Is there an evolutionary reason for empathy?

psychology : The power of compassion

On August 20, a young man entered an elementary school a few miles east of Atlanta, Georgia. He has clashed with the police several times. He was convicted a few months earlier for threatening to kill his brother. He carries an assault rifle and 500 rounds of ammunition.

In the secretariat, the gunman meets the accountant Antoinette Tuff. While teachers are desperately trying to get more than 800 children to safety and police officers surround the building, Tuff tells the intruder about her own life, the failure of their marriage after 26 years, her suicide attempt - and she shows him sympathy. “We all go through something in life,” she says. "But look at me, I'm still working and everything is fine." Tuff convinces the intruder to put down his gun and surrender. "I want you to know that I love you, okay?" She says towards the end of the conversation. "I'm proud of you."

Tuff's brave efforts this summer, recorded in full by the emergency call center, may have prevented a bloodbath. For many commentators, it was further evidence of the power of compassion. But where does this power come from? How does compassion come about? And can it be trained?

Brain researcher Tania Singer, director at the Max Planck Institute for Cognitive Neuroscience in Leipzig, is investigating these questions in a large study, the ReSource project. With the help of 17 meditation teachers and 160 participants who meditate for nine months, six days a week, she researches whether emotional skills such as compassion can be trained. If so, such programs could find their way into schools and clinics, she says.

One autumn day, Singer is sitting barefoot at a low table on the floor of an apartment in Berlin-Mitte. The apartment belongs to a friend, the artist Olafur Eliasson, and his lamps, huge molecules made of wood and glass and light hang from the ceiling. “We want to change the world,” says Singer.

For a long time, neuroscientists hardly knew anything about what happens when two people meet. Scientists studied what happens in the brain when a person thinks or feels, but not how a person feels what someone else thinks or feels. Using a brain scanner to study interactions between people simply seemed too difficult. “Many colleagues have told me: Forget it. You won't find anything like this. "

But Singer did find something. In 2003 she brought lovers into the laboratory. While the woman lay in a brain scanner, her partner sat next to her. If the woman received an electric shock to the hand, areas in her brain that have to do with the processing and perception of pain, such as the sensory cortex and the insula, light up. Surprisingly, however, parts of this network also became active when the partner was electrocuted. Not the areas that tell you that you feel a sharp pain in your left hand, says Singer, but the “end note” of pain, the feeling “Ouch, that hurts”. This overlapping activation is the foundation for empathy, Singer believes.

She's not the only one. In the 1990s, researchers discovered mirror neurons in monkeys, cells in the motor cortex of the brain that fired when the monkey reached for something, but also when it watched a human or other monkey reach for something. It is as if the monkey brain deciphered the movement of the other monkey by reproducing it in its mind.

It is now clear that this mirroring is a fundamental principle, says Christian Keysers, researcher at the Dutch Institute for Neuroscience in Amsterdam. When people observe disgust, pain or joy in other people, the brain activates areas that are also active when a person experiences these emotions themselves. So not only do we know that someone else is feeling pain, we actually feel it. "The brain is not an abstract information processing machine that treats other people in the same way as cars or printers," says Keysers.

The studies bring new attention to an old idea: that the world needs more love, or at least more compassion. The author Jeremy Rifkin, for example, argues in his book “The Empathic Civilization” that humanity must develop a “global empathic awareness” in order to prevent its own downfall. And US President Barack Obama has repeatedly called for more empathy. In 2011 he said in a speech to university graduates: “If you decide (...) to empathize with the fate of others, whether they are close friends or strangers, then it becomes harder not to do anything, harder not to help. “More cynically, we don't help people to ease their pain, we help our own pain. The more we feel their pain, the more likely we are to help them. Or do not harm them.

In 1974 Johann Unterweger strangled 18-year-old Margaret Schäfer with her own bra. He was sentenced to life imprisonment. Unterweger began to write in prison; he seemed purified. His autobiography "Purgatory or the trip to prison" was celebrated and writers such as Elfriede Jelinek and Günter Grass campaigned for his pardon. Unterweger had a knack for getting people to his side. In 1990 he was pardoned. Four years later he was on trial again. He murdered nine other women after his release.

