The Encouraging Win of Empathy, Part 1 discussed how the idea of empathy is somewhat controversial, where the concept came from, and a slight apologetic for the legitimacy of empathy. In this article, we explore what empathy is and where it comes from.
What is Empathy and Where Does It Come From?
Since 1908, when the two psychologists adopted the term empathy to describe “feeling in” or “feeling with” another person, the field of psychology has sought to answer, from where does empathy come? Initially, the concept was based on serious observations of human interactions. A deeper question arose: why do some people show empathy? The answers were derived from limited surveys, questionnaires, interviews, and studying human behaviors in relationships.
Even researchers of child development have observed how little children can develop empathy. Writing in The Scientist in the Crib, the authors who are development scientists state,
Systematic studies indicate that two-year-olds begin to show genuine empathy toward other people for the first time. Even younger babies will become upset in response to the distress of others (we all know the disturbing way the baby will suddenly begin to howl when a marital argument starts). But only two-year-olds provide comfort. They don’t just feel your pain, they try to allay it. The two-year-old monster is also the two-year-old ministering angel (The Scientist in the Crib, p. 42).
The idea of observing the brain at work was in its infant stage in the 1880s. Not for a century later were the magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and computed tomography (CT) diagnostic machines developed. They are useful to examine the brain but very limited for evaluating cognitive functioning in the brain. Then came the SPECT (Single-photon emission computed tomography) and PET (Positron-emission tomography) machines. Physicians and scientists can now record three dimensional images of the brain and its cognitive activities. That includes observing parts of the brain that “light up” during emotional experiences. Dr. Daniel G. Amen is one specialist in this field and has developed a world-class clinic. Dr. Amen and others are able to observe activities in the brain, to include what happens when one experiences empathy.
Then, as this article tells us,
In the early 1990s, Italian researchers made an astonishing and quite unexpected discovery. They had implanted electrodes in the brains of several macaque monkeys to study the animals’ brain activity during different motor actions, including the clutching of food. One day, as a researcher reached for his own food, he noticed neurons begin to fire in the monkeys’ premotor cortex—the same area that showed activity when the animals made a similar hand movement. How could this be happening when the monkeys were sitting still and merely watching him?
During the ensuing two decades, this serendipitous discovery of mirror neurons—a special class of brain cells that fire not only when an individual performs an action, but also when the individual observes someone else make the same movement—has radically altered the way we think about our brains and ourselves, particularly our social selves.
Many social scientists and psychiatrists believe these mirror neurons in the brain play a part in a person’s ability to sympathize or empathize. Most agree that these neurons have some share in our ability to understand, sense, or even feel things like others. However, the debate is just how much these mirror neurons factor in, as Dr. Neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran reveals in Jason Marsh’s article, Do Mirror Neurons Give Us Empathy?
As Mark Goulston expresses in his insightful book, Listen, “Empathy is a sensory experience; that is, it activates the sensory part of your nervous system, including the mirror neurons we’ve talked about.” And John Medina explains, “These so-called mirror neurons are scattered across the brain like tiny cellular asteroids. We recruit them, in concert with memory systems and emotional processing regions, when we encounter another person’s experiences” (Brain Rules for Baby, p. 175). Dr. Alison Gopnik says, “Most of the scientists who work on mirror neurons realize just how complicated the neural underpinnings of imitation, empathy, and language really are (The Gardener and the Carpenter, Kindle Location 1223).
Empathy Is Found in the Brain
So, empathy is a real thing that comes from and can be registered in the brain. Yes, there are indeed areas of the brain from which emotions come. Dr. Daniel Goleman informs us,
Another area crucial for emotional intelligence is also on the right side of the brain. It’s the right somatosensory cortex; injury here also creates a deficiency in self-awareness, as well as in empathy – awareness of emotions in other people. The ability to understand and feel our own emotions is critical for understanding and empathizing with the emotions of others. Empathy also depends on another structure in the right hemisphere, the insula, a node for brain circuitry that senses our entire bodily state and tells us how we're feeling. Tuning in to how we're feeling ourselves plays a central role in how we sense and understand what someone else is feeling (The Brain and Emotional Intelligence, p. 90).
