A couple is shown dancing the tango.


The social involvement of our brains is amazing. A thoroughly social brain doesn’t come to us just through biological evolution. A baby’s brain must be shaped by interactions with caregivers for optimal development.

That is to say, brain development is not programmed entirely by genes but interacts with the environment beginning in the embryo. This is the nature-nurture interaction. The mother’s nutrition and the fetal and infant environment shape brain development as well as heredity. The serve-and-return interaction between the baby and its caregivers helps to build brain circuitry. Damaging stress, like infant abuse, can block normal development.

Social isolation is a threat. If even social distancing and brief imprisonment are stressful, the consequences of solitary confinement can be devastating, neurologically as well as psychologically.

People, whether peers or parents, are the world we grew up in, growing progressively more sensitive to others through social cognition. The social sense is empathy.

Actually, empathy is an emotion, and emotions are traditionally said to have three components: physiological, cognitive, and behavioral. The distinctions make it easier to separate the emotions, since emotions often share one or two components and differ only in the third. Empathy has at least two components: cognitive and affective, and sometimes a third one variously taken to be “somatic” or “compassionate or concern”.

The cognitive component is knowing how others will react to a condition. Sometimes this is labeled “perspective taking”, which is otherwise regarded as part of theory of mind, or mentalizing, which is different from empathy.

The affective component is feeling other people’s feelings. It may be called an emotional or compassionate component.

One climber helps another in a skilled ascent.

BIO: It is possible that empathy evolved as the motive and mechanism for altruism, although its value to the empathic individual is hard to deny.

As a product of biological evolution, we would expect heredity to influence the development of empathy and its companion process of theory of mind and seek species-typical brain organization as an outcome of genetic action.

Empathy has been linked to mirror neurons (p. 254) in possibly several regions of the cerebral cortex, the insula and anterior cingulate cortex, and perhaps most often with the cortex of the temporoparietal junction. Such attempts at localization have suffered in the absence of a clear mechanism subserving empathy. Nevertheless, an effort to localize the component processes of empathy was summarized by Marsh and by Shamay-Tsoory in their respective diagrams captioned “Figure 1”.

Though not an issue of localization, the link between interoception and emotion has also been detected in the expression of empathy.

PSYCHO: We differ in our empathy, which may be rooted in the complexity of our personalities. According to one report, cognitive empathy is high when behavioral motivation is generally high, whereas affective empathy is high only when emotional motivation levels are high.

Despite speculation that empathy could be the engine of altruism, mentioned in the BIOL column, there is also evidence that empathy does not have broad effects in driving prosocial behavior.

The popular idea that women are more empathic than men was given structure with the systemizer-empathizer distinction of Baron-Cohen with repeated.claims of a sex difference favoring women on the trait of empathy. Neurologically, imaging evidence published in Social Neuroscience in 1918 by Riekki, Svedholm-Haakinen, and Lindeman suggested a difference in perceptual information processing between systemizers and empathizers. One’s score on the systemizer-empathizer dimension may also be correlated with other cognitive traits such as calculation and mentalizing.

Tests that purport to establish a systemizer-empathizer score may be found online here, there and yonder, searching hither and thither. This composite test looks interesting, too. The construct of empathy, interpreted as a trait, appears amenable to interpretation using the Five Factor model of personality, in which it resembles Agreeableness and Openness or perhaps Agreeableness and Conscientiousness. Despite the claims of some websites to the contrary, there is no evidence supporting empathy as an all-or-none “type”. That’s to say that empaths are not a strain of Superman or (more likely) Superwoman.

Understanding how other people see things and what they are feeling starts with learning that we and other people have independent minds, which is the theory of mind. To some investigators, the ability to “read” the other mind, called perspective-taking, is a refinement of the theory of mind, separate from empathy but supportive and complementary. To others, perspective-taking is less cognitive and belongs to empathy, while yet other workers find them independent and potentially in conflict, a dissociation which is plainest when empathy is seen as lacking any cognitive component.

A sex difference in empathy implies that one sex, maleness, may be more frequently deficient in empathy than the other sex. Whether true or false, it does not address the possibility that people of either sex might suffer hyper-empathy, which may result from injury to the amygdala or childhood trauma. Mirroring Baron-Cohen’s suggestion that autism resulted from an “extreme male brain”, though controversial, Dinsdale, Mokkonen, and Crespi have labeled hyper-empathy as the outcome of having an “extreme female brain”. So far as I know, all of the manifestations of an extreme lack of empathy—psychopathy, narcissism, autism, and schizophrenia, for example—are regarded as abnormal.

SOCIAL: Though it is clearly a social emotion, empathy is focused on individuals, not crowds. We are overwhelmed by mass suffering. The apparent unity of a mob is not evidence of empathy, either. The dynamics of mob action may be complicated, but they do not include empathy. We might instead call it herd behavior or mimicry, and link it to social contagion. Other shared behaviors discussed in this blog, like interpersonal harmony, disgust, mental effort and empathic behavior, may also be linked to contagion yet are not identical with it. You may join in with these folks, but do you have an empathic clue as to what they’re thinking, or what motivates them?

Nevertheless, culture shapes our empathy, or at least reveals variations. In all its diversity, empathy is not a likely focus for consensus, but in all its forms, to one degree or another, it appears universally among healthy people and their cultures.

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