Abstract ID: 3484

Primary Topic: Basic Science
Secondary Topic: Mind-body (including meditation and yoga)

Neuroscience of Compassion: Multi-dimensional Construct and Integrative Health Skill
Poppy Schoenberg, PhD, Osher Center for Integrative Medicine, Nashville, TN, United States; Jonathan Greenberg, PhD, Massachusetts General Hospital , Boston, MA, United States; Yi-Yuan Tang, PhD, Texas Tech University, Lubbock, TX, United States; David Vago, PhD, Osher Center for Integrative Medicine, Nashville, TN, United States

Late Breaker: No


The construct of compassion is multi-faceted. It is broadly defined as the feeling that arises in witnessing another’s suffering, alongside the subsequent intention/motivation to help. Extant emotion research often conflates the construct with emotional processes such as empathy, sympathy, distress, sadness, self-compassion, and even love. Within social psychology, compassion is often framed as a virtuous characteristic and determinant to prosocial altruistic behavior that transcends self-referential processes. As such, moral psychology proposes compassion as foundational to ethical judgment and behavior. Here, we examine the concept of compassion as an empirical, multi-faceted construct through the lens of neuroscience. Specifically, what are the distinct neurobiological substrates of compassion and its analogues, and can it thus be considered as a “skill”, or group of skills, that may be developed? Can the multi-faceted construct of compassion involve multiple neurobiological markers and be intentionally modulated? What implications would this have for clinical, research, and educational settings, towards the advancement and optimization of integrative medicine and health? From an integrative health perspective, clarifying the conceptual and neurobiological processes subserving compassion will facilitate consistent empirically-informed clinical care, in addition to being good medicine.


Compassion presents a central tenet of integrative health and healing. Albeit, as a multi-faceted construct, understanding and advancing awareness of this operationalization and set of associated practices has important implications for the integrative health field. This topic is relevant for the following reasons: 1) from a clinical practice perspective, ensuring interventions appropriately emphasize compassion-based care is pertinent for the successful delivery of integrative health, ensuring patients are served in the most optimal method for their complex clinical needs. Essentially, incorporating a framework wherein compassion is described and embodied as a set of “skills” that can be harnessed within integrative medical training; 2) disseminating the extant research base regarding compassion as a multi-faceted construct with associated set of practices that cultivate it, may contribute to advanced clinician awareness and development of compassion research, particularly as a tool for working with ‘difficult’ clinical cases, and personal experiences of “burn-out”; 3) specific to the 2018 IM congress theme, ensuring the field remains collaborative, consistent, and that high-level decisions regarding clinical practice, education, and research emphasize compassion-based care, and a more comprehensive understanding of the mechanisms of compassion at the individual biological and collective socio-psychological levels.


  1. Examine compassion as a multi-faceted construct, alongside understanding the extant proposed clinical neurobiological models.
  2. Review the current neuroscientific research on neurobiological substrates and mechanisms of compassion and its analogues (e.g., empathy, prosocial behavior, self-compassion).
  3. Synthesize the presented models and empirical data, in terms of how it may be applied specifically to advancing integrative health research, education, and clinical practice.

Methods/Session Format

The session will be 90-min total. Each speaker will be allocated 20-min [15-min presentation, 5-min questions]. Following all three speakers, the session will open up for a 10-min general question round, for audience-speaker participation and discussion/debate.

  • The session will begin with David Vago, Ph.D, who will moderate the symposium. He will first present an overview of the existing contemporary cognitive and historical models of compassion, while clarifying the overlapping constructs. Second, he will summarize data from the field of contemplative science and integrative medicine suggesting further mechanisms by which compassion may be associated with clinical outcomes.
  • Yi-Yuan Tang, Ph.D., will focus on self-compassion improvement in healthy population following two types of mental training methods – attention-based and monitoring-based meditation (AM and MM) compared with a relaxation training (RT) control. Results suggest that 5-10 sessions (30 min per session) of either meditation does produce positive emotion but does not outperform in self-compassion scale compared to same amount of RT. Imaging data indicate that brief AM and MM mainly involve DLPFC and parietal areas, similar to the areas detected in RT, suggesting targeting specific self-compassion related brain networks might be an effective way of self-compassion improvement following brief mental training.  
  • Jonathan Greenberg, Ph.D., will focus on self-compassion in depression. He will present results from a study comparing the effects of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBCT) for depressed individuals to treatment-as-usual. Results indicate that MBCT significantly improves depressive symptoms, self-compassion, and mind wandering. Dr. Greenberg will discuss the relationship between these constructs, and propose self-compassion as a potential mediator of some of the benefits following MBCT training.
  • Poppy Schoenberg, Ph.D., will present EEG data in advanced meditators specifically culminating in a unified compassionate state of oneness, towards the illumination of candidate neurobiological substrates of non-dual compassionate embodiment. This data-driven session will provide the rationale for compassion-based training programs, i.e. compassion as a skill, and how such programs may be implemented within clinical practice, education, and policy, for the integrative medical system.


  1. Compassion is a multi-faceted construct, encompassing biological, social, psychological, and moral/ethical components.
  2. Empirical data suggests compassion can be disambiguated from distinct emotional processes (e.g., distress, sadness, self-compassion, and love), with quantifiable neurobiological substrates.
  3. Based on neuroplasticity, compassion could be regarded as a set of skills, which can be intentionally modulated and enhanced.
  4. The implications for the integrative medicine field will be explored. That is, compassion is not only good care; it may also represent an advanced platform for clinical practice, education, and research.