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QA: The Science of Empathy at UC San Diego

Interview with Pradeep K. Khosla, chancellor of UC San Diego

QUESTION: How will this gift change things at the University of California San Diego?

ANSWER: The Sanford Institute for Empathy and Compassion is going to be, in my mind, a revolutionary thing for us at UC San Diego for several reasons. Number one, we are one of the leading places in neurosciences and cognitive science research. We really want to understand the basis of human empathy, human compassion and what it means and how's it created and how come some people have it and others don't, and some have more than others do. So understanding the scientific basis is very important.

Secondly, if you look at the medical profession, there's a lot of talk about compassion and empathy being missing a little bit from this profession and we need to put it back into our educational system. So the MDs and the MD-PhDs that we train would have some understanding of empathy and compassion as they deal with patients.

QUESTION: You’ve addressed how it will help doctors deal with their patients? What about dealing with themselves? How will this actually affect the way that they have compassion for themselves and their own situations?

ANSWER: Our goal is twofold. One is to understand the basis for compassion and empathy in the human mind and what creates it and what it means. And secondly, to understand how we can instill it with greater detail in human beings and create or help people become more compassionate, more empathetic.

QUESTION: Empathetic toward their patients or empathetic toward themselves or both?

ANSWER: People ask me what is the single most important property of a great leader, and I always tell them I think you've got to be compassionate. You have to feel for others. You have to be empathetic. You have to feel what others feel. And the other in this case could be self. So empathy, the way I see this, is our ability to feel what others are feeling. And to be gentle to yourself, be kind with yourself. To do all of this properly, you've got to have great control over your own feelings so your self-awareness has a very big role to play in the medical profession, the way you make patients feel and the way you make them comfortable.

This institute is going to allow us to create, at least in my mind, develop or enhance the scientific basis of both compassion and empathy and then put it into our educational programs and help people understand how to develop these properties more.

QUESTION: This institute is a very nontraditional way of attacking a problem. How does this campus welcome that sort of thinking?

ANSWER: This institute is going to be campus wide and it’s going to be multidisciplinary. One might wonder why UC San Diego? I can tell you the answer without any doubt is only UC San Diego. We were the first place to define cognitive science as a discipline. At that time we understood that computation in the computer and computation in the brain were related. We have a great program in neurobiology and biological sciences: neuroscience in School of Medicine; psychiatry in School of Medicine, psychology in School of Social Sciences. I can go down the list and this institute is going to put it all together and go from the basic understanding of the cellular level to the highest level of emotion, feeling, memory, cognition, empathy and compassion. This is the only place to do it.

QUESTION: This is a very large gift and a monumental thing for UC San Diego. We're in the middle of the Campaign for UC San Diego, a $2 billion fundraising effort to transform the student experience, the campus and, ultimately, the world. This puts us almost at the finish line. How are you feeling as someone who's been at the head of this initiative and really spearheaded it and now you're seeing a gift like this come in to contribute to it.

ANSWER: First of all, I'm extremely thankful to Denny Sanford for this gift. This is his second gift of a similar magnitude, which makes him as one of the largest, not just donors, but difference makers and change makers for UC San Diego. A place like UC San Diego needs change makers like Denny. We have faculty who will be able to use this gift very effectively to create a transformation, using his gift to change who we are and to take us to the next level. I think this is going to be a transformational gift, in more ways than one.

Because of people like Denny, their vision, their commitment and their confidence in our faculty, our students and our staff, they make these gifts. It's our goal to make sure Denny will be proud of what he has done for us.