Born for Love
why empathy is essential – and endangered.
Maia Szalavitz and Bruce Perry
Harper 2010 374pp
'From birth, when babies' fingers instinctively cling to those of adults, their bodies and brains seek an intimate connection – a bond made possible by empathy, the remarkable ability to love and share the feelings of others.'
Maia Szalavitz, writer and researcher, and Bruce Perry, child psychiatrist, have given us a very readable yet well-researched and informative book which covers their theme thoroughly. They acknowledge the 'recent explosion of scientific reseach on the subject' which shows that empathy and caring are essential to human well-being, not only for establishing co-operative and adaptive communities but also for the health and development of each individual.
They show, using detailed and engaging case studies, how empathy matters because we live our lives in relationships, 'a unique dance of connection'. Empathy influences every way we connect with each other, but the authors worry that electronic media and other aspects of modern life are changing this.
The first case study, and one the authors return to, concerns the Roots of Empathy programme, established by Canadian, Mary Gordon. Her own background, growing up in a compassionate Catholic family where there was always a place at the table for an unmarried pregnant woman or a man just out of prison, shows the strong influence of family. Roots of Empathy makes it possible for school children to get to know a baby and follow the infant's rapid development over the period of a school year. It demonstrates how close attention fosters empathy and how babies are experts at eliciting the attention they need. There are success stories about children whose experiences of abuse or neglect have made them hard to reach, who soften in the course of interactions with the baby and who learn that it is not 'naughty' to have emotions or to make needs known.
The authors explain the biochemistry behind the pleasure both parent and child experience in their reciprocal relationship and the purpose this serves in a species which, for over 150,000 years, lived in small tribes: multigenerational, multifamily communities where child care is shared and where the ratio of adults to children was about four to one. Oxytocin, the hormone which is raised in both parties in a positive parent-child interaction, is also involved in a wide range of loving and trusting relationships between adults.
Infants brains are at their most malleable in the first 18 months as every baby is born with potential which has to be developed in a social context. A system of two parents, many caregivers is an enriching one in which empathy is 'caught not taught' ie it has to be experienced to become part of each individual. Success in this process creates trust, altruism, love and collaboration. Failure leads to crime, violence, war, racism and child abuse.
Each case study is drawn from Bruce Perry's work with children and families, with the permission of the people involved, and each illustrates a significant point.
Ryan, who had 18 nannies by the age of three because his well-meaning mother disliked him becoming attached to each one, illustrates the failure of empathy in that, despite his privileged background and stellar performance at school, he commited a brutal rape on a young girl and bragged about it, taking no responsibility for his actions. His ability to form an attachment was so damaged in his pre-school years he could not comprehend his victim's distress.
Eugenia was raised in a sterile Russian orphanage until she was adopted as a toddler. Even though she was given a loving home from an early age, her ability to find comfort in relationships with others has been damaged and, although she is gentle and considerate, she prefers animals to people. Her experience closely parallels the famous 1935 research of René Spitz who compared children raised in American orphanages where sterility and nursing competence was emphasised, with those raised by their own mothers in a prison nursery. Despite the grim surroundings, the prison children did better on every measure of physical, emotional and intellectual development, proving that individualised care is essential to the infant. Yet, in spite of this knowledge, sterile impersonal orphanages were the norm in Russia and Romania until very recently.
Brandon was raised by a severely depressed mother who put him in his high chair with juice to drink and TV to entertain him. By the age of five, Brandon's teeth were ruined and, although he could speak, he had no idea that language was part of a reciprocal interaction.
These examples and others illustrate the importance of learning to see the world from many points of view. The Golden Rules of all major religions emphasise this as summed up by Jesus: 'Do to others what you would have them do to you.' Neuroscience has shown how mirror neurons allow the brain to map someone else's experience on one's own body, to try it out, so to speak. This occurs unconsciously and as the authors say, 'Love grows brains' as the neurons develop in response to interaction with caregivers. Without the attuned caregiver to sooth and comfort, the child's stress levels become overwhelming until he or she either responds with an alarm state or shuts down.
This is a complex book to sum up briefly. It is a rewarding read and although much of what the authors present is familiar from developmental psychology and psychotherapeutic theory, it brings the threads together and indicates a way forward for modern societies: to slow down, value our children and support their parents.