By Zoe Heidenry
Art by Sabine Noureddine
As 6-year-old Emma is walking up the stairs of her elementary school, her friend Tommy trips and falls, banging his knees on the stairs and spilling the contents of his backpack all over the floor. Looking at Tommy, Emma winces in pain as she sees him struggle to stand, and she feels sad when he starts to cry. Why does Emma share in Tommy’s pain, despite her not getting hurt? Why does she feel sad for him? The phenomenon Emma is experiencing is known as empathy. Empathy is affected by a combination of biological and environmental factors, with the parent-child bond being the most important contributor. Furthermore, empathy plays a large role in a person’s ability to form social relationships.
What Is Empathy?
The term “empathy” is used to describe many forms of interpersonal interactions, with scientific literature citing over 40 unique definitions of the term . In a meta-analysis of those definitions, researchers found that empathy is generally defined in two parts. Firstly, empathy is defined as an observer’s emotional response to another person’s emotional expression, shaped by the observer's personal traits and the context of the expression . For example, Emma responds to Tommy’s expression of pain, but the way she responds could be dependent on her personality or how hard Tommy fell. Essentially, it’s both a circumstantial and individual response to another person’s emotions. Secondly, the observer’s emotional response is their personal perception and understanding of the other’s emotions; that is, the observer is able to separate their emotions from the emotions of the other person . In this case, Emma perceives Tommy to be in pain and winces in response to seeing it, but understands that her wincing is different from the pain that Tommy feels.
Empathy is often divided into two subcategories: emotional and cognitive . Emotional empathy, also known as affective empathy, is one’s emotional response to another’s emotional expression, like Emma feeling sad when she sees Tommy crying . On the other hand, cognitive empathy is one’s perception and understanding of another’s emotions, like Emma recognizing that Tommy is in pain or feeling embarrassed . People can have different levels of each type of empathy.
Why Do We Have Empathy?
The ability to empathize maximizes an organism’s chance of survival.
Empathy plays a key role in forming a bond between offspring and their parents or primary caregivers, and this bond ensures that the offspring will be protected and raised into maturity . Through millions of years of evolution, multiple neurological systems developed in order to promote empathy. For example, different parts of the limbic system, a brain region known for the regulation of emotional and behavioral responses, evolved to contribute to the parent-child bond. The hypothalamus, a subsection of the limbic system, contains neurons that respond to sensory signals, such as crying or hunger cues, expressed by children. Consequently, maternal motivation to care for children increases, and feelings of aggression or avoidance towards children decreases. Scientists hypothesize that parental ability to bond with and care for children is what eventually gave rise to the human capacity to feel empathy towards complete strangers . Furthermore, it is possible that cognitive empathy developed in order for people to both comprehend and foresee the behavior of others . In contrast, emotional empathy developed in order for humans to form partnerships or friendships with others, so that benevolent behavior is eventually reciprocated . Overall, empathy impacts a person’s ability to form relationships with their parents and with others in their social communities, and thus affects a person’s chance at survival.
Humans are not alone in feeling empathy, as animals can also experience the phenomenon, however they are limited to the emotional type . Humans, meanwhile, are capable of both emotional and cognitive empathy, and can imagine what others are feeling as well as act on those assumptions in order to help . Perhaps these differences in empathic abilities are reflective of a larger theme that separates animals and humans: feeling empathy towards strangers. One study demonstrated that mice were more likely to show empathy towards other mice that lived in the same cage as them, as compared to showing no empathy towards mice that they were unfamiliar with . On the other hand, humans can experience empathy towards strangers, and act on that empathy in order to exhibit prosocial behavior, behavior performed to benefit another person . For example, if Emma helped Tommy up after his fall or gave him a hug to comfort him, she would be exhibiting prosocial behavior. There is some preliminary evidence that some primates also exhibit prosocial behaviors, though this behavior is usually limited to sharing food . Regardless, humans generally have greater and more expansive empathic abilities than animals.
Is Empathy Heritable?
