The CEO of Capacity 2 Care on the Neuroscience of Compassion

The Dalai Lama, one of the most respectable Buddhist preachers, stated, “Individual acts of compassion and kindness have the power to spread harmony in the entire world.” Studies support that acts of compassion-such as expressing elements of empathy, love, and care to ease the concerns of others and sharing in their suffering-benefits us in both our professional and personal lives.

Positive social interactions among workers are more likely to occur in workplaces that promote compassion. It has been shown that positive social interactions are good for employee health, for instance, by lowering your heart rate and blood pressure, and strengthening the immune system. The research also suggests that compassion is an essential aspect of a productive work environment, since employees experience reduced stress and more job satisfaction. Additionally, workplace compassion encourages more loyalty, dedication, and employee engagement.

In this episode of Break the Bias, Consciously Unbiased founder Ashish Kaushal (virtually) sits down with Misty Huckabey, CEO & Founder of Capacity 2 Care and Consciously Unbiased facilitator, for an unplugged conversation about the link between mindfulness and compassion, and the role this link plays in the human brain and the work environment. Misty also shares some mindfulness practices that we can do to cultivate compassion so that we can be there for others, simply by ‘spreading ripples of kindness.’

Read below for some key takeaways.


ASHISH: Can you share a little about your path to studying neuroscience?

MISTY: “My path to neuroscience was greatly inspired by my grandmother. She was a psychiatric nurse in a men’s prison facility. She had a great way of speaking with people and was very psychology-based. I’d say, ‘Grandma, I don’t know if I want to study psychology, because I am going to school for business.’ But, then I thought that studying psychology would help me understand people because I love people. She said, ‘Well, why don’t you do neuroscience?’

I thought that was a novel idea. I had to take biochem and all these other science classes for my major, which took me a bit longer because I switched from business to science. But it made me fall in love with science even more and at a deeper level. I then found a place that I wanted to work called, the Center for BrainHealth. I asked them, ‘Can I please intern for you? I’m in a position where I don’t need to be paid. I love the research that you’re doing and I want to help, will you please have me?’ They paired me with a woman there.

We did virtual reality and pediatric social cognition work with children that were on the autism spectrum or that had ADHD/ ADD. She was such a great mentor to me and showed me that there really was a place for women in the science world who were also mothers and caretakers. It was the most amazing experience of my life. I felt so at home, I thought, ‘Okay, I’m going to keep pushing through.’ Shortly after, I applied for my master’s at University of Texas at Dallas. I got in and here I am.”

ASHISH: What brought you to loop science, a very factual based degree, into taking care of people and empathy?

MISTY: “As a little girl, I excelled in math and science, but those classes were not really offered to me. I grew up in a very rural area where church was a really big basis of my life. Women were either teachers, caretakers, or mothers. None of my science teachers were females, so I fell into more of a nurturing path. Most of my life, I told people that I wanted to marry science and spirituality, because I don’t see a big difference between them. There are a lot of things in neuroscience that we can’t see. But, the FMRI was created and now we can see that pathway and what is going on inside the head. I thought, what if that is the same as the spiritual realm? There are things that we feel, but we don’t see them visually and we can’t explain it. I really wanted to figure out what the bridge was for those. And for me, that was neuroscience. Even though obtaining my science degree took longer, it was necessary because I had to go through the nurturing side/spiritual side as well as the science side. I would not be able to talk about this because compassion is both.”

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ASHISH: Can you give an example of what you would have done in the past and how you have applied compassion now. Have you changed?

MISTY: “When I started my nonprofit, Capacity 2 Care, I knew that some people had things that other people might need. For instance, someone has a lot of clothing for an interview and another person who is really trying to get ahead in life, they just got their degree, but maybe they can’t afford a suit and are looking for one. I thought, ‘Well, wouldn’t it be novel to pair these people?’ That is where we came up with ‘spreading ripples of kindness’ and ‘kindness is contagious,’ but that was very based on how my brain works.

I see a problem and I want to fix the problem. Sometimes I would struggle with how we would get there to solve it? I’ve learned since joining The Center for Compassion and Altruism Research Education (CCare) at Stanford as well as applying it in my everyday life, that compassion is going through suffering together.

This isn’t just a quick ‘solve it’ type of thing. I’ve learned that every day, the more that I’m experiencing these issues of how to solve things to get from A to B, the more that I need compassion and the deeper that I’m going to feel this. Now, I’m in less of a hurry. I’m more humble. I’m more grateful. I’m more at ease because I know that the tools that I have to deal with at this moment are going to help me arrive at my destination. Whereas before taking this training, I think I was very young and uneducated on the path of compassion and I just wanted to solve the issue.”

ASHISH: What does “mindfulness” mean to you? What does “compassion” mean to you?

MISTY: “Mindfulness means being aware in the moment. I may have cheated a little in life because of my grandmother. She would always reach out and she would pat me on the hand and she would say, ‘Be mindful.’ For instance, if I was running and I tripped or if I ran into someone, she would remind me to be mindful. I would always have that in the back of my head. Mindfulness is about checking in with those five senses and checking in with your breathing and with the moment. Mindfulness anchors us to the present moment.

