The Neurobiology of Kindness #WorldKindnessDay

If we could see the miracle of a single flower clearly, our whole life would change. – The Buddha (c. 563 BCE) 

Look deeply into nature to understand the secrets of the Universe.

Until recently, the task of applying what we know about the brain to the bigger question of personal human experience has been avoided by scientists. However the emergence of the new discipline of neuroscience – the scientific study of the nervous system – is helping us to bridge this gap by providing new ways to answer such age-old questions as why does kindness exist, and why is it important? To answer these questions we first need to consider an important property of nerve cells (neurons) in the human brain.

What actually is emotion?

Emotion feels so natural and seems so normal, but what if emotion is not there? What if emotion is an emergent phenomenon and only something we experience as macroscopic beings? This might sound strange, but we know that we are sandwiched within the Universe. For example, we do not feel the cosmological expansion that dominates the large scale of the Universe nor do we feel the very small scale where individual atoms inside us collide with our skin. Instead, we have a collective term – temperature – to describe what is happening. Perhaps emotion is the same. This may feel uncomfortable when you ask just where is the ‘you’ and how you feel in all of this.  

Understanding emotion

Perhaps it is best to think of it like this – most of us have come to terms with the fact that we are physically a collection of atoms. We, and our consciousness somehow emerge and we seem to be able to live with this illusion of our being. Maybe all we need to do is the same for how we feel, as we play out our short existence.

Mirror neurons

The discovery of mirror neurons,  a cluster of neurons in the brain that help connect us emotionally to other people, respond sympathetically towards others and allow us to anticipate others’ intentions is now believed to be the basis of human empathy. Mirror neurons were first discovered by neuroscientists in the 1990s while recording the activity of neurons in the brain where it was noticed that certain populations of neurons remain silent (observation) and active (imitation) when we watch others perform the same action, hence the name mirror neurons [1,2]. Scientists have extended this finding in the human brain to show that nerve activity in mirror neurons also behaves in the same way when we see another person expressing an emotion, and this nerve activity is not observed in disorders of empathy [3].

Our behaviour mirrors our environment

Each person is a mirror of their environment, which is then in turn mirrored by their own behaviour. This underlies the powerful phenomenon of social contagion – that information, ideas, and behaviours including kindness can spread through networks of people the way that infectious diseases do. For this reason, giving and receiving kindness can have a contagious effect.  Research also shows that optimal learning takes place in an environment that is creative, inclusive, rewarding and bolstered by firm, healthy boundaries, in an environment that is kind.  Even those in deep distress due to imprisonment, addiction, financial worries, and high anxiety also benefit greatly from an environment that is creative, inclusive and boundaried. 


What to do when we encounter unkindness? Behaviours including anxiety, anger, and rudeness can also spread through networks of people the way that infectious diseases do. The antidote to becoming infected with these miserable states is to be aware that every action must be consciously chosen, and not an emotional response.

Kindness is the key to our survival

Why is kindness so important? This question can be answered in the context that every single human being is unique because we each poses a uniquely complex brain, so complex that in all of human history no two human brains can be identical. This is because the unique combination of about 100 trillion tiny brain connections (synapses) that grow and change throughout life is an ongoing work in progress from conception to death. In this way we each one of us ‘evolve’ as true individuals as we each make our journey through life. Kindness is the green light to keep going. If you are not open to giving and receiving kindness then you may not be growing. In the same way, humankind will only evolve by making room for each and every individual to express their intellectual and spiritual evolution to the full.  In this way, the evolution of the human race has everything to do with being open to giving and receiving kindness. 


[1] Mirror Neurons.  Society for Neuroscience (2013) 

[2] Kraskov A, Dancause N, Quallo MM, Shepherd S and Lemon RN.  (2009) Corticospinal neurons in macaque ventral premotor cortex with mirror properties: A potential mechanism for action suppression? Neuron 64, 922-930.

[3] Corradini A, Antonietti A. (2013) Mirror neurons and their function in cognitively understood empathy. Consciousness and Cognition. 22, 1152–1161.

Are Pessimistic Brains Different?

