rss twitter

Down the Rabbit Hole
Paul Kiritsis, PsyD Clinical Psychology, DPhil., MA (History)


Empathy: Innate or Learned?

Paul Kiritsis - Thursday, April 12, 2018

Putting oneself in the shoes of another comes easily to most of us. We cry at projected images on electronic media of rustic peoples who have just lost their homes to natural disasters; feel anger and resentment towards minorities being discriminated against because of their race, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, or gender; and orchestrate rallies holding aloft powerful political slogans which reprimand illegal poachers of sea turtles, lions, and whales for their paucity of moral conscience and ethical sensibility. Similarly, there’s a manifest feeling of our stomach in knots when we hear about somebody experiencing themselves as emotionally indistinguishable from another, or a novelist’s melodramatic description of a languishing derelict pushing their dowry and belongings down the street in a Safeway cart.

The word in contemporary English parlance which most accurately describes that magnanimous sentiment is empathy. Repeat that word out loud and be attentive to the web of feeling that comes up for you. In fact, the word itself is derived from the ancient Greek “empatheia,” [εμπάθεια] which translates to “physical affection or passion.” Under the hegemony of the German language empathy was equated with the psychological term Einfühlung and came to mean “feeling-in.” Today the Merriem-Webster Dictionary defines empathy as, the feeling that you understand and share another person's experiences and emotions: the ability to share someone else's feelings.” It connotes something ubiquitous, something shared; it’s that purpled, fuzzy space created by my aquamarine blue and your urgent red.  

 Empathy is, to all intents and purposes, rendered possible because both our perceptual interface with reality and our relational capacities within the cosmos– phenomena mediated by neurocognitive circuitry and sociocultural conditioning, respectively–are unanimously shared and understood. Fundamental to empathy are componential microperceptions like nonjudgment, mutuality, the automatic intrinsic appraisal of sameness, and the quality of humanization.  Empathy, by its very nature, is diametrically opposed to hierarchical relationships, institutionalized philosophies, reductive labels, compartmentalization, dogmatic beliefs and does not subdue, defeat, divide, multiply, dominate, contrive, or manipulate the natural order of things for personal gain. In fact, it’s our most formidable weapon and defense against the evolutionary scythe of extinction, or the strong gravitational pull towards social entropy and devolution.

But is it integral and innate to the human condition? Is it hardwired into us? When one scours the voluminous clinical literature on psychopathic character structure, the answer would appear to be a resounding no. How could it be inborn, some theoreticians will argue, when there are individuals with deviant, diabolical minds operating with complete disregard for the welfare of others and intentionally hurting them because it satisfies some sadistic craving? It must be learned. Lamentably, our Eurocentric capitalist societies frequently engender mass murderers with antisocial personalities who disembowel, dismember, behead, and carve up their victims with the clinical precision of a surgeon wielding a scalpel.  Their perverse idiosyncrasies have fascinated clinicians for centuries–some have stored body parts in refrigerated jars for ritualistic use, others have imbibed the blood of their victims because they believed it would bequeath eternal life.

Clinical research has identified several developmental hallmarks in the life trajectories of those who grow up to be dissolute psychopaths. These individuals are usually the unlucky spawn of sadomasochistic parents. Nurturance and guidance through unconditional love and protection is markedly absent from their lives. Conversely, neglect reigns supreme. Overall, these individuals are predatory and aggressive, emotionally dysregulated, and are impervious to pedagogy about feelings within a relationally grounded context. They can’t mentalize. In fact, feelings are alien to them, and the few that do possess, seize, and overwhelm them from time to time are more closely related to manic exhilaration and rage than to anything remotely connected with empathy and compassion. Their threshold for experiencing hedonic pleasure is unusually high. Of course, the failure of a dispositional characteristic to manifest in the phenotype doesn’t necessarily denote an absence of the genetic and neurocognitive circuitry that subserves that function or capacity and makes it possible. To assume so would be to commit an intellectual sin known as a non-sequitur.  

