Simplified truths

EMPATHY is a subject that is not commonly associated with science – or that’s what I had thought. So helping research the documentary that started our Empathize Now! initiative was a real eye-opener.

We found – and some of you may already know – that it was the discovery of mirror neurons just 20 years ago which led to a proliferation of scientific research on empathy.

Macaque monkey

Mirror neurons first found in the brain of a macaque monkey

In an experiment on macaque monkeys at the University of Parma, neuroscientists found that neurons that fired when a monkey was eating peanuts were the same ones that fired when the monkey was watching someone else eat peanuts.

And the simple conclusion from that is that we humans have that ‘mirroring system’ too in our brain, which allows us to mimic another’s action and emotion.

V S Ramachandran – described as the Marco Polo of neuroscience – has said this profound discovery will do for psychology what DNA has done for biology. What is has done is provide a unifying framework to study a host of mental abilities, among them empathy.

The other thing I learnt about empathy is that it’s not a simple emotion – i.e. I see someone in pain, I feel their pain and want to make it go away.

When scientists talk of empathy they talk of its cognitive side – I understand your pain – and its affective side – I feel your pain and most people have a bit of both. But not everyone.

So for instance, very simply, a psychopath understands you are in pain but doesn’t feel it so doesn’t care. But an autistic child, who has difficulty reading facial expressions, can’t understand that you are in pain so doesn’t feel it, though he or she has the ability to do so.

So empathy lies on a spectrum – from very little to too much – and is a neutral term. It’s not all good. It can be used to understand what you are thinking and feeling and then manipulate you.

Empathy can also be switched off as Vittorio Gallese, member of the team of neuroscientists that discovered the mirror neuron, said in our film – and that’s how genocides can happen: when you perceive the enemy as someone who is not a human being like you so doesn’t have the same set of emotions and feelings like you.

In the Rwandan genocide, for instance, Hutus thought of Tutsis as cockroaches…which made the killing easier. How many of us think twice before swatting a cockroach?

Origin of empathy lies in maternal care

Origin of empathy lies in maternal care

A more acceptable perception of empathy lies in its origins – that it is what a mother needs to understand her baby… is she crying because she’s hungry or hurt or sleepy?

And scientists have established that the hormone oxytocin – referred to as the love hormone – is released during birth and when the mother is lactating and caring for her offspring, making women naturally more empathic than men.

Other studies have shown that the levels of testosterone in the womb has a direct correlation to the levels of empathy in the child – the more testosterone (usually in the male) the less empathic.

Beginning with maternal care, our innate ability to empathise with others’ joys and sorrows has grown beyond our immediate families to first encompass small groups as a means of survival, and is now stretching to large communities further and further afield.

Is this why there isn’t enough to go around?