The ability to stay positive when times get tough – and, conversely, of being negative – may be hardwired in the brain, finds new research led by a Michigan State University psychologist.

The study, which appears in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, is the first to provide biological evidence validating the idea that there are, in fact, positive and negative people in the world.

“It’s the first time we’ve been able to find a brain marker that really distinguishes negative thinkers from positive thinkers,” said Jason Moser, lead investigator and assistant professor of psychology.

For the study, 71 female participants were shown graphic images and asked to put a positive spin on them while their brain activity was recorded. Participants were shown a masked man holding a knife to a woman’s throat, for example, and told one potential outcome was the woman breaking free and escaping.

The participants were surveyed beforehand to establish who tended to think positively and who thought negatively or worried. Sure enough, the brain reading of the positive thinkers was much less active than that of the worriers during the experiment.

“The worriers actually showed a paradoxical backfiring effect in their brains when asked to decrease their negative emotions,” Moser said. “This suggests they have a really hard time putting a positive spin on difficult situations and actually make their negative emotions worse even when they are asked to think positively.”

The study focused on women because they are twice as likely as men to suffer from anxiety related problems and previously reported sex differences in brain structure and function could have obscured the results.

Moser said the findings have implications in the way negative thinkers approach difficult situations.

“You can’t just tell your friend to think positively or to not worry – that’s probably not going to help them,” he said. “So you need to take another tack and perhaps ask them to think about the problem in a different way, to use different strategies.”

Negative thinkers could also practice thinking positively, although Moser suspects it would take a lot of time and effort to even start to make a difference.

– See more at:

Your Brain On Buzz. How Do Ideas Spread On The Internet?

Brain regions TPJ and DMPFC (Click for description) Psychologists report for the first time that the temporoparietal junction (TPJ) and dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (DMPFC) brain regions are associated with the successful spread of ideas, often called 'buzz.'

Psychologists report for the first time that the temporoparietal junction (TPJ) and dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (DMPFC) brain regions are associated with the successful spread of ideas, often called ‘buzz.’

How do ideas spread? What messages will go viral on social media, and can this be predicted?

UCLA psychologists have taken a significant step toward answering these questions, identifying for the first time the brain regionsassociated with the successful spread of ideas, often called “buzz.”

The research has a broad range of implications, the study authors say, and could lead to more effective public health campaigns, more persuasive advertisements and better ways for teachers to communicate with students.

“Our study suggests that people are regularly attuned to how the things they’re seeing will be useful and interesting, not just to themselves but to other people,” said the study’s senior author, Matthew Lieberman, a UCLA professor of psychology and of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences and author of the forthcoming book “Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect.”

We always seem to be on the lookout for who else will find this helpful, amusing or interesting, and our brain data are showing evidence of that. At the first encounter with information, people are already using the brain network involved in thinking about how this can be interesting to other people. We’re wired to want to share information with other people. I think that is a profound statement about the social nature of our minds.

The study findings are published in the online edition of the journal Psychological Science, with print publication to follow later this summer.
More information on the study can be found on the UCLA website.

Is depression and anxiety best treated with medication or psychotherapy?

What is the best treatment for depression?

I attended a lecture last week by leading clinical psychologist and head of the counselling service in the University of Limerick, Dr. Declan Aherne, entitled

Medication or psychotherapy in the treatment of depression and anxiety.”

The lecture discussed research results – from 1995 to 2011 – which examined the effects of medication and psychotherapy – given alone and in combination – on depression and anxiety. I was impressed by the lecture and by the question from the audience – many of whom were Psychiatrists, GPs, sufferers themselves and others working the area of depression and anxiety.

Let me explain some definitions and summarize a few points raised in this excellent lecture.

Some definitions:

Psychotherapy: The treatment of a behaviour disorder, mental illness, or any other condition by psychological means.

Medication (psychopharmacology): The scientific study of the actions of drugs and their effects on mood, sensation, thinking, and behavior.

