The Empathy Continuum – part 2

Gwen Stefani and baby Zuma
Gwen Stefani and baby Zuma

In the first part of this essay, I briefly introduced the idea of an empathy continuum, before diving straight into what might have seemed like a totally unrelated topic – our stress response system. In this post, I will try to explain how these two things are crucially connected and what this means for us all.

So what is Empathy?
The word “empathy” is thrown about a lot these days, often in vague and imprecise ways to cover to a variety of things from sympathy to compassion, but true empathy refers specifically to a natural capacity found in humans and known to exist in other mammals, allowing us to literally feel for others. To empathise is to place oneself in another’s shoes, see things from the other’s perspective, and to some extent, to actually feel what that person is feeling. Before we look at how this works, perhaps the first question should be why.

Why did humans evolve empathy?
When our ancestors first parted company with our ape cousins and stepped onto the African plains some six to seven million years ago, they had many disadvantages compared to both predators and prey, most of which were faster, stronger and better adapted to life on the savannah. To survive in this harsh new environment would have required, above all else, cooperation. Although there is still debate over exactly how and why our brain capacity increased so dramatically between then and now, most theories involve social cohesion, whereby through a combination of language, culture and shared responsibility, we learned to live together in ever expanding social circles. According to Harvard anthropologist, Sarah Hrdy, it was specifically our cooperation in the shared care of infants which first sparked the evolution of empathy in our species. Certainly, it seems clear that modern society could not function without at least some level of trust, and if you think about it, without an ability to empathise, trust would be impossible.

So how does empathy arise?
To pull off the feat of empathy, the brain has evolved at least two rather clever adaptations: mirror neurons and a related cognitive trick known as theory of mind. First discovered in monkeys by neuroscientists at the University of Parma in Italy, and subsequently found in the brains of humans and certain other animals, mirror neurons are a class of brain cell which fire only when observing the behaviour of others. When you see someone scratch his nose, a set of neurons in your brain mirror the patterns found in the person you’re watching, allowing you to imagine what that would feel like. It also allows you to copy or “ape” that behaviour. Theory of mind is an extension of this faculty which lets us to go beyond this innate mirror-feeling and to understand that the person you’re watching has thoughts and feelings distinct from your own.

If you’ve ever spent time with babies or small children, you will probably have noticed how the simple mirroring of their behaviour can establish an immediate bond which seems to delight them. In Born for love: Why Empathy is Essential, Bruce Perry suggests that it is during such interactions with our parents (or other primary care givers) that we learn empathy. The world of a small baby, he argues, is full of stressors (stressful sights and sounds which activate the stress response system), but through face to face contact with our parents, and the calming effect this has on us (through the release of oxytocin into our brains), we learn what is an appropriate level of response to such stimuli. If a mother’s face contorts with pain, the next few minutes is probably going to be bad, so the baby’s face will contort too and the fight-or-flight response will be activated probably accompanied by some ear-splitting crying. However, if the mother smiles and soothes the child, he will learn that this particular combination of stimuli is not always a bad thing.

The extent to which empathy develops is determined by both genes and environment. Particularly critical seems to be the first three years. Without proper and consistent nurturing from the same one or two primary caregivers during this time, empathy does not develop as it should, and this can lead to a range of both psychological and physiological problems in later life. One of our great advantages as a species is our ability to adapt quickly to new environments, but this can also back-fire. Deprived of the stress-relieving effects of motherly love, our bodies and brains become adapted for lives of stress and scarcity. In such a world, suspicion, quick reactions and a tendency to strike first and ask questions later, can be more advantageous than a well-developed sense of empathy. In the modern world however, it’s more likely to land you in prison. Bestowed with combinations of the wrong genes, wrong environment, or both, some people reach adulthood with close to zero empathy. Such people are called psychopaths (or sociopaths). Often of high intelligence and with fully developed theory of mind, psychopaths simply have no emotional response to the suffering of others.

Move a little way up the empathy continuum and you will find almost psychopaths: people who fall short of the clinical definition for full psychopathy, yet still exhibit a level of self-centred callousness as to cause significant problems for all those who enter their spheres of influence, manipulation and deceit. In their book Almost a Psychopath, Shouten and Silver show how to recognise such individuals and reveal the disturbing truth of how numerous they are in our society.

Interestingly, the difficulty in emotional connection experienced by those on the autism spectrum, is not as some might think, due to an inability to experience emotion. In fact, it has been suggested that due to an underdeveloped theory of mind, their detachment from others may in fact be a self-preservation response to what would otherwise overload their stress response systems.

At the other end of the continuum, as mentioned in the last post and explained more fully here, we have mirror-touch synaesthetes – people unable to distinguish the observation of sensation in others from actual nerve stimulation in their own bodies.

And of course, in between these extremes lie the rest of us – including me with my over-active sympathetic nervous system (symptoms 2,3 & 4) and innate twitchiness during movie fight scenes (symptom 1) 🙂

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Author, musician, science nut, & IT marketing pro. My first novel, CONNECTED, is a mystery thriller with a touch of speculative science & philosophy.

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