentalists, primatologists, neuroeconomists and neuroscientists working in the area of compassion and altruism research.

    Doty brings a unique perspective on altruism. At one point, he accumulated a $75 million fortune, part of which he committed as a multimillion-dollar pledge to Stanford. But following the dot-com meltdown, he was $3 million in debt even after liquidating almost all of his assets. To honor his charitable commitments, he sold his only remaining asset: stock in Accuray Inc., a company he had headed as CEO. This let him fulfill pledges of $5.4 million to the university and another $20 million to other charities. Part of his Stanford donation is being used to fund the center, located at 1215 Welch Road (Module B/room 55). For more information, visit http://compassion.stanford.edu.