How is it possible that a person who has such a keen sense for his fellow human beings and can manipulate them so successfully does not feel any compassion that prevents him from doing his cruel deeds? Where is the power of compassion here? Keysers also explores empathy from this other, darker side.

In a study that appeared in the journal “Brain” this year, he examined 21 convicted psychopaths and compared them with other people. He showed the test subjects videos in which, for example, one hand caresses another hand or grasps a finger and bends it. The brains of the control subjects reflected what happened in a person who felt affection or pain, while in the psychopaths little was done in the brain. However, this difference disappeared when the test subjects were asked to “empathize” with the videos. Keyser's conclusion: Psychopaths, too, have the ability to empathize with other people, but apparently they only use it when it is useful to them.

Two different strategies might have prevailed in evolutionary terms, says Keysers: on the one hand, people with whom empathy is constantly switched on and who therefore work particularly well with other people, and on the other hand, people who only switch empathy on when they can fits into the stuff. "The psychopath is perhaps a prototype for this."

In any case, evolution has left a different, unsightly pattern: Numerous studies have shown that people show the greatest empathy towards those around them who are most similar to them. Chinese feel the pain of other Chinese people more than Europeans. White people show more brain activity when they see the movement of another white person than that of a black person. Something similar can even be observed in rats. Compassion is not limitless - and unfortunately it is not color-blind either.

From an evolutionary point of view, that's understandable, says Keysers. "One would expect empathy to be strongest for relatives and members of the same group because they are most likely to reciprocate."

Corruption and nepotism are ultimately a consequence of this unequal compassion, says Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker. “We naturally feel more with our friends and relatives than with strangers, and all the training in the world will not erase this difference.” More empathy therefore does not necessarily lead to a fairer world, says Pinker. “This enthusiasm for empathy is based on the 1960s idea that people only stop killing each other when they love each other or at least have empathy and compassion for each other. To be honest, I have no compassion for each and every one of the two billion Indians and Chinese - who has the time or the energy for it? ”Good laws and strong advocacy for human rights are more important than empathy.

Singer is also convinced that too much empathy can be bad. Doctors or pastors, for example, often suffered as a result of not being at a distance from patients. When Singer talks about “compassion” today, she means something other than empathy or sharing pain or joy. A few years ago she asked the Buddhist monk Mathieu Ricard to meditate in the brain scanner. But instead of the brain regions that she had seen repeatedly flashing up when test subjects empathized with someone else's pain, she saw activity in an area that becomes active, for example, when a mother sees photos of her own children.

Ricard explained that he focused on a warm feeling of benevolence towards the world. When he went back to the scanner and focused on the suffering of Romanian orphans he had seen in a documentary, his brain showed the typical signature for empathy. The pain quickly became unbearable, Ricard said later: "I felt emotionally exhausted, very similar to the feeling of being burned out."

It was a key experience for Singer. "I thought we all had to be more empathetic and then the world would be a better place," she says. "But Ricard taught me that compassion is something completely different from empathy." Ricard's state of benevolence apparently uses a completely different network in the brain, one that is related to care. Singer hopes that this state of compassion can be trained without the problems that empathy brings with it. In September she and Eliasson presented an e-book: “Compassion: In Everyday Life and Research”. The book, which can be downloaded for free, describes in more than 900 pages how scientists and meditators see and want to cultivate compassion. Singer hopes to refute prejudices. Compassion is not gentle and sweet, not “wet noodle,” she says.

From her kitchen window, Singer looks out over the Sophienkirche. A plaque commemorates September 1964 when Martin Luther King preached here. The civil rights activist had asserted himself against the employees of the US embassy, ​​who even took away his ID to prevent his visit to East Berlin. King simply showed his credit card at Checkpoint Charlie. “God's children live on both sides of the wall,” he said later in church. "No human-made boundary can erase that fact."

People like King embodied what compassion really is, Singer says. “Compassion is brave. Compassion is tough. ”Singer speaks in English. “Compassion is tough,” she says. It sounds like she's talking about a young woman at a school a few miles east of Atlanta.

Tania Singer is still looking for participants in Leipzig and Berlin for her study.

Now new: We give you 4 weeks of Tagesspiegel Plus! To home page