Compassion | Hidden Brain On this week's episode of Hidden Brain, we'll explore how being kind to others can make a real difference in your own life.

The Science of Compassion

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SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Welcome to HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. This week, we're going to tell you the story of a woman who ran an interesting psychological experiment on herself. We look at the science of compassion and why being kind to others can make a big difference to your own life.

KELLIE GILLESPIE: It's easy to say I can't make a difference, but everyone can make a difference.

VEDANTAM: I want to tell you the story about a woman named Kellie Gillespie. She's in her early 40s, lives in London, and a couple of years ago, she took a psychology class. The class was online, hosted by the education platform Coursera, and it was taught by Scott Plous. He's a psychologist at Wesleyan University.

GILLESPIE: And then my life changed after doing Professor Plous' course, and now I'm studying to be a psychotherapist and counselor.

VEDANTAM: Kellie learned several psychological concepts in the class. One is called the norm of reciprocity. If you are nice to someone or you open up to them, they are likely to do the same with you. She also learned about the power of empathy. When you put yourself in someone else's shoes, it profoundly changes the relationship that you have with them. Now lots of people learn about ideas in psychology, but Kellie did something unusual. She took what she had learned in the class, and she applied it in her own life.

GILLESPIE: As well I also like books and novels, so I spent a lot of time at the British Library at Kings Cross. And my husband works just on the corner from there. So every Friday afternoon, I would meet him out of work after I'd been at the British Library researching, and I would finish about 4 o'clock. He would finish about 6 o'clock, so I had a couple of hours to spend. Sometimes, I'd go to the Wellcome. Sometimes, I'd just sit and have a coffee and watch people walking by. And there was this same young guy and always smiling despite not having anywhere to live or not having a job or any money, but he was always so pleasant, and it started off a simply me giving him what spare change I had. But it went on for a couple of months, and I got to know him a little bit and know what happened to make him leave home and come to London.

VEDANTAM: Kellie learned his name was Simon. She asked him if he would sit down with her for a cup of coffee.

GILLESPIE: He was just walking past on the other side of the road. I think he walked up and down Totten Court Road all day. And on a night, he would get onto the night buses because he had nowhere to sleep. He would just get on the night bus and travel round and round and round until 6 o'clock in the morning, hoping to sleep, hoping to not get attacked by the junks and the people that use the night buses in London.

VEDANTAM: And so you invited him for a cup of coffee, and he said yes. And what happened next?

GILLESPIE: To make him feel comfortable, I told him a little bit about my life. I told him I was waiting for a husband. I told him how long we'd been together, things like that. And I think by sharing a little bit of my life made him more confident to talk about his life. And I found out - I mean, he wasn't from far away from London, just in Kent on the southeast coast, so only an hour away from London where he grew up.

VEDANTAM: And what's going through your head about what you can say or do that would be helpful?

GILLESPIE: He kept mentioning how much he missed his mum, how much he was so close to his mum, and that's a relationship that should never be damaged or taken apart, so I think that led to me asking him would he like to speak to his mum. Because my mum died 10 years ago, and if someone said to me, now you can speak to your mum, I would bite their hand off. So I just asked him if he wanted to speak to his mum, and he said, yeah. And he never had a problem with his mum. It was because of his father that he left home. And he loved his mum very much. And I just thought if he loved someone so much, he shouldn't be so distant from them.

VEDANTAM: And you suggested what?

GILLESPIE: He has nothing to lose. Can you remember your home phone number? Of course everyone remembers their home phone number. You have nothing to lose because you have nothing. And so let's just give it a go and see what happens. He didn't want to at first. He didn't want to speak to her. But eventually, I found his mum. And I said, I'm a friend of Simon's. And she started crying immediately because she hadn't heard from him in three years. She didn't know if he was alive or dead. And (laughter) it was - immediately, she was so emotional. And at that moment, I thought, OK, I'm just going to pass the phone over and let them talk. They talked for about 10 minutes, 15 minutes. It was quite beautiful to watch because he started off not knowing what to say and being very guarded and defensive, and that all broke down in five minutes. And he didn't tell them that he was homeless. He didn't mention that at all. He just said, I've been living in London. Everything's OK. I'm still alive. He never mentioned his situation at all, though.

VEDANTAM: And once the conversation was over, what did you say to him, and how did things go from there?