What Autism Teaches Us About Empathy
Along with observational studies and the studies of the brain, research into the characteristics and causes of autism shed light on empathy. Again, Dr. Goleman comments,
Another measure of primal empathy, the Reading the Mind in the Eyes test, was designed by Simon Baron-Cohen, an expert on autism, and his research group at Cambridge University.10 (Three images from the thirty-six in the complete test are on the facing page.) Those who score at the high end in reading messages from the eyes will be gifted at empathy—and in any role that demands it, from diplomacy and police work to nursing and psychotherapy. Those who do poorly in the extreme are likely to have autism (Social Intelligence, KL 1639).
The Reading the Mind in the Eyes test is an instrument to check a person’s ability to read other people’s emotions. The New York Times wrote about it in the 2013 article, Can You Read People’s Emotions? In 2011, Dr. Baron-Cohen published his Zero Degrees of Empathy: A New Theory of Human Cruelty where he theorizes that a person’s erosion of empathy might explain cruelty and even what we commonly describe as evil. This description in Amazon tells more,
Simon Baron-Cohen, expert in autism and developmental psychopathology, has always wanted to isolate and understand the factors that cause people to treat others as if they were mere objects. In this book he proposes a radical shift, turning the focus away from evil and on to the central factor, empathy. Unlike the concept of evil, he argues, empathy has real explanatory power. Putting empathy under the microscope he explores four new ideas: firstly, that we all lie somewhere on an empathy spectrum, from high to low, from six degrees to zero degrees. Secondly, that deep within the brain lies the 'empathy circuit'. How this circuit functions determines where we lie on the empathy spectrum. Thirdly, that empathy is not only something we learn but that there are also genes associated with empathy. And fourthly, while a lack of empathy leads to mostly negative results, is it always negative? Full of original research, ‘Zero Degrees of Empathy’ presents a new way of understanding what it is that leads individuals down negative paths, and challenges all of us to consider replacing the idea of evil with the idea of empathy-erosion.
I am not endorsing his theory and certainly not wanting to engage in a philosophical or theological discussion about evil. The point here is to show how people in the autistic spectrum apparently lack empathy as we now know it and these studies inform us about the reality of empathy.
Certain Personality Disordered People Lack Empathy
Studies have also shown that people with certain personality disorders, unrelated to autism, lack empathy. Examples are Narcissistic Personality Disorder, sociopathy, and psychopathy. A specialist in Dark Triad Personality traits, Dr. Perpetua Neo states emphatically, "Narcissists, psychopaths, and sociopaths do not have a sense of empathy, they do not and will not develop a sense of empathy, so they can never really love anyone…"
Empathy is Natural to Humans That Needs Nurturing
Researchers continue to study this phenomenon. They not completely understand everything about empathy but they do know it is a natural thing, which needs cultivation. In fact, scientists have even located particular area of the brain where compassion and empathy reside. People who have not experienced brain damage or have some brain dysfunction can develop empathy through secure attachments with their primary caregiver(s). Read what Hoffman, Cooper, Powell, Siegel, and Benton write in Raising a Secure Child,
Decades of research have now shown that having a secure attachment with a primary caregiver leaves children healthier and happier in virtually every way we measure such things—in competence and self-confidence, empathy and compassion, resilience and endurance . . . in the ability to regulate emotions, tap intellectual capacity, and preserve physical health . . . in pursuing our life’s work and having a fulfilling personal life (p. 368).
More specifically, “’Empathy comes from being empathized with,” says Stanley Greenspan, clinical professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the George Washington University School of Medicine, in his book Great Kids’” (Brain Rules for Baby, p. 214). People who are nurtured by empathic individuals tend to mature with a strong sense of empathy. Others who grow up attentive to empathetic and compassionate individuals also learn that positive trait.
All of this might be informative but Christians often ask, is it even biblical? We will examine that in The Encouraging Win of Empathy, Part 3.