UCSD was given 100 million to Study the Brain...

The subject to be Compassion and Empathy

"If you had 10 Million Dollars to Study the Brain..."

...What would you Study?"


My UCSD neurologist— Dr Erik Viirre— is the director of the Arthur C Clarke Center for Human Imagination, and last month he posed this question at the UCSD Sanford Consortium to his research panelists who were there to talk about their work and how it related to Imagination. 

In July of 2019, UCSD was given 100 million dollars by Billionaire T. Denny Sanford to study compassion and empathy by studying the brain.  

Mr Sanford writes:

“I have been inspired by the work and teachings of the Dalai Lama, whose interest in the intersection where science and faith meet is deep and profound,” said Sanford. “I have had the opportunity to see how grace, humanity and kindness can change people and the world. This gift extends that vision. Doctors work in a world where compassion is essential, but often lost in the harsh realities of modern medicine. If we can help medical professionals preserve and promote their compassion, based on the findings of hard science, the world can be a happier, healthier place.”

From the mission statement of The T Denny Center for Compassion at UCSD:


“UC San Diego is an undisputed hub for neurosciences,” said William Mobley, PhD, associate dean of neuroscience initiatives and a long-time advocate for the empirical study of compassion. “There are few places in the world with the experts and expertise, the resources and ability to tackle the topic.

“People talk about compassion, but only recently have neuroscientists studied how it manifests in the brain. We want to find the irrefutable scientific data that validates the immense power of compassion, identify and understand its biological underpinnings and use that knowledge to inform and enhance teaching new doctors, benefit current ones and, most importantly, improve health care for everyone, patients and providers alike.”

Dr. David Brenner, vice chancellor for health sciences at UCSD writes:

“Denny believes that people can be better than they are and he wants to help them change. You see this through his giving. He believes in compassion, civility, being engaged,” said Brenner. “The Dalai Lama said that we must show that there is a scientific basis to empathy and compassion. That’s what Denny’s gift will help scientists do.” (The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Philanthropist T. Denny Sanford's Statement in Full...


Philanthropist Denny Sanford donated $100 million in the summer of 2019 for the new T. Denny Sanford Institute for Empathy and Compassion at the University of California San Diego.  

Here is his letter explaining his donation, reprinted from the San Diego Union Tribune: 

Seeking Scientific Basis for Empathic Behavior

By T. DENNY SANFORD  JULY 25, 20195:57 PM

"We live in troubled times, doubled down. Incivility runs rampant; our sense of decency besieged. Our failure to establish a life-work balance leads to unrelenting stress. We are prisoners of technology, available 24/7 via cell phone. Some professions are in crisis, such as physician burnout.

Civility is based upon shared respect, and when civility is lacking so too are fundamental tools required to build respect, such as empathy and compassion. There is no social contract without compassion and no compassion without understanding. We cannot look at others and just see other.

Which is why I have happily and with great hope invested in the new T. Denny Sanford Institute for Empathy and Compassion at the University of California San Diego. This is not funding for a building or a project, but for an aspiration, a goal to transform a deep communal malaise and despair into a state of wellness that benefits everyone.

I am inspired by His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama, a person of profound grace and kindness, who once said, “Only the development of compassion and understanding for others can bring us the tranquility and happiness we seek.”

It begins with hard science. Fundamental to the goals of the new institute will be the task of identifying and mapping brain activity created by empathic behavior, quantifying the factors that promote or inhibit compassionate behavior. This is new science — the neurobiology of compassion — and few places in the world are better equipped or more eager to take up the challenge than UC San Diego, which can combine state-of-the-art imaging technologies with broad expertise in social sciences, engineering, data science and other disciplines, tapping as well the talents and resources of collaborators across the country and around the world.

With indisputable data describing how empathy and compassion work within the brain, it’s possible to take the next step: information to action. Biology is malleable. It can be modified. We see it every day, from programs to lose weight to vaccines and the eradication of disease. Our behaviors are biological, to a degree not fully understood. There is growing, compelling evidence that ephemeral human traits, such as wisdom and conscience, are hard-wired in our brains, which means we can re-wire.

If we understand how compassion functions cognitively, we can figure out how to enhance it — and nowhere is that need greater than in the teaching and care of doctors and other medical professionals. People go into medicine because they are driven by compassion, but the enormous rigors and demands of the job often crush it. Physician burnout approaches 50 percent in surveys; no profession has a higher suicide rate. If we do not improve compassion (and self-compassion) among doctors, we all suffer.

Researchers at the new institute will take what they’ve discovered about how compassion works and apply it to revamping the curriculum at UC San Diego School of Medicine, integrating compassion cultivation training throughout the students’ years of instruction.

They will share this knowledge and approach with others, including the Sanford School of Medicine at University of South Dakota in my home state, T. Denny Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics at Arizona State University, and with partners and collaborators elsewhere.

The lessons learned will also be used to promote compassion training and wellness among current clinicians, first in health care systems like UC San Diego Health and Sanford Health, but then more broadly.

A science-based institute of empathy and compassion with these goals seems audacious. Without recent advances in medical science and technologies, it would not be possible. It can’t be done most places, but the results can and should be felt everywhere, the work extrapolated and applied universally, in teacher training, for example, and in other types of educational programs where the need for and use of empathy and compassion is no less paramount.

We are born, quite literally, with a sense of fairness. Studies show humans recognize the difference between right and wrong in infancy. We are social animals who seek to live socially. We want to get along, but sometimes we forget how or why.

I hope this new institute helps remind us, but more importantly, shows us the why and how."

Sanford is a South Dakota businessman and philanthropist who also has a home in La Jolla.