Compassion is going through suffering with others and being there for others as they go through that.”

ASHISH: Can you share a time when either you witnessed, or were impacted by, an act of compassion?

MISTY: “One of the earliest acts of compassion really motivated me to start my nonprofit. Several occasions in high school I lived alone because my parents had to move back to the city to build planes. I lived in my hometown alone, and I remember a teacher writing me a check for a hundred dollars for groceries so that I could eat. At the time, it really had not occurred to me that I had been suffering in that sense. It was just normal not to have access to food. I lived in a small, one-stoplight town so there the options were either a McDonald’s or Sonic. I could not afford Sonic, but could afford a $1 hamburger at McDonald’s because it was really my only option. When my teacher wrote me that check, it really made me confront what I had been missing. There was kindness behind that act. I didn’t ask her. I did not say I was starving. I didn’t even realize that I didn’t have food. But, she knew that I lived alone and a part of her must have felt that I must be hungry. Children eat a lot and need food to think and do their best in class. That was really life-changing for me.”

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ASHISH: What is the link between mindfulness and compassion?

MISTY: “If we don’t have mindfulness, how can we bridge that to compassion? If we have never checked in with ourselves in the moment then how do we become aware of what we have and what we don’t have or become aware of how we feel, sense, and experience the world? If we can’t do that for ourselves, then how can we see that in someone else? The more that we practice mindfulness, the more we have access to compassion and the more we can see that someone else is suffering; because we will have noticed that within ourselves.”

ASHISH: What’s the neuroscience behind compassion?

MISTY: “Compassion is linked in this area of the brain called the periaqueductal gray. This is in a part of the limbic system- emotions and our fight or flight complex. And then it’s also connected with the cerebellum, which is the back of our head. This is the very old reptilian brain that is associated with movement or your heartbeat speeding up. That is what connects our feelings to the fight or flight. Compassion is intimately connected to the two where we can have this feeling, this conscious feeling, but we can also have movement.

I interpret it as this pathway in our brain is so close to the movement, this motor part, so that we can take action. This is also where we feel the suffering and notice someone else’s suffering. If I notice you are suffering, but I can do nothing about it, I’m going to get burnt out if I am sad while watching it. This motor part of our brain is there for a reason. It tells me evolutionarily that we’ve always had this ability within us. This means compassion can be cultivated, so we can recognize it. Now we can take action and that’s going through the suffering together, because then we can alleviate it only when we get to the other side of that wall and that suffering.”

ASHISH: What are some strategies or practices we learn to cultivate compassion? And, are there any other “brain hacks” you might recommend when it comes to increasing our own mindfulness or compassion?

MISTY: “My biggest hack is mindfulness. But, if people aren’t into practicing mindfulness or don’t have access to guided meditations, I recommend starting with ‘self.’ Start checking in with yourself and your five senses. There are some mindfulness techniques you can use when you are feeling anxiety. You would check in with your five senses- something you see right now, something you taste right now (or you can use that one to breathe), something you hear, etc. Mindfulness allows you to check in with yourself, making it simpler to breathe because that is giving yourself love. There is something about self compassion that now you know you can be good to yourself and because you gave yourself a moment, or perhaps a breath in between. Now, when you see other people who may not be aware of their suffering, but I am, you are now able to consciously check in with them.

Paying attention to your breath also helps relax your brain. For instance, when you are confronted with a stressful situation that someone else is going through and if you remember to breathe, you are triggered to breathe for yourself. Then you are able to listen to them better, be still in the moment, and be there for other people. One of the biggest tips for compassion is that listening is an act, which is connected to the movement part of our brain. Compassion is about taking action, and listening is an act because a lot of us want to be heard.”

ASHISH: What are some of the benefits to increasing compassion in the workplace?

MISTY: “There is a lot of research that shows compassionate corporations make more money. Happy people make more money. If you are service-based, your employees are happy because they are compassionate and they are kind to each other. The phone is answered in a happier tone. When someone else comes in who is having a bad day and snaps at us, we are going to be less affected by that because we know that our coworkers are there for us and because we are content with our life. This is mainly because we feel secure since our workplace is secure, and together, it fosters pride and a sense of community in the workplace. This also leads to more revenue, better assets, mental stability, increased happiness, and better productivity.”

ASHISH: What is one action step, or Microprogression™ as we call it at Consciously Unbiased, that people can take to cultivate more compassion in the workplace?

MISTY: “Checking in with each other is key, such as having a weekly meeting to do just that. Employees need to feel safe. It doesn’t have to be very long, but if anybody has anything to say, they can say it. This allows people to start forming bonds, and it allows people to bring their ideas to the table. It doesn’t matter what level you’re at in the company. You can still bring this to the table, but check in with people, ‘How are you doing today?’ And when people ask you, you should actually tell them.”


Holly Corbett

As the Director of Content at Consciously Unbiased, Holly Corbett is fueling inclusion through storytelling to build a passionate community and creating experiences inside organizations to transform workplace culture.
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