Feel Like You Can't Move Forward? This Scientist Founded a Charity to Build Compassion After Unthinkable TragedyNone By Matt Alesevich
When neuroscientist Jeremy Richman’s 6-year-old daughter, Avielle, was murdered alongside 19 of her classmates at Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, it didn’t take long for him and his wife, Jen, to make a plan of action.
Their plan, however, didn’t involve revenge. It wasn’t fueled by hate or detachment. It focused instead on compassion and engagement. In the wake of unthinkable tragedy, Jeremy and Jen Richman founded what would become known as the Avielle Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to preventing violence through research and community education.
Inspired by their courage, Happify recently caught up with Jeremy to discuss brain health, compassion and the foundation that bears his late daughter’s name.
How long after Avielle’s death did the idea for a foundation surface?
In the blur of days that are arbitrarily marked after [Avielle] was killed, we were in a dark place, as many families were. [My wife] Jen said we need to do something—no one else can suffer this bad—it’s unfathomable. We’re both scientists, so we thought we should play to our strengths as scientists. Something was wrong with [the killer’s] brain. But what was it? That’s what scientists do: ask those why and how questions. We thought: let’s start a foundation that’s committed to understanding that.
What is the mission of the Avielle Foundation?
To prevent violence and build compassion through neuroscientific brain health research, community engagement and education.
You use “brain health” instead of “mental health.” Why is that?
Mental health is invisible. It comes with fear and stigma. By using brain health, we make the invisible visible. The brain is an organ, and just like other organs, you can study it in a scientific way. We need to move to a place where we look at the brain like the heart or kidneys.
Can you give an example?
You wouldn’t be diagnosed as a cold. You wouldn’t be diagnosed as a broken bone. The brain can be diseased. Let’s say your child has more dopamine in the right cingulate cortex and that that’s indicative of impulse control problems. It doesn’t mean your kid’s broken. It just means there’s too much dopamine. So let’s try this therapy or that therapy. It gives patients and parents hope that there’s something to be worked on.
“Building compassion” is part of your mission statement. Are you saying compassion is something that people can increase their capacity for?
There’s no question. It’s nothing to debate—it’s a fact. Like with evolution or global warming, we can debate why it’s happening, but it’s a fact that it happens. You can teach empathy and you can teach compassion. Does nature prevent some people from being compassionate? Neuropsychologist Don Hebb has a great quote: “What contributes more to the area of a rectangle, its length or its width?” There’s nothing purely nature or nurture. Your genes influence how you see the world and what you think is relevant and the environment influences what is expressed and to what extent it’s expressed. You can’t take them apart.
What about people who’ve been habitually negative since childhood and think that’s just the way they are?
Our brains are plastic—they change and adapt to our circumstances our entire lives. It’s always plastic. You can change your brain chemistry and make new connections. Your neurons change your whole life. It’s important to remember that nothing is set in stone. You hear people say “I’m just bad at math” or “Meditation is not for me.” That’s bogus. If you want to be happy, you can be.
How do you maintain your positive attitude?
I’m not going to lie—there are days when it’s hard to get out of bed, but I’ve been an athlete and martial artist my whole life. There’s a spirit you can cultivate. There’s a great quote by Nietzsche: “Those who have the why can endure any how.” I try to keep that in my heart. My “why” is to prevent anyone from suffering because of the murder. That’s my why. When I run into barriers and obstacles, I don’t see them as morale-sucking, fun-sucking monsters—I see them as opportunities to grow.
Do you think it’s important to acknowledge the past?
Don’t pretend things didn’t happen. Some childhood stuff is completely out of our control. It’s dandy for me to say to look on the bright side and be resilient, but you might have had no choice your dad was an abusive alcoholic. Because of a tragedy, make yourself better and help the world because you will benefit and so will others. It’s the opposite of a vicious cycle—it’s a compassionate cycle that passes it on and pays it forward.
Is communication part of this acknowledgement process?
Yes. You need to feel part of something. At the foundation, we’re working on a new project called the Sodina Project. We want to engage people who have lost loved ones due to homicide and suicide and let them tell their stories of love and loss. A vast majority of those affected by violence are completely silent and invisible. We want to say, “I care. It matters. You matter. Let me hear your story.” It’s not just about having empathy. We can put that empathy into action and that’s compassion.
As a scientist, what advice can you give to people who are feeling emotionally stuck?
We have 100 billion neurons and each communicates with about 7,500 other neurons. To put that in perspective, there are 100 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy alone. There are an estimated 100 octillion stars in the known universe. Doing the math, there are about 100 octillion, to the power of 7,000, connections in the brain. There’s no name for this number. We are so complex. We can do anything. If you look at that positively, we’re limitless.
Matt Alesevich is a New York City-based travel, relationship and human interest writer. His work can be found at www.mattalesevich.com and he can be followed on Twitter.
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