What appears to be veridical in the case of extreme psychopathy is that there’s some kind of disruption to the proliferating connectivity between brain regions intimately involved in the appraisal of intentional states besides one’s own [known as “Theory of Mind”]; in social cognition and the metacognitive evaluation of reward and punishment; and in tagging and connecting affective responses with visual imagery of persons, objects, social behaviors, and natural phenomena during formative years when the immature brain is developing and self-organizing. These areas include the orbitofrontal prefrontal cortex and anterior cingulate in the frontal lobes, the insular cortex tucked deep inside the Sylvian fissure, and the superior temporalimbic areas including the amygdala and entorhinal areas of the parahippocampal gyrus. Normative connectivity between these areas allows for experience to be colored a certain way–we can feel our stomach become knotted at the thought of a punitive professor, or disgust at the sight of a mutilated body, or our heart beat so hard it might smash out of our ribcage at the sight of an approaching lover. The circuitry that makes these experiences possible may be grossly disrupted in the psychopath.

Interestingly, the phenomenological characteristics of a psychopath (i.e., lack of empathy, aggression, unbridled expression of hedonism) with a neurodevelopmental profile much different from our own mirror those of persons with the acquired neuropathology of Witzelsucht disease. Meaning hollow or inappropriate jocularity, Witzelsucht disease is often seen in patients with meningiomas or some kind of neoplasm [tumor] in the orbitofrontal areas of the prefrontal cortex. Lesions here result in acute and radical shifts to the axis of one’s personality; there is usually a mental degeneration characterized by hedonism, euphoric levity that is bizarrely out of context, impulsivity, and social disinhibition. The semblance to developmental psychopathy is uncanny. In actual fact Witzelsucht disease is sometimes called “pseudopsychopathy” Juxtaposed we see that one phenomenological variant is considered a severe personality disorder and the other an organic brain dysfunction, but if the correlations of neurophenomenology are anything to go by both must be phenotypic microexpressions of the same or similar neuroanatomical profile. Perhaps it’s all in the head, quite literally.

Ineffable Nature has given us the feared psychopath but it has also given us the mirror-touch synesthete, an ostensive polar opposite. Psychopathy is a condition where there is a dearth of empathy however in mirror-touch synesthesia[1] the faucets of emotional empathy are surging with the pressure of a salt-water geyser. There are many who have never heard of the latter, a condition whereby watching an individual being touched elicits a corresponding tactile hallucination on an analogous or same part of the percipient’s body.

A human brain with normal neuroanatomical functional organization witnessing touch and actual touch itself activate a neural network called the mirror-touch activating system. This includes the primary and secondary somatosensory cortices, the premotor cortex, the intraparietal sulcus, and the superior temporal sulcus. Mirroring properties have been implicated for pain, disgust, action, and many other affective states. One fMRI study with a mirror-touch synesthete demonstrated neural hyperactivity in the primary somatosensory cortex and the insula not present in non-synesthetic controls. Unlike the non-synesthetic controls the mirror-touch synesthete exhibited bilateral activation of the insula, a paralimbic area involved in self-referential processing. Hyperactivation in this region may underpin contrived distortions of body space and body schema, or self-other boundaries, so that observing touch to another is erroneously ascribed to the percipient’s own body. Not surprisingly one study (Banissy and Ward, 2007) found mirror-touch synesthetes to be more emotionally empathic [experienced a congruent emotional response when witnessing another’s affective state] than non-synesthetic controls.   

Whoever said that Nature reveals herself through anomalies and deviations wasn’t wrong. In the psychopath empathy is poignantly absent, perhaps because the kernel wasn’t irradiated by loveliest light. In mirror-touch synesthetes empathy is overelaborate, overwhelming, and overstated. One witnesses a disparity in dose amount when it comes to the rest of the population. Empathy, then, must be in the fleshy kernel and made possible by the light.


[1] Synesthesia is an authentic cross-modal perceptual experience where reception of a stimulus from one sensory modality automatically activates a stimulus in different sensory modality. It can be developmental or acquired through brain injury, and it appears there are innumerable types. Some types are grapheme-color, mirror-touch, and object-personality.

Post has no comments.

Log in to comment on this post

Trackback Link