Richard G. Petty, MD

Presence and Charisma

I was reading a heart-warming story reported by the BBC of a unique case of a young woman who had a heart transplant at the age of two, and when, ten years later, her adolescent body began to reject the heart, the transplant was removed, and her original heart, which had been resting for ten years, was able to take over. A medical first, but that was not what attracted my attention. Neither was it the lymphoma that she developed several years ago, perhaps because of the original illness that damaged her heart, or perhaps because of the anti-rejection medicines that she has had to take all these years.

It was instead the smiling face of Professor Sir Magdi Yacoub (I just love the pictures of him here.) who did the original operation and who consulted on this new operation. He recently turned 70 and no longer operates himself. I cast my mind back almost 25 years, when I was working at the National Heart Hospital in London and first met him. There are two things that I remember about him. The first is that he was the person who allowed me to show the successful use of acupuncture to treat people who had gone through open-heart surgery, and still had pain in their chests. And the second is the reason for today’s item: Magdi had the most extraordinary personal “Presence.” When he walked in a room, everyone would notice him. Most had no idea who he was, or his extraordinary achievements; they were just drawn to him.

I have met many people who have this “presence” or “aura.” In the Eastern world it is often thought of as another manifestation of “Qi.” Closely related to “presence” is charisma: a compelling attractiveness or charm that can inspire devotion in others. In the ancient world charisma was thought to be a divine power or talent, and the word comes from the Greek word kharis meaning “grace” or “favor.” There is a small scientific literature on this phenomenon of charisma, which often flows from having a strong presence. Some of the research is summarized here.

There are clearly many types of charisma: Political, sports, performance, business, spiritual, literary. scientific and so on. The only two people whom I’ve met who knew Einstein told me that people would usually all stand up when he entered the room. Charisma is more than just a personal characteristic; it can also be conceptualized as the way in which certain groups interact with each other. There is a fascinating book entitled Charisma and Social Structure by Raymond Trevor Bradley, that has a fascinating discussion of the transformative and transcendent power of charisma. It must also not be forgotten that there are those who have used charisma for evil ends: three of the most wicked people of the last century were also possessed of extraordinary personal charisma.

Clearly some people have presence and charisma. The question is whether theses characteristics can also be developed. The answer is yes, they can be. Presence is created by an overall impression constituted of posture, eye contact, stillness, silence, self-confidence, competence and serenity. People with a strong presence are often a little mysterious, in the sense that they tend not to reveal much about themselves or their accomplishments. I have also felt if very strongly in people who have worked to develop the subtle systems of their bodies. One of the most potent examples was a Korean Ki-Master who spoke not a word of English, but whose presence could be felt the moment he entered a packed room. Work on your subtle systems will likely cause you to be more still and serene and to have a better posture and that’s a great start.

There are a number of things that you can do to improve your own charisma:

  1. Create a strong first impression by developing your presence
  2. Develop a good impression when you speak
  3. Be a good active empathic listener who connects with other people and asks pertinent questions
  4. Be supportive of other people and their aspirations
  5. Be persuasive
  6. Be resilient and adaptable
  7. Expand your vision of what is possible
  8. Practice thinking creatively
  9. Use humor
  10. Be committed and courageous
  11. Initiate persistent action
  12. Instill hope in the people around you

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Taking the Measure of a Society

“You don’t have to be big to be great.” — Sholom Aleichem (a.k.a. Solomon Rabinowitz, a.k.a. “The Jewish Mark Twain,” Russian-born American Yiddish Writer, 1859-1916)

How do we really take the measure of a society? How do we decide whether it is compassionate and great? Is it just a subjective, culture-bound opinion? I have faced this question on many occasions when doing interviews and having meetings in which I am advocating for the mentally ill. I have seen are many different criteria for trying to evaluate a society and a country:

1. The way in which a society treats its youngest and oldest citizens;

2. How a society honors its dead;

3. What opportunities it offers to its citizens and for people who come to the country and join the society;

4. How it behaves toward other countries;

5. The leaders it chooses to follow.

All of those are correct. But I would like to suggest that we should expand on those.

For me:  “The true measure of a society is how it treats its weakest members.”

For this is a measure of how far a society has progressed from a dog-eat-dog dominator model toward a more egalitarian partnership model. I have previously described my admiration for the work of Riane Eisler, and in my book and CD program Healing, Meaning and Purpose, I dedicate a whole chapter to ways of applying and expanding on some of her work.

I was once speaking to a Minister of Health in another country, and he expressed the view that providing care for the mentally ill was not the responsibility of government, and that they were simply a drag on the country’s economy. I politely but firmly disagreed, and was able to show him that providing good quality compassionate care for the mentally ill was not just the right thing to do, but it could also have a positive impact on his country’s bottom line. It happened that we were in a Buddhist country and he had a small image of the Buddha in his office, with some incense in front of the statue. At the end of my presentation I used a quotation attributed to the Buddha:

“In separateness lies the world’s great misery; in compassion lies the world’s true strength.”

