On the Radio 4 Today programme this morning (14th September 2017) there was much discussion about children who seemed to have little or no empathy. Some of these children are clearly an enormous problem and very difficult to cope with, and one particular case was being discussed; various psychiatrists were addressing lack of empathy in general, and wondering if empathy could be taught. They should consult the neurobiologists who specialise in this area, and then they would understand that empathy, while not being easy to teach, can certainly be encouraged.
It all begins in the first year or two of life. This is when the frontal cortex (the ’empathy centre’ of the brain, to put it crudely) develops at an enormous rate, but only if the baby is treated in a loving, close, sensitive and safely-bonded way, ideally and particularly with the mother, although others close to, and loving, the baby contribute as well of course. If the baby does not get sufficient close loving attention in the first 24 months or so of life, this part of the brain will not develop so strongly. It is as simple as that. Insufficient bonded loving in the earliest years – insufficiently developed frontal cortex – lower levels of empathy. If people want to encourage empathy, then encourage plenty of loving bonding between child and mother in those early years, particularly the first 18 months, or, if mother is not able to provide sensitive loving care, then a consistent, sensitive mother-substitute.
What About the Children? was founded 24 years ago precisely because Doreen Goodman, its co-founder, wrote to the Guardian immediately following the Jamie Bulger murder and stated that children who were loved, and closely attached in a positive and healthy way to their parents, were extremely unlikely to develop into children who murdered other children. They would not lack empathy, unlike the two ten year old boy murderers who entirely lacked this quality because of the extremely tragic parenting they themselves had experienced. There were 200 people who responded to Doreen’s letter and they helped to form the early membership of this research-based charity, What About The Children? in 1993.
Society today is currently in danger of ignoring the research that clearly indicates the centrality of the mother/child bond in early childhood for healthy brain development; on the contrary, it is being treated as normal, indeed encouraged, to separate children far too soon for very long hours from those best placed to provide a stable loving and nurturing environment -their parents.
Brain development is being altered as a consequence of inadequate and poor early bonding, and empathetic characteristics weakened.