Janice Maddox 


The Decline of Empathy

Empathetic capacity develops first in the early bond babies make with their primary caregiver. It doesn’t matter to babies whether this caregiver is their biological mother or father or nanny or grandparent. What matters is consistency and nurturing. - From Born for Love: Why Empathy is Essential - and Endangered, Maia Szalavitz and Bruce D. Perry

There was a request to hear more information on why empathy is endangered, as referenced in the last post. This post is an attempt to provide an explanation. It also explains (I hope) why early childhood programs are important. For every dollar spent on early childhood programs, nine dollars of social services spending is saved, in the long run.

In a recent presentation by Bruce Perry, he stated that approximately 10% of families can be considered “high-risk,” families. A high risk family is a family with substance abuse, domestic violence, and/or other factors that decrease the odds a child will be raised in a responsive, peaceful, nurturing, consistent, environment.

It is important to note being born into a high risk family does not automatically mean a person is going to be impaired, as many empathetic, kind, grounded, resilient people who come from high risk families can attest to. It does, however, significantly increase the odds. 

The increase in odds that a child born into a high risk family will have experiences that interfere with the development of empathy is compounded by the fact that high risk families tend to have more children than low risk families.  In this way, we get intergenerational transmission that spreads exponentially.

In Born for Love: Why Empathy is Essential – and Endangered, Maia Szalavitz and Bruce D. Perry note:  “Chronic, uncontrollable stress early in life can actually change gene expression – and these changes can be passed down from one generation to the next through alterations in parenting behavior,” and

“Being prepared for a stressful world increases aggression, while being prepared for a calmer world increases love.”

Thanks to this exponential transmission,   Bruce Perry predicts that in 100 years, a minimum of 25% of families will be high-risk families. And, those families will likely continue to have more children than low-risk families.  

This phenomenon is illustrated in a scene in the movie “Idiocracy.”  The movie shows a scene over time of a highly educated professional couple and their decision to delay having children and ultimately to not have any children. 

Juxtapositioned next to them is a couple that apparently likes to drink and goof off and that could be related to me. This couple is shown having children and their children having children and a chart is depicted showing the “dumber” family exponentially populating the world. 

The end result is that when Luke Wilson’s character emerges from a frozen state after 500 years of evolution, he is the smartest man on the planet. 

In spite of the offensiveness of the stereotypes, I can’t hear about the intergenerational transmission of risk and the fact high-risk families have more children than low risk families without thinking about that scene (note the “smart” couple depicted in the movie would probably never watch the movie Idiocracy).                

The movie appears to be based on the premise described above. But, what we are talking about is a decline in empathy. This means the world future generations inhabit will be more violent and less safe. 

High quality child services early in life changes the trajectory of children born into high risk environments.  This is one reason early childhood and pre-school programs are so important. High risk children can be exposed to positive attention and be given stimulation needed to help develop a brain that is malleable going into the future, but whose basic structure is set by the age of four.

The reason some have accents that never go away, is that if a child is not exposed to a certain sound by the age of two, they lose the ability to make that sound, forever.  They are born with the ability to make all sounds, but the brain tosses out what doesn’t appear to be needed in the environment they are born into.

A child who wears an eye patch during these crucial years of development will be blind in that eye forever, even though there was nothing wrong with the eye but the wearing of the eye patch. The brain tosses out the pathways needed for seeing out of that eye as unneeded. 

Empathy is directly related to the mirror neurons I discussed in the post Mirror Neurons – Invisible Ties that Bind, which you will want to review, if you haven’t already, for an understanding of the role brain structure plays in empathy:  http://www.janicemaddox.com/?p=1350.

Children who are autistic are found to have impairments in neurological mirroring. Autism is not caused by the factors I’m discussing here, but this illustrates the role mirror neurons play in empathy and social understanding – areas in which autistic children are lacking.

Children raised under normal experiences have a brain reward pathway that is stimulated by approval of their parents.  Children who didn’t develop a reward pathway connecting relationships and approval find other ways to stimulate their reward system that are not socially related  (a reward pathway is a neurological response involving the release of dopamine and natural brain opioids, such as oxytocin).

A normal empathetic response, thanks to mirror neurons is to flinch inwardly or outwardly when we see somebody hurt.  Neuro-imaging studies done on children who bully show that when watching others hurt, the reward part of their brain is stimulated. They have no neurological mirroring response.

The good news is we can do things that can make a difference. The bad news is there are declining resources for programs that have been shown to help these children in the context of a pattern of increased need.  Particularly, early childhood programs.

"A child’s future health and ability to be productive is directly proportional to the number and  quality of relationships a community can sustain" - Bruce Perry.  Through a majority of our evolution, we grew up in clans with multiple generations under the same roof. A tendency towards increased isolation and less interrelatedness is a contributing factor to the decline of empathy.

While the early years are absolutely crucial, we’ve learned more about the malleability of the brain and there is hope for children. At the same time the importance of responsive, consistent nurturing while the child is an infant cannot be over-stated.

The biggest factor found in resilient children born into high-risk families is the presence of a consistent, nurturing presence in the child’s life outside of the immediate family. These people can be coaches, teachers, aunts, uncles or neighbors.  

Resilient children appear to have a tendency to seek out positive connections and to find other ways of getting their needs for positive relationships met (sadly, while I want to end on a positive note, I have to mention this can also make them vulnerable to predators as discussed in The Art of Deception:  http://www.janicemaddox.com/?p=2139).



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