GILLESPIE: I got a little bit bossy, actually, and I said, OK, this isn't going to solve itself. So we went to Victoria Coach Station, and I said, if you don't do this, this is the best chance you're going to have of going back home, seeing your mum. And I bought him a ticket on the next bus to go back to Southend, and that's the last I saw of him. He got on the bus, and away he went.


VEDANTAM: In terms of what you've done with - since Simon, has it changed your behavior? Have you always been somebody who goes up to homeless people and helps them, or have you actually become more, you know, proactive because you sort of say, I realized that I actually can make a difference, and maybe I can make a difference on a mass scale? But I certainly made a difference in one person's life, and that teaches me that I could make difference in other people's lives, too.

GILLESPIE: I think that doing the course with Professor Plous most definitely opened my eyes to the reasons why people don't do something to help. And I can remember he told us this wonderful story as part of the course, which was told originally I think by a Kenyan environmental activist called Bughavi Mutamuthai (ph), and it's a story of a hummingbird in a forest that's being consumed by a wildfire. And all the animals in the forest come out, and they're transfixed as they watch the forest burning, and they feel very overwhelmed and very powerless, except this one little hummingbird that says, I'm going to do something about this fire. And Professor Plous told us this story about all the animals laughing at this little hummingbird as it flew backwards and forwards from the nearest stream with one drop of water at a time to put out the fire. But at least it was doing something, and it was doing the best it can. And I think that's something that really hit a true note with me, that it's easy to say I can't make a difference, but everyone can make a difference.

VEDANTAM: Coming up next, the person whom Kellie says changed her life, her teacher, psychologist Scott Plous of Wesleyan University.

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VEDANTAM: This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. I first met Scott many years ago. He's a very smart guy. But the thing that leaps out when you meet him is that he's a really nice guy. Actually, scratch that. Nice doesn't cut it. Scott radiates kindness. The class where Scott connected with Kelly was an online class. Believe it or not, more than 250,000 students from around the world signed up for the class. And at the end of it, Scott gave Kelly and his other students an assignment. It was called the day of compassion. Students had to spend one day being deliberately kind and generous toward others. Scott asked them to notice how these actions changed the way they felt about themselves. I asked Scott to tell me what students find when they do this.

SCOTT PLOUS: Students often report that it's transformative, that they're really surprised at the reaction, that people are so overwhelmingly positive that it starts to feed on itself. And by the end of the day, they report that this is a different side of me that I didn't recognize was there.

VEDANTAM: And is that because they are behaving differently or other people are behaving differently - what's the cause? What's driving this change?

PLOUS: Oftentimes it seems that compassion is contagious. We talk about paying it forward - the idea that if you do something good for another person, that that gives the other person a kind of lift, and then that person in turn will do something for somebody else. And it sets off a kind of chain reaction.

VEDANTAM: So it's not just, find the one dramatic thing that you can do in the day that can change the life of someone else. You're actually asking people to change the way they live that day.

PLOUS: That's right. And, you know, Martin Luther King Jr. had a wonderful quote as well about the effect that you have just in eating breakfast, the number of lives that you touch. Where the cereal comes from, where the packaging comes from, who brought the cereal to you, where did the milk come from and so on, and before you know it, you've touched thousands of lives without even realizing it. So the students are asked to look deeply, to think deeply, about their life choices, their behaviors, and to think about it specifically in terms of compassion.

VEDANTAM: So when you're eating your cereal, even if you know that these thousands of people have touched your cereal, how do you act compassionately toward all of them?

PLOUS: Well, in some cases you might be thinking about people who are working under unfair labor conditions. You might be thinking, if I throw away this food, what else am I throwing away? You might think about when you drive to work, could you be bicycling? Could you be walking? What consequences are there for other people? So there are many, many different connections that we normally don't have time to think about. And in this assignment, I ask students to simply slow down and think about those connections.

VEDANTAM: You know, it's interesting, when we actually start thinking about this in great detail, we often realize then that we are making choices that, even though we think of ourselves as being good people, those choices are often unsupportable by the values that we claim to have. You know, in my book I talk about the idea that - you know, I was discussing the role that childhood vaccines play in saving children's lives in many parts of the world, and how, you know, for $200 you could probably save a child's life in a poor country by making sure that she has access to just a suite of childhood vaccines. And when I gave my daughter a birthday party - this was a couple years ago - and the birthday party cost $200 or $250, I had a moment where I stopped and said, I'm spending $250 on my child's birthday party, and the same $250 could save the life of a child halfway around the world. Now, how is it possible that one child's birthday party could be more important than another child's life? And I felt like a terrible human being.

