Maryann Bucknum Brinley

167 Cooper Avenue
Upper Montclair, NJ 07043-1810

973-202-5909 (cell)

Extraordinary at Ordinary

Searching for extraordinary science and understanding in the everyday ordinary of life

Got Any Empathy?

Maryann Bucknum Brinley - Friday, July 18, 2014

I’ve been looking for signs of empathy everywhere…from my three grandchildren, Evangeline,  7 months, Charlotte, 1½,  and Finn, 3, who are already showing such wonderful sensitivity and love …to the adults all around who manage to make others feel miserable because they are missing this “human capacity to experience the emotional feelings of another,” as Jaak and Jules Panksepp explain in their study published last year in Trends in Neuroscience (“Toward a cross-species understanding of empathy” August 2013). Even Charles Darwin says, “We are impelled to relieve the suffering of another, in order that our own painful feelings may at the same time be relieved.”

We learn the ability to love and give love early in life. Here is Chris, my son-in-law, showing Evangeline what it means to be a daddy. 

Yet, not every adult is even as empathetic as Charlotte, who is loving and caring for her baby dolls with the natural expertise of a socialized toddler whose mother and father love her a lot. The second year of life, in fact, is a good time to watch for these signs of prosocial and empathetic behavior, according to Carolyn Zahn-Waxler, PhD, who has spent her career studying this fascinating human emotion. 

Meanwhile, the Pankseep team in the Department of Behavioral Neuroscience at Oregon Health and Science University, explain, “Investigators of human empathy have revealed that our empathy for the pain of others is mediated by brain regions aroused by our own experiences of pain.” So perhaps awful people have experienced awful circumstances. And while this doesn’t make it any easier to live or work with their meanness, it does offer some measure of explanation for really bad behavior.

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