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The Empathy Gene ... GOT EMPATHY?

Is it possible that the capacity for empathy may be genetically influenced? What type of potential extensions into personal beliefs, values and actions does this create?

As I have been blogging on Patch for some time now, I have increasingly become aware of what appears to be a simple divide between respondents, particularly with regard to issues that deal with the lives, human rights, health or well being of people they do not know (Others).

Often I have wondered, throughout life, why some people seem passionately driven to help others, to stand for equality, justice, sustainable solutions that take in consequences of personal action, short and long range — while other people ardently hold to the opposite view.

The latter profess beliefs and positions along the lines of bringing oneself up by one's own bootstraps, the notion that any one of us can be self-supportive and that all should be, and a propensity to view people in need as defective, perhaps immoral, lazy and even as being punished by God. The Patch blogger experience, providing me with a cross section of readers ... albeit those with Internet access ... has underscored a developing theory. I have wondered whether the gap in responses could be genetic or strongly effected by genes. I wish I had the exact quote of a respondent who said in effect, replying to some human crisis I was talking about involving people (elsewhere) that he just couldn't work up any concern about the matter. He did not care.

Now many folks don't care in the full sense of the word ... care being an action not a sentiment ... but I got the idea that he was saying that the suffering I was discussing had no emotional register for him at all. The other day, prompted by an unusually caustic remark a blog responder made suggesting that our government should take lessons from Syria and apply them to the Occupy "types," I Googled a question, "is there an empathy gene?"

To my surprise, research is being conducted on this question and preliminary answers are affirmative! Apparently some of us have receptors that take in oxytoxins and some have another set up that makes this reception difficult or impossible. Studies were careful to point out that environmental factors also effected levels of empathetic potential and response (poor connection with a mother during first five years, for instance) but there was a clear connection between this genetic combination and a persons ability to feel and show empathy for other individuals. On a sliding scale we might see psychopath at one end and "empath" near the other.

While it may be possible to be TOO empathetic, that categorization would break down on personal life choices, religious or spiritual beliefs, etc. Not every empath chooses Mother Theresas life. Of course, as well, this is a sliding scale ... most of us are blends ... having varying amounts of compassion. Nonetheless, for the purpose of discussion, consider for a bit that we could assemble two rough camps of people. We do this all the time conceptually ... (right or left wing, liberal, conservative, pro-life, pro-choice, hawk, dove, etc. A dilemma arises in naming my camps. As with the pro-life tag, when the other camp would seem to be pro-death, according to language and logic, those in that group would argue that they are not pro-death, not against life ... but have a different opinion regarding when human life begins and about other related issues ... conception from rape, health of the mother, etc.)

For this thread may I use the terms Empath and SI, for self interest? As with the pro-life term, we can't assume that Empaths have no interest in themselves nor that SI's don't care at all about others. But let's think about two camps. There have been so many arguments during this political season about the importance of social welfare vs. what has come to be called "entitlement." Could it be that the division of views is aligned with genetic differences ... that some people are predisposed to be relatively more concerned with the well-being of others than another group tuned to focus on their own affairs and happiness? Relative to foreign policy ... could it be that those who are not troubled by issues where the well being of people in distant lands are threatened (for instance) are inclined by their coding NOT to care .... The oxytoxins are not getting through ... while those who sincerely are deeply troubled by violence, whoever it touches, are, likewise, set up by circumstance of birth, to feel in this way?

A psychopath, on the extreme, far end, clearly has a void of empathy. People afflicted with this illness can not feel FOR others ... can not put themselves in the place, conceptually, of another human enough to feel for them. They can kill remorselessly. I don't know that they feel for themselves either ... perhaps the readers schooled in psychology can help us here. A lot of the rhetoric and philosophy talked about these days is crossed by the extents to which we care about others, what we consider care to be, if we care at all or if our priorities should remain within smaller perimeters. Do you believe your philosophies might be tied to relative abilities to feel empathy? Think about your ancestors ... where would they fall on the sliding scale mentioned above. In this case example might also have been formative for you of course, but could they have been biologically predisposed to their empathy factor?

There are many articles available throwing light on these questions. I would love to know what you think.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Brian Carlson September 01, 2012 at 02:38 AM
Luke, I was only partially cynical. But are you saying it's due to the nature of the job... that anyone who gets the top job has to be self obsessed? r is it the election process we have in place... requiring a consant show of total self confidence, very manipulative language and speeches, lack of remorse or shame for any past mistakes, a kind of emotional distance with ostentatious displays of passion for one's country and party, an apparent belief that they are always right ( ever see a candidate learn anything in a debate, and alter his views)? In fact is the whole system forcing sociopathology on those who would serve or are true sociopaths gravitating toward this environment? Is it impossible to imagine a system in which leaders were selected according to their marked service to their country, their evident wisdom, their vision?
Edwin Rutsch September 02, 2012 at 05:49 PM
May I suggest a further resource to learn more about empathy and compassion. The Center for Building a Culture of Empathy The Culture of Empathy website is the largest internet portal for resources and information about the values of empathy and compassion. It contains articles, conferences, definitions, experts, history, interviews,  videos, science and much more about empathy and compassion. http://CultureOfEmpathy.com
Brian Carlson September 02, 2012 at 06:15 PM
Thank you sir. Will check out the site.
Lyle Ruble September 02, 2012 at 08:55 PM
@Brian Carlson...You bring up an issue of what is the difference between narcissism and anti-social personality disorder (sociopath, psychopath). I want to throw another into the mix which is also hard to discern from other maladies; significant immaturity brought on childhood trauma. Although, many of the personality disorders share characteristics, it takes a trained clinician to differentiate between the pathologies. I have observed many on the patch who display characteristics consistent with certain pathologies, but it is not sufficient to diagnose such. There are just too many variables to consider, in order to say all those lacking empathy suffer from antisocial personality disorder would have to meet the following criteria: consistent display of Conduct Disorder prior to age 15 and characteristics would have to lead to certain behaviors over the age of 18. Therefore, diagnosis is specific, but must be made by the clinician. Narcissism shares many characteristics with anti-social personality but have distinct differences. There is only one personality on the Patch who I would think may suffer from narcissism and he refers to himself in the third person quite often. But, again that isn't sufficient to render such a diagnosis. I think that the social/psychological evidence would point to a specific cultural value system of discounting others and dehumanizing them into a lower orders. Just like in war, the enemy must be dehumanized first so they can be killed.
Luke September 03, 2012 at 02:54 AM
@Brian, "Luke, I was only partially cynical. But are you saying it's due to the nature of the job... that anyone who gets the top job has to be self obsessed? r is it the election process we have in place... requiring a consant show of total self confidence, very manipulative language and speeches, lack of remorse or shame for any past mistakes, a kind of emotional distance with ostentatious displays of passion for one's country and party, an apparent belief that they are always right ( ever see a candidate learn anything in a debate, and alter his views)?" All of the above.

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