PLOUS: Well, I'm sorry you feel terrible about that. But at least having a level of awareness, I think, can be a positive thing. The Princeton philosopher Peter Singer has a great example of this. He talks about somebody who's walking past some water and sees a child drowning. And this person happens to be in very fancy clothes - let's say an Armani suit or some very expensive shoes. And the question is, if you're the only one there and the only one capable of saving the child and there's no time to spare, should you, in fact, ruin your suit, should you ruin your shoes and save the life? Let's say that you would lose $200 doing that. And almost everybody would say, of course, the child's life is worth more than the $200. And then Peter Singer turns around and says, well, what if we could demonstrate that there's a child's life halfway around the world and that $200 would be sufficient to save that life? Why aren't you spending the $200?

VEDANTAM: And of course, the question is, lots of us don't. The child in the pond who's drowning feels visceral to us and feels like our responsibility in ways that the child halfway around the world does not feel like our responsibility.

PLOUS: That's exactly right. There's an immediacy there. There's a vividness. And there's different consequences when you see somebody personally in need rather than having somebody be abstract and remote. And people will say to themselves, well, maybe that's true. But there are so many children in need. If I gave each one $200, I would be left in poverty. I can't possibly do that. And this is where psychology comes in. We tell ourselves stories about why it's OK not to help, why it's OK not to help once. And we say, well, because if I then did once, I would have to do a hundred, and I couldn't possibly do that. But in fact, sometimes you can do one. And one is better than zero.

VEDANTAM: That's social psychologist Scott Plous from Wesleyan University. When we return, we'll hear a poem from the writer Karen Enns. And we're going to issue a challenge of our own.


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VEDANTAM: Thanks for listening to HIDDEN BRAIN. There are a couple of recent interviews you should really check out on Fresh Air's podcast. Host Terry Gross interviewed the comic Jim Gaffigan about how being Catholic figures in his comedy. And writer D. Watkins told Terry how he went from selling crack in East Baltimore to being a writer and college teacher. You'll find those, and many other great Fresh Air interviews at and on the NPR One app.

I want to leave you today with a poem. It's by Canadian poet Karen Enns from her book, "Ordinary Hours." Karen came to write this poem after a moment when she experienced the power of compassion - a small gesture from a stranger that lifted her heart. We asked her to read the poem and tell us about that moment.


KAREN ENNS: (Reading) A gull will almost land. Go on. Everything is good. Up ahead, a gull will almost land in front of you. Its wings will catch the current on a knife edge. Its flimsy element of bone will keep it motionless above the ground for just so long. And that pure pose will meet the light as if a God had ordered it to catch your eye. Go on. We are all defined by something like surrender - not a giving in, exactly, not a yielding, but suspension, perfect justice, as the holding becomes opening, as the moment of arrival on dry ground, small and blazing with intent, becomes departure.


ENNS: I think that most of us at some point in our lives, in dark times, maybe, are looking for some kind of message from something, someone, some place. And that's where the starting point of this poem comes about. I was walking down the street a few years ago and a bus stopped at the stoplight. And there was an elderly man who looked out the window at me and he nodded. And in that nod, in that gesture, there was a kind of urging on. And I kept that image with me. And I think that's what drove the beginning of the poem, at least, anyway, was his very kind look toward me. And I took that as a message.

VEDANTAM: That was Karen Enns talking about her poem, "A Gull Will Almost Land," from the collection "Ordinary Hours."


VEDANTAM: What would you do if you had to spend one day beaming compassion into the world? It could be something small - acknowledging a stranger. It could be something big - changing the direction of another person's life. Please try it, and tell us what you've found. We'll put some of the stories you share with us on the podcast. You can find us on Facebook at HIDDEN BRAIN, or send us an email at

This episode of the HIDDEN BRAIN podcast was produced by Kara McGuirk-Allison and Maggie Penman. Special help from Jenna Weiss-Berman, Megan Kane (ph) and Rachel Ward. I'm Shankar Vedantam, and this is NPR.

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