The Science of Compassion (or Why It’s Really Human to Help Out)

Everyday, a plethora of stories arise on the Internet. A huge part of the content is probably fun, entertaining, and/or informational. Some, however, tell the tragedy of the world we live in. And if you read the news, you know that it’s so real. Other stories tell how people address that tragedy and do their share in alleviating the suffering of their fellow human beings. In our blog, we frequently showcase this kind of content — stories of people with exemplary acts of devotion and compassion or even people who do random little acts of kindness in their everyday lives.

Some people who enjoy helping out tend to do so for religious or spiritual reasons. And whether it’s Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, or others, the religions of the world do have discourses of compassion. Though I myself have always been curious about a different but equally important aspect of this human tendency: is there a science behind this?

I’m glad to report: yep, there is. A study done by experimental social psychologists tested how the experience of compassion affected people’s behavior. First, participants were told that they were supposedly part of an experiment about mathematical ability and taste perception. Ostensibly, these were the instructions: participants were supposed to solve as much as they can of 20 math problems, in which they would receive 50 cents for each problem they solved correctly. After being checked and getting paid, they would proceed to the taste perception phase. Here, participants were asked to prepare taste samples for each other by pouring extra-hot hot sauce.

It seems absurd, but here’s the catch. The experimenters hired confederates to pretend to be fake participants. Let’s call the first one Dan and the second Hannah. In one version of the experiment, Dan was asked to cheat badly and very obviously on the math problems, so that the real participants would see. Afterwards, in the taste perception phase, the experimenters noticed that the real participants poured bigger servings of hot sauce to Dan the Cheater. But doesn’t this show revenge instead of compassion?

Well, in another version, Dan the Cheater was asked to do the same thing but now Hannah was gonna play a role. Before the taste perception phase, Hannah would cry and the experimenters would ask why. She’d say she recently found out about her brother’s terminal illness. Increasingly emotional, Hannah asked to be excused from the experiment. In this version, even though the participants still witnessed Dan cheating, they did not pour bigger amounts of hot sauce in the taste perception phase.

What does this show? First, the compassion that the participants felt predicted how much hot sauce they were going to give to another person. And second, more importantly, the compassion that people feel towards one person can predict how they will act towards others.

This experiment is only one of many studies that are now delving into the idea and reality of compassion. Recently, a conference has even been held to discuss it, joined by representatives from different fields such as evolutionary psychologists, clinical psychologists who deal with children suffering from trauma, charity owners who conduct social and emotional skills workshops for the youth, and others.

Using brain scans, one doctor even explained how different parts of the brain are activated when people are in a “compassionate state” or “non-compassionate state.” So interestingly enough, compassion actually seems to have physiological, neurological effects.

But now here’s the thing. My personal epiphany, if you will. We can participate in all these discussions, conduct our own experiments if we’re in the field, compile all these data, but maybe it’ll be a bit more exciting to see for ourselves. There’s all this science about compassion, we know that. But somehow I think the reality of compassion can’t be proven by numbers. Tall order but maybe here’s what we can do: go out there, help people out, and prove it for ourselves.

If you are interested in reading more scientific information about kindness or compassion, here’s a list of various quantitative and qualitative studies about the topic. Then again, if you are more keen to join the action, check out the BeepBeep Nation app and this fun video on how to get started. You might be surprised at the many ways you’ll see how compassion exists.

 

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3D-Printed Ears Help Hearing Impaired Kids

Implants are becoming a thing of the past, now that it’s possible to 3D-print anything from brain tissue to teeth. While some remain dubious about the technology, Chinese scientists may convince them to think on the contrary. A Chinese lab has successfully incorporated 3D-printing methods to regrow underdeveloped ears using the patients’ own cells.

The researchers created a 3D-printed replica of each child’s normal ear… but … reversed. This replica was then used to create a mold littered with tiny holes and made out of biodegradable material. The mold was filled in with precursor cartilage cells taken from the children’s deformed ear that were further grown in the lab.

The ears grow over a 12-week process and are more restorative than cosmetic. Chinese researchers haven’t yet trialled the use of stem cells, but progress incredibly fast, which means its potential shouldn’t be far off. Five children have since undergone the experimental procedure.

“It’s a very exciting approach,” [said] Tessa Hadlock, a reconstructive plastic surgeon…“They’ve shown that it is possible to get close to restoring the ear structure.”

We’ve come a long way with reconstructive surgeries, and might I say — it’s music to my ears.

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MIT Creates Glow-In-The-Dark Plants

New Zealand’s 1 billion tree-planting goal is proof that society is recognizing nature’s benefits. Anyway, city trees do cut down community expenses by up to $500 million. Besides producing oxygen, plants reduce air pollution and carbon emissions — and can now light up in the dark.

A team of MIT engineers have created living bioluminescent lamps out of watercress plants with the goal of one day replacing conventional electrical lighting with the glowing greenery.

The enzyme responsible for the Green Lantern glow is luciferase, active primarily in fireflies. For now, the plants glow dimly for around 4 hours at a time. With the project continuing to progress, scientists are hoping to at least pull leafy desk lamps from the experiment.

“The vision is to make a plant that will function as a desk lamp — a lamp that you don’t have to plug in. The light is ultimately powered by the energy metabolism of the plant itself,” says Michael Strano, a Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT.

If MIT is drafting a customer waitlist, I’m definitely first in line. My electricity bill could use one less zero!