Some interesting points I took from the lecture include:

  1. Incidence – anxiety affects 66 million and depression affects 31 million each year in Europe alone.
  2. Treatment – medication is only beneficial in severe but not moderate or mild depression while up to 30% of patients take both psychotherapy and medication.
  3. Delivery – in Europe, psychotherapy is delivered mainly by non-psychiatrists (mostly psychotherapists) however there is a lack of communication between the psychotherapist and medical doctor in 22% of patients taking both psychotherapy and medication.
  4. Trends – between 1998 and 2007 – the use of psychotherapy decreased from 16% to 10% and combined treatment from 40% to 32%, while the use of medication actually increased from 44% to 57% – possibly reflecting a shift in away from psychotherapy and toward medication.
  5. Cost – it is estimated that the same therapeutic effect can be achieved with €70 for psychotherapy compared with €100 with medication (Prozac) over a 24 month period.
  6. What actually works – the efficacy of psychotherapy is best seen using practice based evidence – while the effects of medication are seen using evidence based practice. Psychotherapy therefore, cannot be reduced to a product resembling a drug.


Having been involved in this research area since I earned a Ph.D. on the psychopharmacology of depression over 25 years ago I am convinced that far from there being a debate over which of the two treatments are best – psychotherapy and medication are in fact two sides of the same coin. The recent discovery that what we experience changes the shape of the brain – allowing discrete areas in the brain to grow or change – by adding a tiny fraction of the brain’s neural circuitry and eliminating old ones. As more findings from the neurosciences inform best practices in psychotherapy a new field of neuropsychotherapy will help develop better, more effective therapies to improve brain function and mental health.

What we already know

Nerve cells or neurons are notoriously bad at dividing. Rather than divide, a neuron survives by making up to 10,000 connections to neighbouring neurons – and this is the key to how we learn and recall as memories are created and strengthened.  This compromise works well most of the time however in depression and anxiety a gradual loss in the strength of previous healthy connections in the emotional centres of the brain  – often triggered by a loss – starts to take it toll resulting in a noticeable reduction in mood as we find it harder to remain positive. As the illness progresses a vicious cycle develops whereby maladaptive thoughts and behaviours such as persistent negative thinking, phobias and apathy take hold  – driven by a new set of this time ‘faulty’ connections.

Brain wiring – making healthy connections – is the key to recovery  

Studies in animals show that medication (e.g. an antidepressant drug) not only makes the previously healthy connections in the brain work better but it also triggers the brain to grow new nerve cells. Psychotherapy on the other hand helps to rewire the faulty connections as well as wiring-up new healthy connections from the newly generated neurons. If depression and anxiety resembled a broken down car then medication is the petrol that revives the engine while psychotherapy is the tweaking of any faulty electronic wiring – allowing the car to hum along without a hitch.

Psychotherapy and medication – vive la différence

I predict that in the future – treatments for depression and anxiety will not only involve psychotherapy and medication but will also include a combination of other therapies such as social support, self-help techniques, nutrition, sleep hygiene and exercise. Furthermore, these therapies may be prescribed alone and in combination at key stages to promote the growth of new neurons, strengthen healthy connections and rewire the faulty ones. This combined approach will treat the person as a whole, and will mark the beginning of the journey back to wellness and a normal life.

How to make good decisions

The cognitive subconscious, otherwise known as the “felt sense” or gut feeling, is activated when strategizing decisions. Watch as Daniel Goleman talks about brain activity and good decision-making in this short video.

Weekly Round Up



Is the internet changing the way we think?

In this week’s round-up of the latest discoveries in the field of neuroscience – the evolutionary nature of the brain, how blind people see with their ears, the neuroscience of humour, and how the internet is changing the way we think.

Interesting post on the evolutionary nature of the brain here

Scientists say they have discovered a “maintenance” protein that helps keep nerve fibres that transmit messages in the brain operating smoothly. The University of Edinburgh team says the finding could improve understanding of disorders such as epilepsy, dementia, MS and stroke.

Neuropsychologist, Dr. Olivier Collignon has proved that some blind people can “see” with their ears.  He compared the brain activity of people who can see and people who were born blind, and discovered that the part of the brain that normally works with our eyes to process vision and space perception can actually rewire itself to process sound information instead.

