The handlebars on 12-year-old James Doty’s orange Sting-Ray bike were so hot he couldn’t touch them as he pedaled across dusty Lancaster, Calif., right into an encounter with a woman in a magic shop.
Over the next six weeks that woman taught him a different kind of magic than that associated with playing cards. It was a magic that would rewire his brain, taking him from the wrong side of the tracks onto a path as a neurosurgeon and, eventually, as the founder and director of the Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research (CCARE).
The professor of neurosurgery will talk about what he learned that summer, as well as the latest neuroscience research focused on compassion and altruism, at the 2017 Sun Valley Wellness Festival. Dr. Doty’s talk, “The Path to Compassion,” will be held at 2 p.m. Saturday, May 27, in the Sun Valley Inn.
“I’ll talk about how I used the techniques Ruth taught me to overcome my suffering. I couldn’t accomplish anything until I overcame the limitations I’d created for myself,” said Doty, who grew up the son of an alcoholic father and a depressed mother.
“Many of us have negative dialogue running in our heads and it’s like being in prison. But, until we realize we’re in prison, we can’t escape. What Ruth taught me gave me confidence in my own abilities to overcome adversity –I was even able to successfully take over a failing company, even though I had no background in that kind of thing.”
The Ruth of Doty’s childhood taught her young charge a number of mindfulness techniques to tame his mind, set goals and open his heart to feeling and expressing unconditional love.
He has recounted them in the 2016 New York Times bestseller, “Into the Magic Shop: A Neurosurgeon’s Quest to Discover the Mysteries of the Brain and the Secrets of the Heart.”
“We look at others’ lives and create the narrative that somehow theirs is better than ours when, upon inspection, it’s not,” he said. “We also forget that, while it’s wonderful to celebrate our achievements, the reality is that wisdom comes not from those achievements but from suffering. And that’s the paradox—that we often develop meaningful purpose, wisdom and insight as a result of deep suffering. If you don’t have that, you don’t have the other. You can’t have the lotus without the mud.”
After a career in neurosurgery, Doty founded CCare in 2008. The center collaborates with researchers around the world to examine the physiological and psychological effects of compassion and altruism.
The researchers have determined that practicing a life of compassion decreases stress, thereby decreasing burnout. Since it deals with the part of brain that deals with executive control function, it also enhances creativity and improves production.
“What has surprised me is that it has as much health benefit as exercise and being the ideal body weight. It increases longevity significantly,” said Doty.
In fact, a study of women over 65 who do volunteer work versus those who do not showed that the volunteers enjoy twice the increase in lifespan as those who do not.
“Volunteerism is, by nature, caring for another in need,” said Doty. “When we care for others, it decreases stress because we’re focused on others, not ourselves. There is a thing called heart rate variability and, when you are stressed or anxious, your heart rate variability decreases and that is associated with a high incidence of cardiac death.”
Humans are hard-wired to be compassionate, said Doty, the senior editor of the forthcoming “Handbook of Compassion Science” being published by Oxford University Press.
“One of the things that separates humans from other mammals is that we have evolved to use abstract complex language. And having this requires that a mother be attentive to a child who cannot survive in a harsh environment even after 10 or 15 years. There has to be this incredibly strong genetic component that allows that mother to interact with that offspring very closely and recognize when it’s suffering or in need of her. And the motivation is that when we engage our nurturing pathways, our pleasure centers are activated—we’re flooded with the hormone oxytocin.”
Years ago, when we lived in groups of 10 to 50 people, we had to tune into someone’s suffering because, if they were suffering, it meant that they weren’t focused on doing their job. And that potentially put the entire group at risk, Doty said.
Unfortunately, the same aspects that allowed us to survive have limited us in the modern world, he added. When a stressful environment stimulates our sympathetic nervous system, which is associated with our fight-or-flight mechanism, we want to be around those who look like us, think like us and are in the same socio-economic class because it makes us feel safe. This leads to tribalism and opens us to being manipulated into an us-versus-them mentality.
That’s where we end up with fearful narratives, such as the idea that illegal immigrants are going to take our jobs when, usually, nothing could be further from the truth, Doty added.
“That’s why giving people a set of tools to make them aware and more thoughtful enriches and enhances us and makes the world a better place for everyone,” he said.
Humans haven’t evolved to live in the constantly changing, technologically sophisticated world we live in today, Doty said. As a species, we’re made to connect with others—that’s where we feel safe, where we feel a sense of trust. And when we’re removed from extended families and thrust into highly stressful, impersonal jobs, it can have horrible consequences.
A quarter of Americans say they have no one to talk to, no one attuned to their suffering. And we’re afraid to let people get close or to care for us because of what they might think of us, said Doty.
“That’s why we all should open ourselves up to be a vessel to care and to alleviate suffering. Your act of compassion may be as simple as saying, ‘Hello,’ giving someone a hug or listening compassionately. But it has the potential to have powerful consequences.”