Schools join empathy and compassion debate

Three hundred teenagers will explore human capacity for empathy at London conference

Are human beings compassionate or selfish? Does caring for others really make you less stressed? Do you have to be ruthless to succeed in life?

Three hundred 15-18 year-olds from schools across the UK are to explore these and other questions during the Empathy and Compassion in Society Conference Youth Gathering, which takes place at London’s Southbank Centre on 22 November 2012.

A series of free talks, debates, question and answer sessions, and interactive workshops led by world-renowned scientists and educators, will examine the human capacity for empathy and compassion.

The event is being organised by Mind with Heart – a new international charity promoting altruism in young people – and several like-minded partners, and will precede a two-day compassion conference for health and education professionals.

“We’re offering new ways to interest young people in the importance of empathy and compassion in society,” says Vinciane Rycroft, co-founder of Mind with Heart. “Teenagers need to develop their own convictions about how they want to treat themselves and others, and the event will allow them to interact with a range of challenging viewpoints.”

Mind with Heart is encouraging schools to make empathy and compassion priority topics for the next academic year. Its website gives sample ideas including organising a ‘random acts of kindness’ campaign and getting students to help set up community projects.

One of the speakers at the event will be Dr Tania Singer, a neuroscientist and empathy specialist from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Germany. She describes compassion as: “A feeling of motivation to do something about the world and to help other people,” and believes that the conference provides an important learning opportunity for young people. “Compassion is innate in every human being,” she says, “however, the higher forms of compassion must be cultivated.”

The teenagers will be able to continue the debate after the conference and engage with other schools via dedicated social media pages. Schools can send between five and thirty pupils to the event as well as an accompanying teacher, and will need to register before 15 June 2012.