The Death of Empathy

Blog Post

The Death of Empathy

James Danmore, who was fired from Google for perpetuating gender stereotypes.

Lauri Love, the British hacker who stole millions of intel files from the US government.

Erik Finman, “millionaire bitcoin brat” who doesn’t get why we all aren’t rich.

Students who shoot their classmates and teachers.

While these examples span a spectrum of behaviors, from oblivious to heinous, the common thread is lack of empathy.

A recent study by the Max Planck Institute for Human and Cognitive Brain Sciences found that there are neurobiological roots to empathy. The right supramarginal gyrus is the brain’s center for empathy. In normal circumstances, when a person lacks empathy, the supramarginal gyrus autocorrects by decoupling our perception of ourselves from that of others. However, our own experiences and feelings can distort our capacity for empathy. Our ability to be compassionate is further compromised if we are under pressure to make rapid decisions.

The participants in this study had their supramarginal gyrus neurons temporarily disrupted; once that happened, they were much more likely to project their own feelings and circumstances onto others. They were less empathetic. Dr. Tania Singer, the lead researcher on this study, noted that humans use themselves as their yardstick to measure others. “Our own emotional state can distort our understanding of other people’s emotions, in particular, if these are completely different to our own.” This emotional egocentricity impairs our ability to understand life from another’s perspective. Given our propensity for confirmation bias and the reinforcing power of social media, is it any wonder that many of us grow up lacking empathy? Lowered compassion, coupled with increased societal pressure to produce and perform, is a recipe for disaster; particularly among gifted/twice exceptional populations.

People with profoundly gifted minds also have areas of dysfunction, their brains have seemingly given up some other abilities for enhanced intelligence. Things that may come more easily to neurotypical people, such as reciprocal conversation or understanding body language, are often difficult for people with a genius IQ. What makes them socially inept, may also give them an advantage in manipulating situations (and people) to meet their own desires. A study conducted at the University of Chicago found neurobiological roots to psychopathic behavior. Many geniuses have sociopathic tendencies, think of Einstein’s letter of conditions imposed on his wife, or Steve Job’s rejection of his daughter. For many twice exceptional people, empathy, and the ability to take another’s perspective, must be explicitly taught as the brain develops. The results of this lack of empathy are in the news every day.

Researchers at the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the Waisman Center of the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that adults can be trained to be more compassionate, to better access the function of the supramarginal gyrus. Participants practiced altruistic meditation to open their understanding of suffering. They also learned how to regulate their own emotions, so they could approach this suffering with a desire to help, rather than feeling overwhelmed. For many twice exceptional people, this is key to having the capacity to engage in another’s pain. If we can make progress in teaching empathy to adults, imagine the results if we start earlier. We need to systematically teach our children to be compassionate, the sooner the better.

How do we teach empathy? With young children, it can be more effective to teach empathy towards animals first, then towards people. Helping them understand how their actions make the animal feel, caring for the animal, and protecting it can all build empathy. As children mature, you can teach them how to help someone who is hurting, such as raising money for a charity, befriending a child who is being bullied, or working in a soup kitchen. Any act towards helping others builds empathy and empowers children, so they don’t feel overwhelmed by others’ pain. Many 2e children disconnect from empathy because it is too much to bear, so start with less painful situations and build on the growing empathy to deal with harder situations. It is also important to help children see the results of their actions, and to learn to take responsibility for those actions. You can also point out how lack of empathy contributes to events we see in the news, to use those people and actions as a teaching moment. Empathy requires the ability to take another’s perspective and understand the impact of your own actions. Life gives us endless opportunities to teach this, we just have to recognize the importance of putting in the effort.