Building our collaboration with Stanford

The event New Perspectives in Compassion held at Stanford University California on 16th March was the first academic collaboration between CCARE and the Global Health Academy (GHA) following the launch of our Compassion Initiative in September in Edinburgh by the Principal. We are very grateful to Dr Monica Worline , deputy director, and Professor Jim Doty director at CCARE for their impeccable organisation. It was attended by just over 200 individuals including Edinburgh and Stanford faculty, students and alumni, and those living in the Bay Area and provided a series of short presentations by Stanford  and Edinburgh academics from a number of disciplines in the sciences and humanities.

New Perspectives in Compassion Panel

New Perspectives in Compassion Panel

It was part of the Edinburgh University’s pop-up week in the Bay area of California, which also included events on big data, veterinary medicine, and history.

We were really fortunate to have the active engagement of the Principal, Sir Timothy O’Shea for the afternoon. After an introduction by Jim Doty and Liz Grant, the first session included a short talk and reading of a poem by John Gillies (written by a Stanford medical graduate) from the second edition of ‘Tools of the Trade’. This is a small volume of poems gifted to all new medical graduates in Scotland for the past two years.

Prof Paul Gilbert, an Edinburgh alumnus, and the psychologist who helped to kickstart research and education in compassion over two decades ago, gave an overview of his developing work including psychological tools to help people with moderate to severe problems of anxiety and self esteem.  Monica Worline introduced the theme of compassion in the workplace, the importance of shifting the balance of efficiency and effective measures from material linear outputs to relational outputs, the satisfaction, the ability to enjoy work, the opportunity to grow and flourish in a work environment. Following Monica was one of CCARE’s research partners, Professor Anne-Birgitta Pessi, a visiting Professor of Church and Social Studies from Finland. She summarised a novel approach based on Ricoeurian theory and using specific training to improve compassionate behaviour in leadership and workforce in large corporations in Finland, based on a novel approach called Co-Passion training -

The second session had a recorded contribution from Dr Paul Brennan, Co –Director of the Edinburgh GHA Compassion Initiative on the effects of neurosurgery on compassion in patients. Brian Knutson, associate professor of psychology at Stanford spoke on the neural basis of emotions, and we finished with a fascinating talk by associate professor Firdhaus Dhabhar , a Stanford psychiatrist who spoke about the ill effects of chronic stress on immunity and accelerating ageing, and how these can be mitigated by social support, mindfulness and meditation.


Professor James Doty, Dr Liz Grant, Dr John Gillies

Professor James Doty, Dr Liz Grant, Dr John Gillies

The second half of the afternoon was a distinguished panel, moderated by Jim Doty on The Compassionate Robot: myth, nightmare or solution. We selected this subject because of the rapidly developing technology around robots and their increasing use in healthcare and social settings across the world.  Principal Sir Tim O’Shea suggested that while a non human robot could not provide truly human compassion, it could provide ‘artificial compassion’ where that would be of utilitarian benefit. However, human compassion also had its inauthentic side as well, he suggested. Rev Professor Jane Shaw, Dean of Religious Life at Stanford gave a Humanities based perspective on what it means to be human: having what Adam Smith called ‘fellow-feeling’ or sympathy. In society today this she argued is often characterised by the shared construct we know either as compassion (which is based on a Buddhist model) or grace ( the word that encapsulates compassion emerging within the Christian tradition). Our understanding of compassion in robots can be much enhanced by looking through the lens of arts and humanities.    Alastair Boyle, Global Client partner of Google and head of strategy at the company Essence looked at compassion in advertising, illustrating this with the ‘Dove’ soap campaign which purposefully set out to make women feel better about themselves. He admitted that the strategy used by all companies now of tailoring advertisements though individual’s internet searches could in fact provide inappropriate and unhelpful targeting at times. He also touched on the ‘uncanny valley’ problem of life-like robots making people feel uncomfortable.

Jon Oberlander, professor of Epistemics here at the University of Edinburgh talked about robotic developments which enabled them to perceive and respond to human emotion, also the benefits and problems associated with robotic carers providing ‘care’ but reducing interaction with human carers. Ultimately, he said, ‘robots just don’t care’, in the metaphoric sense, however the responsibility to care lies not with the robot but with the creator.

The afternoon provided both a breadth of disciplinary approaches and, at times, a surprising depth of insight into the rapidly developing area of academic work on compassion. There was a great deal for our Global Health Academy’s Global Compassion Initiative to build on for the future; much more to come!


Dr John Gillies,  Senior Adviser Global Health Academy, Co-Director GHA Compassion initiative

Dr Liz Grant, Director, Global Health Academy, Co-Director GHA Compassion Initiative

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