Missing Empathy

01/16/2007 12:12 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The human brain is wired for both language and empathy-- in fact, some argue that we would never have developed complex, symbolic communication if we hadn't first been able to imagine ourselves in someone else's shoes.

But however these complex and wonderful capacities evolved, children cannot learn them without specific, early experiences: exposure to speech or sign in the case of language and compassionate care-giving and social experience in the case of empathy.

These days, however, American society isn't emphasizing empathy. As I walked to lunch yesterday, a poster on the side of a bus offered me "spontaneous emotional meltdowns: guaranteed" from some poor saps who'd agreed to appear in some reality show.

When I got home, I discovered that my Tivo had eaten Primetime's replication of Milgram's famous obedience experiment, in which 2/3 of participants agreed to shock a stranger complaining of heart problems, believing they were helping him "learn," despite his increasingly agonized protests. The news is full of reports of torture, debated on its effectiveness, not its morality or the harm it can cause.

Empathy-- like other brain-mediated abilities-- is something that must be nurtured and practiced if it is to flourish. Early experience is critical-- as my co-author's cases and other research shows in our just-published book, The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog and Other Stories from a Child Psychiatrist's Notebook, without loving attention from one or two primary caregivers, children simply do not learn to take pleasure in human relationships.

It's hard to understand just how important this is: if someone doesn't find relational contact with others rewarding, most of life's deepest joys and sorrows are denied to him. Only material pleasures remain: food, sexual stimulation, games, drugs, thrills. Even achievement is diminished when others' feelings about it are not important.

Further, children without empathy do not wish to please their parents, peers or teachers-- so they are not motivated to behave well by praise or affection. Displeasing others is also not upsetting to them-- so most punishments fail to change their behavior, other than prompting attempts to avoid getting caught.

Empathy is at the heart of what most people find good-- and yet, we do not focus on ensuring its proper development in children and in fact, promote practices and ideologies that explicitly discourage it. I've explored many of these in past columns, such as the notion of tough love, with its emphasis on consequences and coercion and its idea that "enabling" people to avoid pain by comforting them is bad for them.

Much of work over the next year or so will be focused on empathy, exploring it in light of child development, the effects of social situations on empathy (like that Milgrim study) and how social policies (like the way we treat young people and people in pain) either encourage or discourage the growth and practice of this important quality. I will post more here and would love to hear your thoughts and ideas in comments below.