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Empathy Deficit Disorder: The Lack of a Moral Compass

Most people get an uncomfortable feeling when they contemplate doing something that would cause harm to another person. This feeling is caused by the activation of a specific circuit in the brain that generates the response we call empathy, the unpleasant reaction to another person’s pain. When this brain circuit “works”, it functions to help us suppress socially inappropriate or potentially hurtful actions. This brain system contributes to our ability to “veto” actions that might otherwise cause pain and suffering to others and, as a result, maybe get us into big trouble. This brain system produces something akin to an internal “uh-oh,” an electrical and chemical error signal which plays an important role in the development of a “moral compass”, in helping us become caring, thoughtful, empathic people.

What happens if this brain system, for some reason, does not work? Consider the famous case of Phinneas Gage, the railroad foreman who in the 1840s lost his moral compass when the tamping rod that is part of the process of using dynamite went off too soon and passed through his skull, removing tissue in the brain region that supports empathic responses to other people’s discomfort or pain. Phinneas survived but lost his ability to “be nice” and considerate. He became a profane, anti-social person who was considered a danger to polite society.

You don’t have to have a tamping rod pass through your brain to develop “empathy deficit disorder”. Indeed, some people come by this condition just by being themselves. Genetics plays a part in this scenario. So do early experiences with parents. The gene-environment interactions that go far towards making us “us” are involved in building this brain system and conversely, in sometimes building an under functioning empathy circuit.

Literally, some people do not exhibit brain activation in a brain circuit connecting a region called the anterior insula with another region called the anterior cingulate cortex or ACC for short. These regions are part of a brain network that is activated when people respond in a caring way to another person’s pain or suffering. Recently studies have shown that when this network is underactive, people are less empathic; they have less “emotional empathy” even though they “know” that the other person is suffering. In short, when this empathy system does not activate, a person then exhibits the symptoms of “empathy deficit disorder” or EDD. What’s more, in some of these people, the brain system that is activated by witnessing or contemplating the suffering of others is the reward system, a very different brain system from the one that generates that internal “uh-oh”, “don’t go there” reaction in morally typical folks.

The under-functioning of this empathy system is a major part of the neurobiology of sociopathy and narcissism. For this group of people, the process of going from thinking to doing does not pass through this moral filter that otherwise would generate a stop, “hold your horses” signal. In the absence of this brain mechanism, a person could contemplate doing something that would cause harm to others without having any internal, gut feeling of discomfort. In fact, if this internal planning process generates expectation of a highly probable “successful” outcome in the sense of serving someone’s selfish interests, the person would probably experience a positive feeling, like the feeling one has from achieving success in any venture.

This is basically the “transactional” mind at work where everything is measured in terms of value to oneself without having to stop and consider the physical or emotional pain and suffering that this transaction might cause to others. The lack of this neuro-typical empathy system makes it possible for a person to repeatedly take advantage of opportunities to exploit other people for one’s own purposes. Without this internal neurobiological moral compass, the process of planning actions and carrying them out is “unencumbered” by having to consider the emotional costs to other people. People with this kind of brain find it very puzzling and actually irrational that other people hesitate to do things that would cause others to suffer or choose to do things that reduce the suffering of other people. People with this brain “disorder” would be likely to have a quizzical response in situations where other people would be experiencing some level of discomfort or sadness or remorse. These people might even say something like “I don’t get it. What was in it for him?” when they hear about somebody choosing to serve others over getting rich, over being a “winner” in the most superficial way of understanding winning and losing in life.

Oh, and another neurobiological fact. Testosterone suppresses empathy and the core social emotions that promote attachment and bonding between people. And who has high levels of testosterone? Well, typically males in positions of authority or power. Men, of course, have much higher levels of testosterone than women, on average, and then, when men experience “winning”, they push that “T” level up even higher. In the relatively new field of “neuro anthropology”, studies show that men who shift from high levels of testosterone after the hunt to high levels of a brain chemical called oxytocin when they return to their “loved ones” tend to be good family men while those men who stay on a “T” high while at home, tend to be selfish and uncaring fathers and spouses.

One more thing. Different styles of child rearing affect the development of this empathy system. A parenting style along the lines of “My Way or the Highway” tends to suppress the development of the empathy system in favor of the ability to value power in social relations and to see the world in terms of winners and losers. In these families, empathy is typically seen as soft, weak, lacking toughness.

What might happen in a scenario where a person has both a genetic predisposition to empathy deficit disorder (EDD) and is also raised in a family that devalues consideration of others while valuing individual aggrandizement and “winning”? Some studies that look at this kind of interaction between genetics and environment reveal interesting effects. In some cases, these studies suggest that a nurturing or at least non-abusive childrearing environment can suppress the activation of genes that might be activated by poor care and result in uncaring, aggressive behavior, especially in boys. These studies are part of the increasing information about “epigenetics”: the effects of experience on patterns of gene expression, including genes that affect brain structure and functioning.

In short, there are several routes to the development of empathy deficit disorder and this neuroscientific information can help us both understand people with empathy problems and perhaps know how to help some of them recover the ability to experience empathy in their daily lives.

Jon BaylinJon Baylin

Publisher: ddpnetwork.org (Oct 2020)

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