National Geographic : 2018 Jan
130 national geographic • January 2018 stem from impaired neural circuits. These new insights are laying the foundation for training regimens and treatment programs that aim to en- hance the brain’s empathic response. researchers once thought young children had no concern for the well-being of others—a logical conclusion if you’ve seen a toddler’s tan- trums. But recent findings show that babies feel empathy long before their first birthday. Maayan Davidov, a psychologist at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and her colleagues have conducted some of these studies, analyzing the behavior of children as they witness somebody in distress—a crying child, an experimenter, or their own moth- er pretending to be hurt. Even before six months of age, many infants respond to such stimuli with facial expressions reflecting concern; some also exhibit caring gestures such as leaning forward and trying to communicate with the one in dis- tress. In their first year, infants also show signs of trying to understand the suffering they’re seeing. Eighteen-month-olds often translate their empa- thy into such positive social behavior as giving a hug or a toy to comfort a hurt child. That’s not true of all children, however. In a small minority, starting in the second year of life, researchers see what they call an “active disre- gard” of others. “When someone reported that someone had hurt themselves,” says Carolyn Zahn-Waxler, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, “these children would kind of laugh at them or even kind of swipe at them and say, ‘You’re not hurt,’ or ‘You should be more care- ful’—saying it in a tone of voice that was judgmen- tal.” Following these toddlers into adolescence, Zahn-Waxler and her colleague Soo Hyun Rhee, a psychologist at the University of Colorado Boul- der, found they had a high likelihood of develop- ing antisocial tendencies and getting into trouble. Other studies have measured callousness and lack of emotional expression in adolescents us- ing questions such as whether the subject feels remorseful upon doing something wrong. Those with high scores for “callous-unemotional” traits tend to have frequent and severe behavioral problems—showing extreme aggression in fights, for instance, or vandalizing property. Researchers have also found that some of these adolescents end up committing major crimes such as mur- der, rape, and violent robbery. Some are prone to becoming full-blown psychopaths as adults— individuals with cold, calculating hearts who wouldn’t flinch while perpetrating the most hor- rific acts imaginable. (Most psychopaths are men.) If the empathy deficit at the core of psycho- pathic behaviors can be traced all the way back to toddlerhood, does evil reside in the genes, coiled up like a serpent in the DNA, waiting to strike? The answer isn’t a categorical yes or no. As it is with many illnesses, both nature and nurture have a hand. Studies of twins have established that callous-unemotional traits displayed by some young children and adolescents arise to a substan- tial degree from genes they inherit. Yet in a study of 561 children born to mothers with a history of antisocial behaviors, researchers found that those living with adoptive families that provided a warm and nurturing environment were far less likely to exhibit callous-unemotional traits than those with adoptive families that were not as nurturing. Children born with genes making it more likely that they will have difficulty empathizing are of- ten unable to get a break. “ You can imagine that if you have a child who doesn’t show affection in the same way as a typically developing child, doesn’t show empathy, that child will evoke very different reactions in the people around them—the parents, the teachers, the peers—than a child who’s more amenable, more empathetic,” says Essi Viding, a research psychologist at University College Lon- don. “And many of these children, of course, re- side within their biological families, so they often Researchers have found that empathy is the kindling that fires compassion, impelling us to help others.