Tracing the neurological roots of empathy.
David Servan-Schreiber | September 2008 issue
Deborah paces the floor in the hospital waiting room. Her daughter is undergoing her third session of chemotherapy. Deborah imagines once again how the freezing poison is spreading through Catherine’s veins. It’s as if she could feel the nausea moving through her daughter, as tension grips her stomach. She tells herself she’d give anything to be ill in her daughter’s place.
Roni stares at his television set: Ten thousand refugees are fleeing a war in their country. They’ve been on the road for days, often without food or water. They’re carrying suitcases tied with string. A father with haggard eyes holds his dead child in his arms. The camera lingers on his unravelled turban, his arms uselessly clutching his little boy close to his chest. Roni gets out of his seat. He’s a doctor. He can’t sit still. He wants to do something. He wants to be there. A few days later, he leaves with Doctors Without Borders.
When we’re subject to suffering, our bodies cope by taking action. This is the well-known “fight or flight” reaction. But what’s the source of this wish to take on the suffering of someone else?
At University College London, in Uta Frith’s cerebral imaging laboratory, women agreed to lie down inside a magnetic resonance scanner while their husbands received electric shocks. Each woman was warned a few seconds in advance that the shock was about to be administered, and each could see her husband’s hand in a mirror as it contracted with pain.
On each woman’s face, one could discern the pain she felt on seeing the man she loved suffer. But what interested the team most was what was happening in their brains: the emotional regions that were activated were virtually the same as if they were receiving the electric shocks. The other person’s pain became their own. Their brains took possession of it. It was as if the membrane separating “me” from “you” had been breached.
According to the 20th-century American philosopher Susanne Langer, under the influence of love, the “membrane of individuality” becomes porous. Some people are more sensitive than others to this empathy. Women tend to have a greater capacity to feel others’ emotions than men. And among different women, and men, significant variations exist. But this automatic reaction of our brains is the very foundation of our humanity. It underpins our capacity for connection.
What makes mammals different from all other animals isn’t just that mothers breastfeed, but that emotional regions of the brain exist and produce connections between parents (particularly mothers) and their offspring. The anterior cingulate cortex (which can be seen in action when women watch their husbands suffering) developed over time to render the cries of a child separated from the mother unbearable to her. It’s thanks to this that the constant contact with an adult—so necessary to the growth of small and fragile mammals—is ensured.
Beyond this link with those close to us, our capacity for compassion (from the Latin compassus, “to suffer with”) is the basis of the doctor’s vocation, of the volunteer’s urge to work for charitable causes, and of every person’s desire to see more harmony within his or her community.
It’s also the foundation of ethics, as held by Baruch Spinoza, a 17th-century philosopher. In our bodies’ capacity to feel the emotions of others, he saw the origin of morality: If he suffers, I suffer, so I must try to prevent his suffering.
The link that unites us both with suffering and with the happiness of the world around us is inscribed deep within our brains. It’s this link that makes us human beings, at once individual and connected, sensitive and responsible.