When I talk about the advantages of an expanded, five dimensional model of thinking about people and their interactions, it is exceedingly practical. Many of the same things that are good for individuals are also good for society as a whole. That seems such an obvious statement, but when you think it through and apply my same principles of personal integration to integrate relationships and to produce an integrated society, the results can be remarkable.

“Compassion is the chief law of human existence.” — Fyodor Dostoevsky (Russian Writer, 1821-1881)

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An Addendum to "Empathy"

I promised that I would be posting more on some of these important matters. If you’ve had the opportunity to look at the posting on empathy, and why it is likely more than just a neurological phenomenon, I would now like to pose two questions for you:

1. Is there any down side to being a powerful empath?

2. What would be the consequence of a complete lack of empathy?

I am not going to try and answer my own questions, but instead make a couple of suggestions. I think that strong empathy, if attached to amorality would produce the perfect con man. Hervey Cleckley’s classic book, the Masks of Sanity, identified a small proportion of sociopaths (a.k.a. psychopaths) whom he described as "charismatic" and could be totally charming and apparently warm and caring. But only in as far as it suited them. These people tend to have a weird kind of empathy, in that they can use empathic skills, but do not attach them to any emotion.

The much larger group of sociopaths seem to have a lack of empathy, no conscience and an inability or unwillingness to learn from experience. There is clearly a genetic component to this type of behavior and personality, but as I pointed out in the earlier post, biology is not destiny. There are some interesting points made at:

I would also like to make another suggestion, and that is that a good definition of human evil is a complete lack of empathy."

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"The great gift of human beings is that we have the power of empathy."
–Meryl Streep (American Emmy and Oscar-winning Actress, 1949-)

Most people think of empathy as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person, human or otherwise. Yet there is another piece to empathy, and that is the ability to communicate that understanding back to the other person. We use empathy in our day-to-day interactions with others; by showing others that we know how they feel. Empathy is a skill that helps us navigate our way through life: if we know how someone else feels, we can imagine how he or she might react and plan accordingly. Good therapists have to be good empaths, and so do good interviewers. One of Oprah’s extraordinary skills is her ability to empathize and establish rapport in a matter of seconds.

Yet we know learn that empathy is not a purely human attribute. Until 4-5 years ago, most scientists said that emotion and empathy were unique to humans, and were some of the ways in which we were differentiated from the other inhabitants of our world. Yet everyone who lives with a non-human creature knows that that is not so. Now scientific research has confirmed it. Some of it is summarized in a very nice new book by Frans de Waal, entitled Our Inner Ape. Professor de Waal is originally from Holland, but now directs the Living Links Center at the Yerkes Primate Center in Atlanta. Many mammals have been shown to have higher levels of empathy such as being able to take on the perspective of other animals and show great caring and sharing. The Darwinian idea that competition is the key factor driving behavior is giving way to an understanding that cooperation is a key to the survival of groups.

In the last decade, there have been some stunning breakthroughs in neurology. We have learned that genes in the brain do not so much determine behavior, but they instead predict how an individual will respond to the environment. That is why we constantly say that "Biology is not destiny." Yet there is more. Vittorio Gallese and Giacomo Rizzolatti at the University of Parma in Italy have made an extraordinarily interesting discovery. They discovered that there are in the frontal cortex of the brain what they call "mirror neurons." If I gently touch one of your fingers, a group of neurons will light up in the sensory parts of your brain, and so will some association neurons in the frontal lobes. If you now watch me touch my own fingers in the same way, those areas in your frontal lobes will light up once again. Just watching the touching produces a mirror effect. If I taste peanut butter ice cream, part of my brain illuminates. When I watch you eat peanut butter ice cream, the same part of my brain illuminates again. The implication is that my brain is resonating with what someone else is feeling. This is a lot more than salivating because someone else is eating something that I enjoy. V.S. Ramachandran from the University of California, San Diego, quite rightly described this discovery as the single most important and unreported story of the last decade. "Rama" as everyone calls him, is the author of a marvelous book – A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness: From Imposter Poodles to Purple Numbers – which I recommend highly.

So we have a probable neurological explanation for one of our key behaviors. But is that the end of it? Far from it. Empathy can almost certainly be learned and amplified. Ten years ago a Canadian Educator named Mary Gordon founded a project called Roots of Empathy, which has been shown to increase the ability in children, and many medical schools are trying to teach medical students to be more empathic.

"Empathy feels these thoughts; your hurt is in my heart, your loss is in my prayers, your sorrow is in my soul, and your tears are in my eyes."
–William Arthur Ward (American Writer, Pastor and Teacher, 1921-1997)

But there are dimensions of empathy which stretch beyond the neurological. Researchers at the Institute of HeartMath in California have reported that brain rhythms synchronize to the rhythmic activity of the heart, and when people are feeling love or appreciation, their blood pressure and respiratory rhythms become entrained with that of the heart. Sustained positive emotions produce a state of coherence throughout the body. But this is where it becomes even more interesting. The electromagnetic field of the heart can transmit information between people, up to a range of about five feet, and one person’s brain waves can synchronize to the heart of another.

There is also increasing research indicating that empathy can be a non-local phenomenon, enabling people to pick up thoughts and feelings over great distances.

I am going to post some more material about this fascinating field over the next few weeks

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