The Origin of Human Empathy

Imagine you were put into an unfamiliar room, strapped into a chair, unable to speak (but able to make noise) and abandoned there with two strangers in the same situation. This was the set up for a Charles Sturt University study and was the situation three strangers found themselves in one afternoon in New South Wales, Australia. Annie, Fred and Joanna had never met before, but their interactions that day would teach psychologists to completely reconsider our understanding of empathy.

Even though they couldn’t talk to each other, Fred and Joanna could tell Annie was upset. She kept looking for the door and making uncomfortable sounds. To show their support, Joanna and Fred both looked at Annie, and Joanna was able to catch her gaze; Joanna waved, so Annie wriggled to show her discomfort. Then Annie noticed Fred looking at her, and they stared at each other for three seconds. Purely because of a glance, Annie relaxed. Fred smiled at her and made some friendly sounds. Then Joanna and Annie stared at each other, and Fred kicked his legs at both of them. Annie kicked her legs back. Together, Joanna and Fred settled Annie down. They empathized with her discomfort and found a way, outside of language or touch, to make her feel understood.

Annie, Fred and Joanna were all eight months old.

The study was set up to challenge the mostly uncontested notion that infants don’t truly empathize until around the age of two. Annie, Fred and Joanna were part of a large study on infant empathy; what they found was that 100% of the time a baby was upset, other babies would try to comfort her. Not only did they try, but the babies were successful 30% of the time. Infants can’t speak, and communicate mostly through sounds that we’re all too familiar with (especially on planes or buses). But there’s another part of their communication that often goes unnoticed. Babies stare.

When my brother was born I thought he was the strangest creature I’d ever seen. I was ten years old and just tall enough to rest my elbows on the rail of his crib. Winnie the Pooh characters smiled serenely from the wall in his room. It smelled like baby lotion and powder and sleep. One afternoon I crept over the carpet to ogle the sleeping creature my parents had brought home and who I was surprised to find really existed now. It had been six months since my brother was born and I still found it hard to think of him as real.

As I looked over the edge of the crib, Aidan’s face started to crumple with a slow wail that I knew would develop into a screech. His face looked like a closed fist, eyes shut, gummy mouth gaping and nose scrunched. My Mom was asleep in the next room, exhausted. I had a split-second decision to make; I could bolt, lest I be blamed for waking him (I swear I didn’t) or I could try to quiet him myself. His fingers were curled and he threw his hands out and kicked his feet under the blanket and I knew the screech was coming. Panicked now, I reached into his crib, but he didn’t see me or seem to notice my odd patting of his sausage leg.

“I’m here! Don’t cry.”

He opened his eyes and looked at me, and the wail melted off his face. His features returned to normal as he stared at me. I got caught in his eyes, dark and wide. Looking into them was like trying to see the bottom of a lake when I couldn’t touch the ground anymore. We stared at each other. I occasionally murmured something to him or to myself and I shoved one of my fingers into his fist. (I’d seen babies hold fingers in movies and I thought it would prove that he liked me). My Mom found us like that a while later when she came to check on him.

And so started a secret ritual between siblings. If I heard him start to fuss after a nap I would try to get to him before my Mom heard. We would stare at each other and as long as I didn’t leave or look away, he wouldn’t cry. I imagined we were communicating telepathically, like twins in sci-fi movies. I told him things out loud and I imagined his responses in my head. If I looked around the room though, he would kick his feet out and twist his face, and I had to quickly stare into his eyes again. I always thought he was being selfish, demanding my attention. It would make sense, my brother still loves to be in the spotlight, but it turns out that I was being unfair to him. While I was staring at the weird creature called “baby”, trying to understand him, trying to imagine what he was thinking, his brain was whirring away too, and in unexpected ways.

Babies and toddlers are notorious for their lack of empathy. I don’t think I was the only sibling to resent my infant brother’s demanding nature. He didn’t let any of us sleep at night, he always needed to be held, changed, burped, watched, fed — and the worst part, he seemed completely unaware of our suffering for his sake. We forgave him for it, assuming (hoping) that he’d grow out of his neediness and contribute to society eventually. He’d learn to have some empathy.

What I assumed about my brother’s selfishness has historically been supported by psychology. One famous theory by psychologist Martin Hoffman suggests that before the age of two we essentially lack compassion. “Empathic concern” or true empathy occurs when you can feel for someone who’s suffering without worrying about yourself. Hoffman argues that until the age of two, babies feel “empathic distress”, a rudimentary self-focused response that requires being comforted: like one of those terrible friends who you talk to when you’re upset, and they find some way to make the conversation and your problem about themselves. For example, you may have noticed that in a room with lots of babies, if one starts crying, they’ll all join in. If there are too many babies in one space they’re like a chain of dynamite. Hoffman argues that this is because babies cannot distinguish themselves as separate entities; they assume that another baby’s stress is their own.

Strangely, there has been very little research done on babies younger than two to verify the claim. It seems that scientists accepted infant selfishness without looking very deeply into the psyche of babies younger than two. A recent wave of studies, including the Charles Sturt study, has challenged that claim. For example, one study found that when newborns heard a recording of another baby’s cry, they were more likely to join in than if they heard a recording of their own cry. We now know that babies are aware, even at the very beginning, of their own personhood, and that they are more distressed by their peers’ discomfort than their own.

