Empathy: A Vestigial Organ?

Scope Correspondent

My father says now that he knew as early as his teenage years that he couldn’t feel for other people.  The son of a small-town pastor, he couldn’t manufacture tears at funerals, surrounded by the weeping members of his community.  Usually, he faked the appropriate emotion well enough to keep up the charade.

He held me as an infant, small enough to fit between the crook of his elbow and the tips of his fingers, and squeezed my leg as I wailed, not shifting his position, unable to figure out that he was applying pressure directly where I had just had my vaccinations.  After a middle school orchestra concert, he asked if I thought I had played well enough to deserve a cookie at the reception. I was mortified, and another child’s mother was visibly shocked.  “It was a joke,” he said later in the car.  “You don’t understand my humor.”  He hadn’t noticed how upset I had been until I told him.  On another occasion, he forced me to go talk to an acquaintance we saw in a grocery store, even though I told him I didn’t want to because the man had regularly made me (and other children) uncomfortable.  Somehow, I never strung these memories together into a pattern until recently, when I began to think about empathy.

I’d somehow always assumed that everyone wanted to absorb the pain of others and make them feel better.  Science bears out these tendencies even extend to the rest of the animal kingdom.  Chimpanzees have repeatedly been documented making their way to the loser of a fight and putting an arm around the loser’s back.  As far back as 1959, it was known that rats will stop pressing a lever that gives them food if they see that the same lever provides a shock to a rat in a next-door cage.  Dolphins, birds, elephants—all have been caught in the act of caring for a member of their species in distress.

That kind of care seemed self-evident to me.  Until the day, at the age of 25, when I found out that empathy was a foreign concept to a man I thought I had known my whole life—my own father.

When I first found out, I wanted to repair him.  A lack of empathy was a serious defect in my eyes.  But a neurologist told us his brain scans were normal for his age, just the usual shrinkage of the frontal lobes that didn’t indicate a problem.  And my father didn’t think he had a problem, either.  He still doesn’t.  So experimental treatments I had read about—the hormone oxytocin, the “love hormone,” which appears to increase social skills in autistic and schizophrenic people—wouldn’t be an option.  Instead, I tried to make him feel how I felt—angry, empty, betrayed.  I’d say hurtful things I probably meant.  “I don’t want you at my graduation.” “I’m not acknowledging you in my thesis.”  “If I ever get married, I don’t want you there.”  It made no difference.  He’d say what he thought I wanted to hear, seem sorry or contrite.  A few days later, he would be unrepentant and insist his erratic actions had nothing to do with me or my mother at all.  Eventually, I gave up.

And then I wondered. If he has made it this far and this long without empathy, if faking it was good enough, did we really need empathy at all?  Why did we have it in the first place?  Why was its absence in my father so troubling to me?

Scientists think we evolved empathy for a reason.  The consensus seems to be that it arose out of a need for animals, particularly mammals, to care for their offspring.  A mother can be attentive only if she can understand why her infant is upset.  So the successful mothers, who manage to transmit their traits to the generations to come, are the ones that know that this cry means “I’m hungry” and that one means “ouch.”  This evolved mothering instinct, an ability to connect emotionally with one’s children, forms the foundation of empathy in many species.

It is truly amazing how deeply these tendencies are ingrained.  Babies usually begin to show empathy, a dislike of unhappy or painful facial expressions in others, at ages as early as eight months.  When shown strongly emotive faces for a shorter time period than it would take to consciously recognize them, adult human subjects wear the same facial expressions and report feeling the same emotions as the images.  Empathy is unconscious.  When it activates, the same circuits fire in all of our brains.  The neurons know how to meet and transfer the message that someone else is hurting, and we should do something about it.  Empathy activates the same parts of the brain that respond to physical pain.  In your gray matter, the pang you feel for the homeless beggar is similar to stubbing your toe.  In a properly functioning brain, the pain is finely tuned, enough to make you want to do something to alleviate another’s suffering but not so much to be debilitating.  At the same time, our brain releases dopamine, its chemical reward, for caring about a fellow creature.  We have evolved to feel this pain and pleasure.  But sometimes, like in my father, the wires must get crossed.

