What Makes Us Human: Empathy's Evolutionary Benefits
It is a commonly known antidote that one should ‘not mess with mama bear’. Mothers are known for vehemently protecting their young in any situation. Throughout the animal kingdom this is evident but it is also shown through alloparental care. Birds, mice, lions, elephants and hyenas have all been none to share care. Alloparental care includes food distribution, resource sharing and protection. However, no other species goes as far as humans in regards to helping behavior and altruism. No other species is observed helping complete strangers by donating money to homeless or shaving their heads to raise money for childhood cancer. What sets us apart is our ability to feel empathy. Humans are not only able to feel concern for one another but our own emotions match those of others we witness experiencing an emotion.
In Jean Decety’s article, Putting Together Phylogenetic and Ontogenetic Perspectives on Empathy, he discusses the deep developmental and evolutionary process of human empathy. Decety argues that empathy was of evolutionary advantage for many reasons. Empathy in adults was beneficial for children because it encouraged parents to attend to their cries and needs. Hearing the wails of ones child, a parent with empathy not only understands but also shares the emotions of their child. There is no greater motivator for a parent to help if they themselves feel distress too. The trend of empathy as a motivator extends beyond family to strangers because it allows humans to put oneself in someone else’s shoes and feel for them. This encourages members of a group to not only help relatives but strangers which would increase overall reproductive success. A parent’s empathic response to their child eventually allows the child to rely and become securely attached to their parent. A study done by Sroufe (2000), revealed that children with secure attachment to an adult are more responsive to the needs of others in the future (Decety and Svetlova, 2012). The study showed that having empathic parents benefited the child’s wellbeing but also their empathic responses to others. Empathy is also an evolutionary advantage in the way in which it serves as a warning call to others. If you see someone else in pain or distress you are more likely to avoid the situation that caused him or her pain.
However reproductively successful the emotion of empathy has been for humans it has peculiar limitations on situation and person involved. Through Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) researchers have found that specific brain regions are linked to empathic responses. During these fMRI scans it was found that magnitude of those responses differ in different situations. For example, the responses are of larger magnitude when a participant is shown a family member experiencing a painful stimulus in comparison to a stranger experiencing the same stimulus. This situational-response magnitude was explored in-group membership and out-group membership and similar results were discovered. Fans of a soccer team were shown fans of the same team they support (in-group) experiencing pain and shown fans of an opposing team also experiencing pain. The participants reported higher levels of stimulation in regions of the brain associated with empathic responses when witnessing the in-groups experiencing pain (Decety and Svetlova, 2012).
Further research into this situational-response magnitude of empathy could lead to understanding and perhaps treatment of problems related to too much or too little empathy. In Decety’s article researchers found that medical professionals, in comparison to a control group of non-medical professionals, responded differently to short video clips of hands and feet being pricked by a needle or touched by a Q-tip. In the control group the brain regions associated with empathy were stimulated when viewing the needle prick where as in the medical professionals the brains regions associated with executive function, decision-making, and self-regulation were stimulated (Decety and Svetlova, 2012). The stimulation of these brain regions would prove to be more beneficial in their line of work. If while performing surgery a physician became overwhelmed with empathy for their patient, physician error would certainly increase. In a recent study by Silani and colleagues (2008), the affect of alexithymia on empathic responses was explored. Alexithymia is a phenomenon where individuals have difficulty “identifying and describing feelings and in distinguishing feelings from bodily sensations” (Bernhardt and Singer, 2012). This phenomenon is found in less than 10 percent of the population but it has elevated proportions in individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder. The study found that the more trouble an individual had understanding their own emotions the less activation they showed in brain regions linked with empathizing for other people experiencing pain in front of them (Bernhardt and Singer, 2012). If further research could be done to explore the biological predisposition and environmental adaptations of empathic responses those who suffer from limitations related to empathy may be able to better understand and take a proactive approach to minimizing its effects.
Bernhardt, B.C., & Singer, T. (2012). The Neural Basis of Empathy. Annual Review of Neuroscience, 35, 1-23.
Decety, J., Svetlova, M. (January 24, 2012). Putting together phylogenetic and ontogenetic perspectives on empathy.