Just because they have not yet learned language, we assume that babies cannot empathize. They can; and the key is in the stare: just like my brother did at that odd creature called “sister” who peered over his crib one day. While I was imagining his thoughts and feelings, he was imagining mine. When babies stare into your eyes it can feel like they’re plunging a small hand into your soul. When you smile at them they are even more inclined to stare at you and you can’t help but stare back thinking, where the heck did you come from? What are you thinking about? My brother and I first bonded over an intense series of staring contests. We couldn’t communicate any other way, but somehow, I knew we understood each other. Humans are visual animals, and babies learn the most through what they observe. If you’ve ever experienced a baby staring contest, you’d be crazy not to think there’s a lot going on in that galaxy gaze. When I looked into my brother’s eyes I wanted him to know that it was okay, that he wasn’t alone. It worked because he could understand my empathy instinctually and without language, just like Annie understood it from Fred.

There is nothing more important to the human experience than empathy. We are all grasping for each other, shooting tendrils of compassion into the void between brains, with the hope that we’ll bump into someone we can connect with. And then we do. Somehow, outside of all difference, we’re able to feel someone’s pain when it’s described to us. We want them to reach whatever they’re yearning for. We live stories that aren’t our own. Once we bump into someone in the void, whether they’re real or fictional, we take their suffering and their success onto ourselves. Compassion is heavy.

Could it also be learned?

When I was little I found it very hard to distinguish between the real experiences of people around me, and the imagined experiences of my favourite inanimate objects. I felt compassion for stuffed animals, certain rocks, trees, cars, the jack-o-lanterns on Halloween, and the candles that were ever shrinking to my horror. Every object around me had a story. Nobody taught me to feel this way, and I’m sure my hoarding of homeless (lonely) objects was something my Mom wished I would un-learn.

So if I wasn’t told to be compassionate, then where did my worry for the Christmas tree post-Christmas come from? I had many attachment objects as a child, things I found it hard to let go of, that I attributed personalities and backstories to. I wasn’t the only one. Up to 70% of young children develop strong attachments to objects. We feel compassion for things as children, and it is undisputed that children also feel empathy for people and other living things as well. But if part of my weird compassion for inanimate things was the product of naturally occurring empathy and an over-active imagination, part of my development as a compassionate child must have also come from my upbringing.

Receiving empathy is integral to a child’s development, I learned from an interview with Professor Theodore Waters, an expert on the psychology of normative attachment. Normative attachment means a child feels like her parent is a safe base from which she can jump off and explore the world, the diving board and also the water wings. Waters has a little daughter and a baby on the way. He often thinks about his work in relation to his children. The first time his daughter crawled was the simplest example he gave of an infant being securely attached. She crawled out, her first time leaving her Mother “by her own power” as Waters put it, and grabbed a toy. When she realized she was out there in the void, in new and unfamiliar territory, she crawled back to the safety of her Mom. Secure attachment means the child feels confident to venture out into the world, but finds a safe haven with her parent when the world becomes overwhelming.

Infant attachment starts from day one. It requires Mom being attuned to the baby’s signals during breastfeeding, and that she interpret the baby’s cries to figure out what’s needed. This is called maternal sensitivity: it’s how the baby feels understood and cared for. “Maternal sensitivity is an expression of empathy,” Waters asserted, “the more sensitive the Mother is, the more quickly the problem will be solved. She needs to know what the child has been doing, what they might want to do now, what they typically do at that time of the day — all of that is an exercise in empathy, understanding how the infant thinks and communicates.”

Maternal sensitivity has huge implications for the infant’s future, in ways that you may not expect. The quality of caregiving will set up how a child expects relationships to work and will carry that expectation into new contexts. It affects whether they can trust people and seek help. It also determines their social competence: the sense that they achieve their goals by using social relationships without damaging them. Children who are more securely attached, those with more empathetic Mothers, grow up much more socially competent. Maternal sensitivity will affect the success of the infant’s future romantic relationships. Studies such as MLSRA (Minnesota Longitudinal Study of Risk and Adaptation) have found that infant attachment and maternal sensitivity could predict the brain’s processing of reward in late adolescence and could even predict a person’s BMI at age 37 and 39 accurately.

If an infant’s Mother isn’t sensitive to her, she will grow up to process her own infant’s behavior differently than a Mother who was securely attached during infancy. “Mothers who are insecurely attached will see a crying infant face or hear a cry and their brain will process that differently than securely attached Mothers. They will have an avoidance reaction rather than the attached empathetic reaction. They’ll say things like, the baby is trying to manipulate me, or the baby is being selfish, whereas an attached Mother will say the baby is hungry, or upset.” Insecure infant attachment creates parents that will be similarly insensitive. The implication of this finding is that empathy is not entirely instinctual. If you weren’t empathized with as an infant, you will find it hard to empathize with infants as an adult. If your Mother was insensitive, you’ll find it harder to make secure relationships later in life.

