When Tenzin Gyatso enters, the grand Henry Le Boeuf Hall falls quiet. The whole auditorium rises up, only to sit back down after the 81-year-old Dalai Lama has shuffled to his pillowed seat. The setup places Tibet’s 14th Lama front and center, where the wise – and often wise-cracking – spiritual icon proceeds to highlight the importance of research when striving for a life of compassion and inner peace. Therefore the first of eight lessons we took home is one by the Lama himself: “The 21st century should be a compassionate century, through education.” Why not start learning right now?
Human politics are a lot like chimp politics
First up on Friday morning was biologist Frans D.M. de Waal, who greeted the crowd with a cheery Dutch ‘goeiemorgen‘. It turns out that, while we humans like to consider ourselves egalitarian, our body language isn’t. Much like in chimpanzee politics (also the title of de Waal’s book), the alpha figure in a situation will usually be instantly recognizable. Just watch David Cameron bowing his head to the much smaller Queen, or George’s Bush “bipedal swagger” as he walked among other members of his administration.
Good leaders are lovers, not fighters
Another insight introduced by primatologist de Waal. When the professor and his team decided to study consolation behavior in a bonobo sanctuary in Kinshasa, they discovered that good primate leaders (though there are exceptions) are usually the opposite of a bully. Breaking up fights between kids – and their moms – and hugging those who have been hurt, the alpha male can be considered more of a “peacemaker-in-chief” and “consoler-in-chief” rather than an imposing tyrant. After all, that’s what their primate base needs and appreciates most.
Our planet: ripe for a Golden Age
Ecologist Johan Rockström came to the table with two main messages on climate change. We’ll start off with the good news – a passionate Rockström revealed that science can now pinpoint exactly where the blue-and-green globe we walk on needs to be in order to support us. This knowledge could unlock a Golden Age for planet Earth, if only we decide to use it.
Our planet: she might strike back
‘We’re playing a very dramatic game’, Rockstöm told an attentive Dalai Lama. He impressed upon the audience that “we have abused planet Earth” and that her response could come in abrupt and massive impacts, some of which we’re already seeing today in floods and droughts. After a joke to alleviate some of the bleakness – ‘What a wonderful presentation, gives us hope.’ – the Dalai Lama vigorously shook the professor’s hand while making clear that in order to make an effort, we have to at least know what reality looks like.
Touch trumps talk
At least sometimes and specifically in women, as professor Markus Heinrichs’ experiments have shown. Upon placing men and women in high-stress social situations – such as public speaking performances – Heinrichs and his team allowed participants to bring their partner. While the men’s stress levels decreased – although not significantly – with their wife by their side whispering soothing words, women’s cortisol levels shot up astronomically when their husbands were allowed in the room. It was only when men weren’t allowed to talk at all but simply administered a neck massage that women’s stress levels dropped dramatically.
People can learn compassion
This is a big one. Neuroscientist Tania Singer, one of the driving forces behind the Brussels conference, has upended the old dogma “People can’t change”. Her research has proven that by training the mental faculties responsible for compassion, those areas in the brain can be transformed. It came to light that a 20-minute session every day, three months in a row, has the power to shape an egoist into an altruist. Although the technique wasn’t successful for every single subject, most participants’ brains were ultimately changed by sheer force of will.
Contemplative sciences can be a driving force for change
We’ll take Dr. Singer’s research for a shining example here. As a pioneer of the contemplative sciences – an approach that combines the methodical practices of the West and the contemplation of the East in hopes of attaining the best of both worlds – she implemented mindfulness in training her subjects to embrace a compassionate outlook. We now know that it is possible to get people to care more about their fellow man, an insight when acted upon could have far-reaching consequences. Consider, for example, the classical theory mainstream economists adhere to, which considers (rational) self-interest the single most important motor of economy. Dump in unusually large numbers of people starting to act more compassionately, and the economic rule of law would have to change.