A growing body of scientific evidence indicates that we have much more control over our minds, personalities and personal illnesses than was ever believed to exist before, and it is all occurring at the same time that a flood of other research is exposing the benefits of humor on brain functioning. Nichole Force has written  a post in Psych Central on Humor, Neuroplasticity and the Power To Change Your Mind.

And finally, is the internet changing the way we think? American writer Nicholas Carr believes so and his claims that the internet is not only shaping our lives but physically altering our brains has sparked a debate in the Guardian.

The neuroscience of success

Reading the newspaper obituaries of John Paul Getty III, who died recently, I was forcibly struck by the thought that here was the living embodiment of the fact that money is no guarantee of happiness.

Such was the dysfunction in the family of this grandson of  J. Paul Getty (founder of the Getty oil empire and known to be  the richest man in the world), that when as a 16-year-old he was kidnapped for a $17m ransom neither his miserly father nor grandfather were willing to pay. The result of their miserliness was the kidnappers slicing off Getty junior’s ear and sending it to a Roman newspaper.

After five months in captivity the boy was released when $2.8m was agreed – the exact sum eligible for a tax write-off by his grandfather. The teenager was set free and found shivering at a petrol station near Naples on December 15th 1973 ( the date of his grandfather’s 81st birthday) but when his grandson phoned to thank him,  the old man refused to accept his call. Thereafter the boy descendent into a self-destructive spiral of drugs and alcohol. After a stroke in 1981 caused by a drug overdose, he spent the last 30 years of his life in a wheelchair, paralysed and partly blind, eventually dying last month at the age of 54.

What is resilience?

What makes someone pick themselves us when their life’s work comes to nothing or keeps another going after rejection by a lover? The ability of some people to bounce back after defeat is not some triumph of the human will or some inborn trait of human greatness. Rather, such people have developed a way of thinking that does not see defeat as permanent or affecting their core values. The really amazing finding is that this ability is not inbred – where we either have it or we don’t. In fact, optimism is a set of skills that can be learned.

A toolkit for success  

Foremost in your skills toolbox you will need a positive explanatory style. Pessimistic people think that misfortune is their own fault and that the cause of their misery is permanent – due to ugliness, stupidity or lack of talent on their part – and are therefore not bothered to change it. Although few of us are 100% pessimistic we will at some stage in the past have given in to pessimism in reaction to some past events. Some psychology textbooks even consider this to be ‘normal’. 

Pessimism is bad news!

However, we now know that adopting a different way of explaining setbacks to yourself – by using an explanatory style – will protect you from letting disappointment develop into depression. Even an average level of pessimism can bog you down and lower your levels of success in every area of your life, health, relationships and work.

If you think life is hard – try selling life insurance

Much of the research leading to these findings took place by a psychologist studying agents selling life insurance – regarded as the most difficult of all sales jobs. Management in the company was concerned that so many of its agents were quitting despite millions of dollars spent in training.

Success is about attitude not experience

Research suggests that rather than selecting on the basis of their CVs applicants should be hired for testing well on optimism and explanatory style. The results showed that agents performed twice as good as the others. They clearly had better ways to deal with the nine out of ten rejections that made the others give up.

Optimism and success – which comes first?

The conventional view is that success creates optimism but evidence now shows the reverse to be true. Time and time again optimism tends to deliver success. At the exact same point when a pessimist will wilt – an optimist will persevere and break through that barrier.

It’s good to ‘have a word with yourself’

Not getting through this barrier can sometimes be interpreted as laziness or lack of talent but what psychologists have found is that those people who stop trying or give up easily never dispute their own interpretation of failure or disparagement.  In contrast, those who regularly overcome their obstacles argue against their own limiting thoughts and do as Jim Royle in the BBC’s comedy show, The Royle Family would advise ’have a word with yourself’‘– and thereby quickly find positive reasons for the rejection.

When pessimism pays

Is there any situation where pessimism is appropriate? The answer is yes. Pessimists have an ability to see a situation accurately and are eminently suitable for such professions as financial control, accounting and safety engineering for example. In fact all firms could do with one or two pessimists.

The trick is to get the balance right

In fact, Bill Gates praised those Microsoft employees who would tell him what’s gone wrong and would do so quickly. Nevertheless, let us not forget that Gates was a ‘world class’ dreamer who imagined at a very young age that every single house in America would be using his windows software.