Researchers have identified multiple genes that are involved with empathy. One family of genes that plays a particularly important role in empathy is that of the Oxytocin Receptor Genes (OXTR) . Variations in OXTR can greatly impact a person’s empathic abilities by structurally and functionally altering parts of the limbic system [10,11]. Oxytocin, colloquially known as the “love drug,” is a hormone that promotes parent-child bonding, romantic feelings of love, and empathy . Oxytocin also acts as a neurotransmitter, which is a chemical that is sent from one neuron to another in order to communicate information . It’s made in the hypothalamus and then sent to bind to specific receptors throughout various regions of the brain, including the amygdala—which, interestingly, is a region of the brain that plays a key role in controlling emotions . Scientists have found that the experience of empathy is positively correlated with an increase in oxytocin levels .
Moreover, increased oxytocin levels are associated with greater maternal bonding . OXTR genes can differ in a person’s genetic code, with there being three genetic variants. One version to consider increases amygdala volume, and better integrates pathways between the hypothalamus and the amygdala . These structural and functional changes can perhaps lead to alterations in the function of oxytocin, and thus ensure higher empathic abilities.
So, is empathy heritable? While the development of empathy does depend on certain biological factors, such as OXTR genes, one’s genetic material is not the sole determinant of empathic ability. Environmental factors also play a key role in developing empathy . One example of such a factor is the relative security of the environment in which a person grows up. In a decade-long study following the development of children born in war-torn regions, researchers found that chronic stress can change how parents and children interact . There was evidence that mothers became less attuned to the emotional needs of their children, such as being unable to recognize specific gestures or facial expressions. This, in turn, lowered their child’s empathic abilities [16,17]. In addition, children that grow up in traumatic or adverse environments often experience reduced amounts of cognitive empathy later in life . The reasons behind this are complex and often depend on the type of trauma experienced by the individual. For example, children who grew up with an abusive caregiver find it hard to take on and understand other perspectives as a way to cope with what happened to them . Ultimately, both biological elements and environmental influences work in combination to form a person’s empathic abilities.
Stages of Empathy Development
Empathy develops in stages, separated into pre-birth, newborn, infancy, and early childhood . The development of empathy starts before a child is born. Prenatal attachment is the bond between the mother and fetus that develops prior to the birth of the child . This is measured by a battery of tests detailing the mother’s thoughts and feelings towards her child before birth; the child is later behaviorally and developmentally tested to determine the child’s empathy levels. Studies have found that higher levels of prenatal attachment, or a stronger bond between mother and fetus, are associated with greater amounts of empathy in children as they grow up .
Once a child is born, the development of empathy continues. Within 18 to 72 hours after birth, newborns reflexively cry if they hear the cries of other newborns . This suggests the early development of a phenomenon known as emotional contagion, an element of emotional empathy where one’s own mood is susceptible to the emotional expression of others . Emotional contagion involves different regions of the brain depending on the emotion perceived. One study showed that when a person is observing happy faces, they experience increased cingulate gyrus activation . The cingulate gyrus is involved with regulating positive emotions, as well as suppressing fear. When a person is observing sad faces, they experience increased activation in the frontal gyrus, which is a region of the brain associated with regulating negative emotions as well as processing facial expressions . Emotional contagion is a way of adapting to one’s social environment . The emergence of emotional contagion so soon after birth perhaps emphasizes the immediate importance of understanding and reciprocating social cues in childhood development.
A variety of empathy-related developmental milestones occur between birth and two years of age. By ten months, infants begin to express concern for others by crying or whimpering if others are distressed . Around the age of two, babies often try to soothe others in distress by moving near them, offering toys, patting them, or demonstrating other prosocial behaviors [19,22]. The expression of prosocial behaviors is related to empathic concern, which describes emotions that an observer feels towards another person that motivate the observer to help that person [19,24]. Prosocial behavior helps us form social relationships, which make up the very foundation of human society . Exhibiting prosocial behavior at such a young age emphasizes the significance of such behaviors in the course of child development.