Waters asserted that there is no attachment or empathy gene, and that studies suggesting there is were “poorly done science”. It would seem from his work that maternal sensitivity at least, is a learned behavior. Does that mean empathy is not instinctive, as it seemed to be with the Charles Sturt babies? While we haven’t found a gene that creates compassion, there certainly is a biological root to empathy.

In the early 1990s, Italian researcher Vittorio Gallese made a strange and startling discovery. He was part of Professor Giacomo Rizzolatti’s group from the University of Parma, working in a lab with a macaque monkey. Like most scientists hell-bent on a project, he was eating while he worked. Gallese didn’t notice at first that the macaque was watching him intently. The monkey had electrodes implanted in its brain too see which parts lit up during which activities. When Gallese reached for his food, he noticed that neurons began to fire in the monkey’s premotor cortex — the same area that showed activity when the animal reached for its own food. That area should only have lit up if the monkey was grabbing a sandwich too. How was it possible that his brain was behaving as though he was reaching for food, even though he was sitting still?

What Gallese had accidentally discovered were mirror neurons, also known quite expressively as “empathy neurons” or “Dalai Lama neurons”. For the first time in history we had a neurological explanation for many of our social capabilities, such as action understanding, imitation, language and empathy. Yes, humans have them too. We’ve since realized that these neurons are what dissolve the barrier between the self and others. They’re part of what causes us to melt into each other, our chests to feel heavy with someone else’s grief, our hearts to pound when someone else is in danger. When we read novels, or watch movies or listen to friends and feel their pain, our mirror neurons are firing. They are those tendrils we send out into the void to grasp each other with. The monkey was empathizing with Gallese’s hunger and desire for food; so much so that his brain dissolved the barrier between him and his scientist captor.

The evolutionary roots of empathy are still lodged in our brains, and it makes sense. Imagine you live in the jungle with a bunch of other humans. Danger is all around you. If you’re able to quickly interpret fear on a fellow human, you’ll more quickly get yourself out of harm’s way. It’s a simple example, but it’s true that empathy is essential for the survival of a social group. Mirror neurons and their role suggest nature perhaps more than nurture gave us empathy, and that empathy occurs in most social groups, not just human ones.

The idea that other animals could have empathy has long been resisted, before and after Gallese’s discovery. We like to think of ourselves as superior, compassionate creatures that reign over those driven by instinct and need. We view animals through the looking glass, as what we would be if you stripped us of what makes us human. We’ve long claimed that empathy and language are part of what define humanity. Well, everyone knows now that many species have their own language; from dolphins to parakeets, we aren’t the only ones communicating through complex sound. The existence of mirror neurons shows that animals are also empathizing.

The problem with making the case for animal empathy is that humans are so stuck up about our ability to communicate through language, that we dismiss other ways of displaying concern and care for others. We can’t ask an elephant matriarch if she cares deeply about the baby elephant clinging to her tail, so we dismiss her signs of care as a survival instinct. In the same way, we assume that since babies can’t speak and haven’t been told to empathize, they couldn’t possibly be doing it on their own — but they are.

Why then is maternal sensitivity so important to our ability to empathize? If human empathy was simply a neuron in our brains, and babies do it instinctually, then why does empathy sometimes go wrong? The extreme opposite of secure attachment is attachment disorders such as RAD (reactive attachment disorder). RAD occurs under a situation of extreme abuse or neglect, resulting in children who find it impossible to trust, do not understand kindness and show very little empathy. Parents who foster or adopt children with RAD often report that simply ‘loving’ the child is not enough. Displaying empathy to someone whose empathic development has been stunted does not undo the damage. Working with children who have attachment disorders requires professional assistance and attachment therapy to help them overcome this brain injury — a rewiring.

Imagine you are out there in the void, bumping and bumping against the people you are supposed to connect with. All you receive are sporadic and often harmful nudges back. You learn that trying to connect with people doesn’t work, that you can’t rely on that instinct inside that tells you to send the tendrils out. You learn to stop gazing out at all because all that’s there is blackness. Of course you would be injured by that free-fall through the ether. Of course your brain would reflect what you learned, and those tendrils would wither.

Regular therapy, guided meditation, and working with animals have resulted in successful compassion learning for people who have suffered abuse or neglect. Meditation has been proven to enhance the wiring of the brain associated with empathic response. It is possible to un-learn trauma and trust again by training the brain’s elasticity and making it more receptive to change. Children with attachment disorders who undergo meditation therapy have huge improvements not only in their behavior, but also under MRI scans, which reveal brains that look different than those of RAD sufferers who have not undergone meditation therapy. They start to heal.

Empathy is intrinsic, but it requires nurturing: the RAD treatments show us that nobody simply learns empathy by watching it in action. The absurd notion that empathy could be a learned skill is simply not true — it’s inside us as much as any other survival instinct. Empathy is the most human experience. We need to be empathized with; it’s in our nature to expect compassion from others. Even when they’ve been chopped up, the compassion-tendrils can be re-grown. Even after years of feeling alone, we can connect again. Empathy is so far inside us that even someone in free-fall can rediscover it.



Artwork by Laura Jacobson

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