The nature of our evolution as a species is that we seek consistency, calmness or an environment in which we know the rules. As such, this engages our rest and digest mode by increasing the tone of the parasympathetic nervous system. When this occurs we are more discerning in our decision making, we are more open to the other and our physiology works at its best. While ultimately control is an illusion, this illusion serves the purpose of decreasing fear and anxiety.
In uncertain situations, the illusion is broken and results in engagement of our sympathetic nervous system commonly known as our flight, fight or freeze response. In this situation, we are fearful and anxious resulting in us being in survival mode limiting our choices and not being open to others or their opinions. Our physiology in this situation results in the release of various chemical and neurotransmitters that on a short term basis are helpful but long term are deleterious to our health.
By understanding how our brains work in such situations, we can learn techniques that allow us to remain calm in the storm while still being able to be empathetic and compassionate to others.
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James R. Doty, MD, is a clinical professor in the Department of Neurosurgery at Stanford University School of Medicine. He is also the founder and director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University of which His Holiness the Dalai Lama is the founding benefactor. He works with scientists from a number of disciplines examining the neural bases for compassion and altruism. Dr. Doty attended U.C. Irvine as an undergraduate, received his medical degree from Tulane University and completed neurosurgery residency at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Dr. Doty served 9 years on active duty in the U.S Army attaining the rank of major. He completed fellowships in pediatric neurosurgery and electroneurophysiology. He is an inventor, entrepreneur and philanthropist. Additionally, he is the New York Times bestselling author of Into the Magic Shop: A Neurosurgeon’s Quest to Discovery the Mysteries of the Brain and the Secrets of the Heart.