Compassion and Neuroscience—Sister, Can You Spare a Dollar?

A guest post by Diane Stephens, a keynote speaker at the McCown Symposium on September 23

man with homeless man

Since this last economic downturn, the number of men and women panhandling on the streets of Chicago seems to have increased. Sometimes I offer a dollar or spare change—my pastor friend Anita who was once homeless encourages me to do so—and sometimes I simply smile, shake my head as if to say "not today" and keep on walking. Why do I respond compassionately one day and not the next?

Witnessing the pain of hunger and who knows what else is, well, painful. It could be compassion fatigue—that feeling of being overwhelmed by devastating situations and the attention we want to pay to suffering in the world. It is a hazard for those of us in the caring professions. After a steady diet of personal pain, we start to recoil from it, knowing there's a limit to how much suffering we can take in.

Resisting the sight of pain, or looking away is a natural response. But I remain unsatisfied and disappointed in myself.

For eons, we have thought empathy and compassion were matters of the heart. But recent research suggests they are matters of the brain. Our brains, it turns out, are wired with an intricate empathy circuit that starts with the eyes. The physiological components of our visual system take whatever we're looking at and send it to the brain where instantaneously, the brain begins interpreting what we're seeing. Some things have emotional valence; some do not.

Neurons get involved. So do biochemicals like dopamine and oxytocin. Before you know it, we're feeling empathy—automatically, rapidly and unconsciously.

So now I remember my banker friend Mark who, one Christmas, gave his 12-year-old son Sam 20 five-dollar-bills and walked the streets of Chicago with him. Sam was to give out all the fives, each to a different person who likely had no place to go for Christmas dinner. Sam could choose who to give the money to. After he gave away the first five, Mark called his son aside and instructed him to go back, look the man in the eye and give him another $5. And to do the same when giving away the rest of the fives. Mark stressed the importance of "seeing" the person. 

Next time I'm in the city, I'll remember Mark as well as Anita. I think I'll take a moment to look and really see. And make sure I have several ones.




Diane Stephens is a spiritual director, retreat leader and Ruling Elder in the Presbyterian Church USA. She also serves as affiliate faculty in spiritual formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois, and as faculty of the CREDO program of spiritual renewal for Presbyterian pastors.


Diane Stephens and her husband, David Hogue, are the keynote speakers for the McCown Symposium at Northeastern Seminary on Monday, September 23. They will offer a thoughtful,
heartfelt analysis of the vital intersections of classic Christian spirituality, emerging discoveries in the neurosciences and spiritual practices that have become hallmarks of the Wesleyan movement. For more information and to register, visit

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