National Geographic : 2018 Jan
142 national geographic • January 2018 Sue Klebold and Coni Sanders SHARING SORROW Klebold (at left) is the mother of Dylan Klebold, one of two teenagers who carried out the 1999 shooting at Colorado’s Columbine High School. Klebold wrote about her experience in A Mother’s Reckoning and donates any profits to mental health charities. She has become a mother figure to Sanders (at right), whose father was killed in the massacre. For years Sanders was angry with Klebold for raising a son who became a killer. But her struggle to raise her own teenagers helped her understand Klebold. “If anyone’s pain is greater than my own, it’s hers,” she says. The women, here at a memorial for the victims in Olinger Chapel Hill cemetery, now share a strong bond. found. Both can lead to positive social behavior, but the brain’s empathic response to seeing anoth- er person suffer can sometimes lead to empathic distress—a negative reaction that makes the on- looker want to turn away from the sufferer to pre- serve his or her own sense of well-being. To enhance compassion, which combines awareness of another’s distress with the desire to alleviate it, Singer and her colleagues have tested the effects of various training exercises. A prom- inent exercise, derived from Buddhist traditions, involves having subjects meditate on a loved one—a parent or a child, for example—directing warmth and kindness toward that individual and gradually extending those same feelings toward acquaintances, strangers, and even enemies, in an ever widening circle of love. Singer’s group has shown that subjects who trained in this form of loving-kindness meditation even for a few days had a more compassionate response—as mea- sured by the activation of certain brain circuits— than untrained subjects, when watching short film clips of people suffering emotional distress. In another study, Singer and her colleagues tested the effects of compassion training on helpfulness by using a computer game in which subjects guide a virtual character on a computer screen through a maze to a treasure chest, open- ing gates along the way. They can also choose to open gates for another character wandering about, looking for treasure. The researchers found that subjects who underwent compassion training were more helpful than those in a con- trol group toward the other character—the equiv- alent of a stranger. That we might be able to mold our brains to be more altruistic is an ennobling prospect for so- ciety. One way to bring that future closer, Singer believes, would be to include compassion training in schools. The result could be a more benevolent world, populated by people like Ashley Aldridge, in which reflexive kindness loses its extraordinari- ness and becomes a defining trait of humanity. j Yudhijit Bhattacharjee is a contributing writer for National Geographic. Lynn Johnson regularly photographs features for the magazine.