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Scientists Rewrite Man’s DNA To Cure Genetic Disease

Gene editing in healthcare isn’t a novel procedure, but has been seeing fairly recent breakthroughs. The technique has brought us closer to curing paralysis and “butterfly” disease. But in an ambitious first, scientists at Benioff Children’s Hospital have attempted to rewrite DNA in a live patient to cure a rare genetic disorder.

“This is opening up a whole new field of medicine,” said Sandy Macrae, president of Sangamo Therapeutics, which funded the trial. “You can imagine all the diseases that now become possible to treat when you can put in a new copy of the gene, or turn it up or turn it down.”

The experimental patient suffered from Hunter syndrome, which damages organs due to lack of a particular enzyme. Researchers have yet to report on the new method’s success. With only some 12 gene editing trials in progress, the study has a lot to prove but, on the whole, seems promising.

Eric Topol, a geneticist and cardiologist at the Scripps Translational Science Institute, called the new trial “a very important milestone.”

“I’ve been following medicine over 30 years. I’ve never seen anything move at this velocity,”

Thanks to an abundance of brand new technology, gene therapy is getting the boost it deserves. Hopefully it’ll see its patients through to a happy ending.

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Goodbye Epipen: Probiotics May Cure Peanut Allergies

These days, thanks to science, impossible means nothing. Because of nanochip technology, we can repair damaged organs in a single touch. We can even remedy blindness by mimicking the functions of fish eyes. And much to the delight of millions, probiotics may be able to cure peanut allergies.

A course of probiotics combined with an oral immunotherapy treatment using peanuts in kids who are allergic to the nut cured them for at least four years.

After a number of carefully controlled peanut-munching sessions, study founder Mimi Tang requested a follow-up four years later. Out of 12 children who participated in the original study, 7 remained allergy-free.

“We had children who came into the study allergic to peanuts, having to avoid peanut in their diet, being very vigilant around that, carrying a lot of anxiety with that,” Tang said. “And at the end of treatment and even four years later, many of these children who had benefitted from our probiotic peanut therapy could now live like a child who didn’t have peanut allergy.”

Peanuts are the most common allergen in the world and can often be deadly. For the unfortunate ones who have never experienced the delight of a Snickers bar, the moment may come sooner rather than later.

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Origami Organs: A Medical Breakthrough?

Organs are pretty versatile. We can 3D print them or grow them in labs, either way replicating functional body parts. Now, scientists have found a way to make them flexible enough to fold. In other words, origami organs exist.

“This new class of biomaterials has potential for tissue engineering and regenerative medicine as well as drug discovery and therapeutics,”

The team stumbled upon the idea for making organ-based paper after a lucky accident during their research on 3D-printed mice ovaries.

A chance spill of the hydrogel-based gelatin ink used to make the ovaries ended up pooling into a dry sheet in the bench lab, and from one strange innovation, another was born.

A mishap gone right, the bioactive “tissue paper” can potentially be used to heal wounds or supplement hormone production.

It’s a bit like papier-mâché… but what’s important is that the paper retains residual biochemicals from its protein-based origins, holding on to cellular properties from the specific organ it comes from.

As with all clinical experiments, origami organs need to undergo a lot of testing. However, a sterling sign of prospective success is the fact that the paper supports human stem cell growth. I guess paper cranes are now more than just an art form.

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Fish Eyes Are Being Used To Cure Blindness

Treatments for the seeing-impaired are not always easy to come by. That’s why we make do with technology like talking cameras that allow the blind to “see.” However, a new study shows that mimicking fish eyes could potentially cure blindness.

Researchers at the University of Washington in Seattle reported that they have hacked the cells of a mouse retina to act like those of a fish—not only growing new neurons, but also wiring those neurons up to other neurons that send signals to the brain.

While surgery can treat cataracts, retina damage is incurable — but not for zebrafish. Their eyes regenerate indefinitely, assisted by a cell called Müller glia. The cell acts as a “stand in” for lost neurons. Humans also carry the cell but due to differences in DNA, cannot access this reprogrammable characteristic.

[UW Researchers found] Trichostatin-A (TSA), a hormonal treatment for breast cancer, that also happens to open up the regeneration DNA sequence. In an injured retina, these Müller glia cells treated with TSA transformed into two types of neurons, bipolar and amacrine cells, that are part of the retina’s internal wiring.

Scientists have yet to produce photoreceptor neurons, but with the way things are going, creating them is very possible.

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Intelligent Raven Outsmarts Researchers

Never underestimate the intellectual capacity of an animal. Just like us, they do what they can to get what they want. This intelligent raven was removed from an experiment by hacking it completely and teaching other ravens the secret.

In this study, researchers from Lund University in Sweden trained ravens to use a simple machine where they dropped a rock in a tube to earn a food reward. 86 percent managed to successfully use [the rocks] to open the machine.

One raven in the experiment figured out how to work their rock/box contraption first, then began teaching the method to other ravens, and finally invented its own way of doing it. Instead of dropping a rock to release a treat, the [raven] constructed a layer of twigs in the tube, and pushed another stick down through the layer to force it open.

This bird is certainly winning at life. Researchers can understand this behavior in apes. They are, ultimately, our closest animal relatives. But these ravens are proving that other species can be just as sharp-witted.

“It’s an independent evolution of complex cognition, which is a fascinating idea, because it shows that evolution sometimes likes to rerun good solutions. In this case, it’s planning skills,”

I’ve got to hand it to these birds. Their ability to think ahead is truly evolution at its best.

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