Getting our evolution right

James Doty decided on his career path in fourth grade when a doctor came to visit his class and modeled for him the type of person he wanted to be.  It was not the work of medicine that made the strongest impression on Doty, but the man’s kindness.

Throughout his life, Doty has been similarly touched by individuals who have cared for him, and without realizing it, guided him toward a life as a neurosurgeon who now explores the potential of human compassion.

He speaks openly about the difficulties of his childhood and the constant anxiety he felt growing up.  He says he felt his parents’ love, but he never had the kind of family stability that sets a child on a solid path in life.  He managed to make his own way because other people acknowledged his goodness.  

“When someone senses your latent ability and says, ‘I believe in you,’ that can change the whole trajectory of your life,” Doty says.  “Every one of us is pining on some level to be embraced and to have someone unconditionally demonstrate love to us.  When that happens, it allows for the release of all our fears and anxieties, which stop us from being who we truly are.”

Much of Doty’s work now is focused on the way compassion affects our psychological and physical wellbeing.   People who have a habit of thinking and acting with empathy have steadier heart rates, healthier blood pressure levels, and stronger immune systems.  Practicing kindness may be healthful, but our DNA does not exactly make it easy, according to Doty.

In our genes, we are hardwired to feel compassion toward people in our “in-group,” he says, but evolutionary survival instincts tell us not to extend that compassion to an “out-group.”  This genetic predisposition is becoming unsustainable in a world that is opening ever wider. 

“If our species is to survive, we have to get out of this tendency to pick an in-group and out-group,” he says.  “This constant determining of who was in or who was out was useful a millennia ago, but in our modern society, it’s not useful at all.” 

Our sympathetic nervous systems are designed to perceive threats by listening and watching.  In a more primitive time, when man roamed the savanna, a single sound could raise the heart rate along with levels of cortisol and epinephrine, but as the threat diminished, those physical states reverted to their baseline. 

Our brains still work this way, but our physical responses are skewed.  Phone calls, emails, deadlines, people talking, the noise of life—all of these can distract us from our mission to survive, raising our hormone levels and intensifying our physical responses to stimuli.

We are on high alert, our sympathetic nervous systems are engaged, and we tend to withdraw.  We rarely have a chance to revert to a peaceful baseline where we can “rest and digest.”  The tissues of our bodies remain chronically inflamed and incapable of rejuvenation.  In many cases, we become ill and our longevity decreases.  Abstract thinking and insight fade away.

“How do we overcome these leftovers from our evolution?” Doty asks.  “How do we work around these defects in our development?  Evolution is wonderful and it has allowed us to be here, but it is not always the best fit for the present situation.”

Finding room for compassion in a society that over-engages the sympathetic nervous system is a challenge.  But Doty believes in certain possibilities:

We can develop technology that creates more healthful and compassionate states of being.  We can design systems that are inclusive and redemptive, allowing for the actual development of people instead of taking advantage of them.   (Are punitive banking fees truly necessary, he wonders?) We can dismantle hierarchical relationships that make some people feel weak.  And we can allow spaces where people can be vulnerable without the fear of negative consequences. 

As a neurosurgeon with highly-specialized life-saving skills, Doty says he sometimes has a more profound impact on people when he is not performing surgery on their brains.  Sometimes people simply ask him to listen.

“They break down, cry, and have this amazing, extraordinary, cathartic experience and feel dramatically better,” he says.  “All they want is for one person to take the time to acknowledge their humanity.”