Go for that unbeatable combination – reality and possibility

This story illustrates the secret of success in both work and life – the ability to perceive reality accurately and yet visualise a compelling future. The problem is that many people are good at one and not the other.

So the message is simple –if you want to become an optimist – by all means keep the ability to perceive reality accurately but work on becoming a better dreamer – the combination is unbeatable.

Try it and see for yourself!

The neuroscience of emotions

Google Tech Talks
September 16, 2008


The ability to recognize and work with different emotions is fundamental to psychological flexibility and well-being. Neuroscience has contributed to the understanding of the neural bases of emotion, emotion regulation, and emotional intelligence, and has begun to elucidate the brain mechanisms involved in emotion processing. Of great interest is the degree to which these mechanisms demonstrate neuroplasticity in both anatomical and functional levels of the brain.

Speaker: Dr. Phillippe Goldin

Chinks in the brain circuitry reveal our worry spots

Some people are more prone to anxiety than others

Open any newspaper, switch on any talk show on the radio this weekend, and you will be spoilt for choice with anxiety-inducing stories.

Living in this time of global recession, rising mortgage rates, political instability, it almost appears as if the media encourages us to be anxious on a daily basis. 

Easy as it is to respond with anxiety to these stories, it is in fact the least productive response to have in life. It is like a mental pain we inflict on ourselves, clouding our judgment and reasoning, zapping us of the energy we need to move forward with our lives and make sound decisions. Anxious thoughts activate stress hormones that trigger the brain’s  fight or flight response. But this arousal is temporary, and when it abates, is followed by exhaustion, apathy and even depression.

Not everyone is affected to the same degree by this tendency to react to life’s events with anxiety. We all know people who fret at the slightest thing, while others have the ability to remain calm and composed in the face of crisis. At its most chronic this tendency can lead to panic-attacks, social phobias, obsessive-compulsive behavior and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Now scientists at the University of California, Berkeley have discovered a neural explanation for why some individuals are indeed more anxiety-prone than others. Their findings, published in Neuron, reveal that chinks in our brain circuitry could be the answer, and may pave the way for more targeted treatment of chronic fear and anxiety disorders.

In the brain imaging study, the researchers discovered two distinct neural pathways that play a role in whether we develop and overcome fears. The first involves an overactive amygdala, which is home to the brain’s primal fight-or-flight reflex and plays a role in developing specific phobias.

The second involves activity in the ventral prefrontal cortex, a neural region that helps us to overcome our fears and worries. Some participants were able to mobilize their ventral prefrontal cortex to reduce their fear responses even while negative events were still occurring, the study found.

“This finding is important because it suggests some people may be able to use this ventral frontal part of the brain to regulate their fear responses – even in situations where stressful or dangerous events are ongoing”, said UC Berkeley psychologist Sonia Bishop, lead author of the paper.

“If we can train those individuals who are not naturally good at this to be able to do this, we may be able to help chronically anxious individuals as well as those who live in situations where they are exposed to dangerous or stressful situations over a long time frame,” Bishop added.

Bishop and her team used functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to examine the brains of 23 healthy adults. As their brains were scanned, participants viewed various scenarios in which a virtual figure was seen in a computerized room. In one room, the figure would place his hands over his ears before a loud scream was sounded. But in another room, the gesture did not predict when the scream would occur. This placed volunteers in a sustained state of anticipation.

Participants who showed overactivity in the amygdala developed much stronger fear responses to gestures that predicted screams. A second entirely separate risk factor turned out to be failure to activate the ventral prefrontal cortex. Researchers found that participants who were able to activate this region were much more capable of decreasing their fear responses, even before the screams stopped.

The discovery that there is not one, but two routes in the brain circuitry that lead to heightened fear or anxiety is a key finding, the researchers said, and it offers hope for new targeted treatment approaches.

“Some individuals with anxiety disorders are helped more by cognitive therapies, while others are helped more by drug treatments,” Bishop said. “If we know which of these neural vulnerabilities a patient has, we may be able to predict what treatment is most likely to be of help.”

Source: University of California, Berkeley