The attachment style between parent and child also develops during infancy . Attachment style is the bond between child and caregiver, which can fall into four categories: secure, avoidant, resistant, and disorganized . Secure attachment style involves an emotionally attentive and affectionate caregiver. Avoidant attachment style is formed when a caregiver ignores or is aggravated by the child. Resistant attachment style is formed when the caregiver inconsistently attends to a child’s emotional needs. Meanwhile, disorganized attachment style occurs when a caregiver attends to a child’s emotional needs abnormally, such as being frightening to the child . Attachment style bonds are measured by the amount of infant distress exhibited once the caregiver goes away, and the amount of happiness exhibited once the caregiver returns . Infants with a more secure attachment style show greater levels of emotional regulation, displaying appropriate emotions when a specific situation calls for them. Higher levels of emotional regulation are a predictor of higher levels of empathy . In this stage, empathy develops primarily through interactions that an infant has with both the world around them and their parents. Notably, attachment style represents an environmental influence on empathy.
By the age of three, children start to refine their sense of empathy. They develop a preliminary sense of ethics, in that they will show empathic concern if they believe that the distress of others is justified . For example, a child will show more empathy towards a person who is in a lot of pain as opposed towards someone who is in a lesser amount of pain. Some scientists believe that how a toddler determines if someone is in distress is related to how likely the child is to exhibit prosocial behavior towards that person . Additionally, at this stage children start to become aware that other people have mental states that are unique and different to their own, a phenomenon referred to as developing a “Theory of Mind” (ToM) . ToM is the ability to separate one’s own thoughts and emotions from others, and is a system that often runs in parallel to cognitive empathy . Studies using fMRI, a type of imaging technique that measures brain activity, show that the regions involved in ToM and empathy overlap in the temporoparietal junction, indicating a relationship between the mechanisms of ToM and empathy . The temporoparietal junction is a region of the brain involved in comprehending and processing other’s mental states. It is active when a person sees someone in distress. In fact, studies that disrupt temporoparietal junction activity result in a person feeling less empathetic towards a person who is visibly in pain .
Along with the temporoparietal junction, children develop a neural processing pathway in empathy colloquially known as the “pain matrix.” The pain matrix is a system in the brain which involves the somatosensory cortex and posterior insula and is activated when either experiencing pain or witnessing others in pain . The somatosensory cortex and posterior insula are both involved in processing stimuli from both outside and inside of the body. One study researching pain matrix activation in children ages seven to twelve showed greater activation of the pain matrix when shown images and videos of others in obvious distress and/or pain .
Psychopathy is a psychological condition associated with lower amounts of empathy . Just like normal empathic development, the development of psychopathy is also dependent on a combination of biological and environmental factors. Biologically, those with psychopathy often have a version of the OXTR genes associated with lower levels of oxytocin within the brain, and thus lower levels of empathy . Considering oxytocin mainly impacts emotional empathy, this may provide insight as to why those with psychopathy have normal cognitive empathy abilities but lower emotional empathic abilities . Returning to the Emma and Tommy example, a person with psychopathy may recognize that Tommy is in pain because of his fall, but not feel sad when seeing him cry. Environmentally, parenting and attachment style can also play a large role in children later developing psychopathic traits. How attentive a parent is to their child’s emotional needs can be indicative of a child’s future empathic abilities . When especially emotionally sensitive children are exposed to caregivers with low responsiveness to their emotional needs, studies show that the children in question have a higher chance of developing psychopathy . In addition, psychopathy is associated with lower amygdala activity, with psychopathic children often having difficulty reacting to pictures of children with fearful faces . Overall, having psychopathy changes a person’s empathic abilities, and thus impacts the way they interact with the world and others.
The field of empathy research is in its infancy and as such, there is so much that scientists still don’t know about empathy. In addition, the development of empathy is especially difficult to research due to the limitations of current technology on safely and feasibly measuring a child’s brain activity. Despite this, scientists should continue to research empathy because of its heavy influence on social interactions. Humans are inherently social creatures, and being able to bond with one’s caregivers and friends, extend helping hands to strangers, imagine another person’s perspective, and recognize another person’s pain are all skills rooted in empathy, and make up the basis of all social relationships. Though some people may experience empathy differently, as in the case of individuals with psychopathy, everyone lives in a society reliant on social connections. Therefore, it is an undeniable truth that empathy is foundational to all of human society. Perhaps with further research, more will be understood about what brings people together.
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