Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The origins of empathy

Last night my 16-month-old walked up to the couch where I was lying and planted a series of unsolicited wet kisses right on my nose. When prompted for the same by my husband, he demurred. It was as though this little boy, whose vocabulary at the moment is comprised of the words cheese, go! and NO!, recognized my plight as clearly as one who had seen it many times before. How early do children recognize emotions like sadness or grief in themselves and others?

I first considered a related question about two months ago, when I read Roger Rosenblatt's memoir, Making Toast. Mr. Rosenblatt, a journalist, novelist and playwright, lost his daughter, a pediatrician and mother of three, to sudden cardiac death. He and his wife moved in with their son-in-law and grandchildren, ages 14 months through six years, for the next year, and his memoir is an account of this experience. (It is written in heartbreakingly concise, unsentimental prose, and I highly recommend it to anyone with a box of Kleenex to spare.)

The most poignant scene comes towards the end of the book, when the author's youngest grandchild, now almost two, wakes up crying one evening, asking, "When is Mommy coming home?"  The child, 14-months-old and preverbal at the time of his mother's death, clearly experienced her loss and held onto the memory until he could express himself in words. This was a revelation to me as I sat watching my own one-year-old putter around the house, not obviously aware of anything or anyone but himself and the recycling bin.

It turns out that emotional awareness and understanding can be observed and studied in children as young as one year and in primates like chimpanzees. By the age of 12 months, infants begin to comfort victims of distress, and by 14-18 months, children display spontaneous helping behaviors. The capacity for empathy and sympathetic concern is linked closely with the development of self awareness, termed mirror self-recognition (MSR), according to leading social scientists (Video of MSR). MSR has been demonstrated not only in humans and chimps but also dolphins, elephants and even magpies (for those cartoon fans out there, think Heckle and Jeckle!).

And so, this evening I hope to talk my husband into setting up our own rouge test (see video) on our little one, and in doing so we will be joining the ranks of social psychologists around the globe in delightful amazement and exploration of the human mind in all its glory.


Rosenblatt, Roger. Making Toast: A Family Story. New York: Harper Collins, 2010.
Warneken F and Tomasello J. The roots of human altruism. Br J Psychol 2009;100:455-71.

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