He is not the only one.  His diagnosis, after extensive and expensive testing by a neuropsychologist, was of sociopathic, schizophrenic, and narcissistic tendencies.  These and other maladies—autism, borderline personality disorder—are at least partially diseases of empathy.  Brain scans of incarcerated psychopathic men show that the brain pathways that light up when they think about their own bodies in pain are the same ones that appear in non-psychopathic people thinking about the pain of others.  But their brains do not respond to the pain of others.  The wiring is such that they can’t imagine themselves in another’s place.

Society as a whole seems to be letting empathy slide.  Scientific studies suggest that college students today feel less empathy than students thirty years ago, and if that trend should continue, I am afraid of where we will end up.  Maybe our society has progressed to a point where empathy is no longer a prerogative for survival.  Maybe that’s why my father has been able to function at a superficial level all these decades, to my chagrin.  In a casual encounter, perhaps it is enough to fake nicety.  It happens often when we see someone we know in passing, ask “how are you,” and continue on our way without waiting for the answer.  In a deeper relationship, though, between a father and daughter, a husband and a wife, I find that the awareness of missing empathy has somehow poisoned all the memories, even the good ones, that went before.

I have trouble believing that a society casting aside our developed traits like so much extra baggage is a positive step.  Perhaps we would be better off if we could rid ourselves of some of our evolved abilities, like our sweet tooth or our pleasure at the thrill of danger, both of which can lead to an early grave.  But empathy is not a skill that should be consigned to the trash heap.  It makes existence bearable in a world already too full of callousness and hatred.  It is the only way to attempt to heal the deep gashes humans inflict upon each other with words and deeds.  It makes forgiveness possible.

For me, the pain we feel as part of empathy is worth it.  I think, very simply, of how much my life has been enriched by empathy.  I had a habit, from preschool onwards, of befriending the children who seemed most in need of it.  I invited Andrew, a boy with sensory processing disorder, to my fourth birthday party. His mother was so thankful, because no one had ever invited him anywhere before.  As a six-year-old, I slowed my pace at soccer practice to match that of Devon, a chubby boy who kept coming dead last in the sprints.  In second grade, I spent time with Yuka, the shy Japanese girl, who was unsure about her English.  In middle school, I ate lunch and passed notes with the Goth kids, even before their wardrobes and identities came particularly under fire in the wake of the nearby Columbine High School massacre.  I wasn’t consciously trying to do good.  I just felt most at home among the people who I realize now were the outcasts.  Without empathy, I don’t know if these people would have been a part of my life, and I would be sorry to have missed incorporating them in my memories.  When I think about it this way, I feel sorry for people like my father who cannot form these bonds that only empathy can imbue with meaning. I think a world in which our neurobiological wiring ran a different way, where our lives could not be intertwined in this manner, would be less desirable.

I take comfort in biology, in the fact that evolution has made us capable of feeling for others.  Humans are incredible adapters, and we have adapted our empathy over time, not to get rid of it, but to enable us to put it to better and wider use.  Empathy is not an emotional appendix or tailbone, but a living, breathing organ that animals have cultivated now for millennia.  It drives us to donate clothes, money, food to people in need we’ve never met.  And it even allows us to love and take care of members of species that are not our own.  “This is not an outcome for which empathy evolved,” wrote Frans de Waal, a primatologist and ethologist. “Yet once in existence, capacities are often emancipated from their evolutionary origin.”

I think the idea of freeing empathy from its evolutionary shackles is a lovely one.  It means that empathy is no longer just about the bonds of family, the primal need to maintain a blood line.  It means that, with empathy, we have the chance to build bridges that enrich our lives with the presence of strangers, who may one day, in the process, become our friends.