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What is compassion? And how did it evolve? In this review, we integrate 3 evolutionary arguments that converge on the hypothesis that compassion evolved as a distinct affective experience whose primary function is to facilitate cooperation and protection of the weak and those who suffer. Our empirical review reveals compassion to have distinct appraisal processes attuned to undeserved suffering; distinct signaling behavior related to caregiving patterns of touch, posture, and vocalization; and a phenomenological experience and physiological response that orients the individual to social approach. This response profile of compassion differs from those of distress, sadness, and love, suggesting that compassion is indeed a distinct emotion. We conclude by considering how compassion shapes moral judgment and action, how it varies across different cultures, and how it may engage specific patterns of neural activation, as well as emerging directions of research.
In a recent neuroimaging study of macaque monkeys, Gil-da-Costa and colleagues reported that a distributed circuit of modality-specific properties represents macaques' conceptual knowledge of social situations. The circuit identified shows striking similarities to analogous circuits in humans that represent conceptual knowledge. This parallel suggests that a common architecture underlies the conceptual systems of different species, although with additional systems extending human conceptual abilities significantly.
This article presents an overview of ways to think about the brain and emotion and consider the role of evolution and expression in shaping the neural circuitry of affective processing. Issues pertaining to whether there are separate unique neural modules hard-wired for emotion processing or whether affective processing uses more generalized circuitry are considered. Relations between affect and cognition--specifically, memory--are examined from the perspective of overlapping neural systems. The role of individual differences in neural function in affective style are discussed, and the concepts of affective chronometry, or the time course of emotional responding and emotion regulation, are introduced. Finally, the extent to which certain emotional traits can be viewed as trainable skills is considered, and the relevance of work on neural plasticity to the skill framework is addressed. Data from a variety of sources using different types of measures is brought to bear on these questions, including neuroimaging and psychophysiological measures, studies of individuals of different ages ranging from early childhood to old age, studies of nonhuman primates, and observations of patients with localized brain damage. Emotions are viewed as varying in both type and dimension. Honoring brain circuitry in parsing the domain of affects will result in distinctions and differentiations that are not currently incorporated in traditional classification schemes.