Michael Bader: Trauma and the vital importance of empathy
December 26, 2016
Sympathy and empathy are different. Sympathy is when you understand that someone else is suffering. Empathy is when you also feel that person's suffering.
Empathy is hardwired and begins in the mirroring that goes on between an infant and a caretaker, playful imitation through facial expressions and gestures, through mutual cooing and mimicking each other's emotional states. The capacity for empathy is innate and grounded in neurobiological processes and brain chemicals such as oxytocin and endogenous opiates. As the infant matures, he or she develops the capacity to differentiate self from other, grasping the crucial fact that one's own thoughts and feelings are not necessarily shared by everyone else. Feeling and seeing the world from another's perspective, while appreciating that others may be as different and unique as you, are the two components of mature empathy.
If we receive empathy, our capacity to then feel and express it with others grows. We become social beings. The empathy we experience from our most important caretakers makes us feel safe and better able to develop our cognitive abilities and our moral sensibilities.
Human beings who are deprived of empathic social surroundings don't feel safe. The world is threatening and the psyche and brain go into a fight or flight state, using more primitive brain circuitry to deal with adversity. When empathy breaks down or is absent, the systems that help us comfort and regulate ourselves, to master stress, become overwhelmed. We call that trauma.
Evidence of early trauma due to the breakdown of empathy can be seen in experiments conducted in the late 1970s, in which mothers were filmed playing with their babies, both parties enjoying the mirroring of gesture and expression so typical of those early days. The mothers were then instructed to make their faces flat, still, and unresponsive to their babies, for three minutes.
The babies quickly became agitated, confused, and desperate. They broke down, expressing rage, protest and grief. Eventually they gave up and turned away from their mothers, sad and hopeless.
When the empathy necessary to help infants develop the ability to manage stress is not available on a chronic basis, various disturbances can result. These infants might grow up to become a teenagers and adults who depend on drugs or alcohol to calm down. They may become hyperactive. They may even shut down and numb themselves, having great difficulty empathizing with others, including their own children.
These are all responses to the traumatic breakdown of our stress-response system. And while in the beginning this system depends entirely on the child's most intimate caretakers, the need for mirroring and recognition never goes away. Empathy is a vital nutrient throughout the life cycle.
Unfortunately, too often in our society, people are isolated and deprived of this nourishment and safety. Household size has shrunk. The average number of confidantes that people have has sharply decreased over the last few decades, from three in 1985 to two in 2004, with a full quarter of Americans reporting that they have no confidantes at all.
Time spent socializing with friends or having family dinners has similarly declined. The last five decades have witnessed stunning declines in virtually every form of social and civic participation, spaces where people can encounter each other face to face in their communities, including churchgoing, social clubs, the PTA, and even, according to sociologist Robert Putnam, bowling leagues.
The number of hours that children spend playing outside in unstructured activities — necessary for the development of social skills and empathy — was reduced by 50 percent between 1981 and 1997, a loss compensated for by radical increases in time spent watching television or sitting in front of computer screens. On average, American kids watch two to four hours of television daily. And consider this: 43 percent of children under 2 years old watch television or videos every day.
Children need face-to-face human interaction and digital substitutes just won't do.
On nearly all measures of social life, Americans tend to have fewer and lower quality interactions with one another than their parents or grandparents did. Isolation has grown along with inequality. They go together.
Societies with more economic fairness and equality are ones that encourage and privilege cooperation and mutuality. Societies like ours that are so exceptionally unequal encourage and privilege aggression, paranoia, and competitiveness, traits associated with the so-called "rugged individualist." While sometimes adaptive, such an ideal also makes a virtue out of disconnection and trauma.
Understanding the powerful value of empathy and the risks of its absence should make us more supportive of families, encourage more play, fight against inequality, and build communities that embed our individualism in a much richer — and more empathic — social world.
Michael Bader, DMH, is a psychologist in private practice in Grass Valley. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
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