The Biology of Compassion: Locating Goodness in the Heart

Ilmo Konstantin Kotaja : Psychology/Interdisciplinary Field Studies

Mentor: Professor Dacher Keltner, Psychology

Compassion, i.e. empathetic concern for another with the desire to further their wellbeing, is one of the noblest concepts known to man, but our scientific knowledge on the topic is surprisingly limited. Approaching compassion from an evolutionary viewpoint, Ilmo’s project will examine the biological underpinnings of compassion and centers upon a physiological measurement of respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA; an indication of the impact of parasympathetic nervous system activation in the vagus nerve on the heart). The goal of the project is to assess whether RSA is a reliable biological marker of compassion, and examine its relationship to perceived individual personality traits. To achieve this, existing data (including physiological measures and videos) will be analyzed and new experimental data will be collected with human subjects. The project is part of Ilmo’s senior honors thesis in Psychology.