The Science of Emotions, Empathy and Compassion

I recently had the pleasure of filming the Summer Institute for Educators at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center.  The Greater Good Science Center studies the psychology, sociology, and neuroscience of well-being, and teaches skills that foster a thriving, resilient, and compassionate society.

This four-day video shoot was a fascinating experience that included lectures by some of the most well-respected scientific professionals in the world. They all spoke on topics related to social-emotional education. Social-emotional education focuses on fostering the well-being of students, teachers, and school leaders to cultivate a positive school climate.

Imagine how much our world would change if social-emotional education was a part of every school curriculum!


Chillin' in the sun during a filming break

Chillin’ in the sun during a filming break

The audience was made up of 150 educators from 23 countries. While 150 attendees is small compared to the number of teachers who were not in attendance, it was still very encouraging to see educators who are serious about implementing social-emotional learning into their k-12 curriculums. Millions of Americans suffer from depression and anxiety- so the implementation of mindfulness meditation alone could be a game changer in US education.

Have you ever wondered what neuroscientists discover when looking at human behavior such as compassion + empathy? How does one compute happiness? Are you curious what makes up a meaningful life from scientific perspective? While most of the speakers at SIE (summer institute for educators) were scientists, they were addressing educators that teach a variety of subjects so thankfully it was not all geek-speak 🙂

The first talk was by Dacher Keltner titled, “Science of a Meaningful Life”. Dacher Keltner was a primary scientific advisor on emotions for Pixar’s newest family film, “Inside Out”. Dacher spent four years advising Pete Docter – the Director of  “Inside Out”. You can read more about Keltner’s “Inside Out” experience in this NY Times article called “The Science of Inside Out “. This 2 minute short film narrated by Dacher “Survival of the Kindest” posted below is very fun to watch too.

During his lecture, Dacher said studies have shown that a meaningful life includes generosity, cooperation, experiencing awe, and kindness.  It’s interesting that these studies aren’t showing we are only interested in violence + conflict like the media would like us to believe. It seems essential that we learn how exemplify the qualities Dacher discussed so that we can instill them in kids. Wouldn’t it be amazing if kids were taught in school how to lead a meaningful life? If only they knew how to cultivate the skills they need to be successful adults and successfully deal with conflicts.

Rony Berger talked about dealing with trauma in education. Berger is a world-renowned trauma expert who goes all around the world to places in crisis to help trauma victims recover. He was on his way to Nepal just after leaving Berkeley. His talk was fascinating – the main takeaway was that humans are very capable of recovering from trauma but it will take time. He explained that somatic therapies and expressive therapies are the most effective in helping trauma victims. He explained that when healing trauma, the victim has to feel safe again and often this can only happen through getting to the root of the wound at a subconscious level.

A Class Divided

Rudy Mendoza-Denton gave a riveting talk called “Minority Status, Education, and the Greater Good”. Quite honestly I thought this talk would be boring, offer little inspiration, and be the most “academic” of all the lectures. But, I was completely wrong. Denton gave such great information on how to deal racial prejudice in schools. He explained that prejudice and bigotry are consciously embraced by many otherwise functional, healthy citizens, and racial associations persist in the unconscious minds of many explicitly anti-racist people. People are rarely either racist or not-racist. Almost all of us fall along a spectrum. I learned about the term ‘microaggression’- which is an aggressive act that is made by someone unintentionally and the person on the receiving end reacts offensively. This talk made me very aware of how racist acts can be subtle and it is up to all of us adults to examine our behavior.

He showed the audience a VERY powerful video from PBS Frontline called “A Class Divided”. I urge everyone to watch the entire  “A Class Divided” PBS episode (four parts on Youtube) because once you see this experiment in racial discrimination given to a class of 3rd graders in Iowa- you will never forget it. I’d love to hear your comments and thoughts below after viewing. Watch Part 1 below.

He also showed us a wonderful short film with a group of African-American teenagers authentically sharing their experience about being discriminated against and discussing how they can live peacefully in a racist world. Watch the film below.

Teach, Breathe, Learn

Meena Srinivasan gave a wonderful lecture called “Mindfulness in Education”. She passionately spoke about the importance of teaching kids to be mindful adults. Meena said, “I wish I had these skills as a youngster…imagine how empowering that would be!” Meena is the Program Manager for the first ever SEL (social-emotional learning) curriculum that is being implemented at Oakland Unified School District. Learn more about Meena’s work at

Compassionate Self-Care

Brooke Lavelle Heineberg spoke about Compassionate Self-Care. She works for the Mind & Life Institute. I thought it was great this topic was included- because teachers are very vulnerable to burnout if they don’t practice self-care. She emphasized that compassionate self-care is not a 6 week course. She said it has to be practiced continuously and is the bedrock of mindful education.

I hope you found these highlights useful. The videos will be posted on the Greater Good Science Center’s website for educators who attended this year. Please check out the Greater Good Science Center’s website for more info and share it with any teachers, students, or community leaders you know who might want to attend next year!

Please leave a comment below- I’d love to hear from you!


Sarah Fisher

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