American cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead was once asked by a student what she considered to be the earliest sign of civilization. Mead famously replied, “A healed femur,” due to the implication that it required a person to care for another person while their bone healed over several weeks.
To have a desire to act on behalf of someone else’s well-being, such as to provide medical care, is just one form of empathy. In the field of evolutionary biology, the development of this and other types of empathy is explained with the inclusive fitness theory, also called group fitness theory.
It proposes that humans developed empathy due to the necessity of working collaboratively in groups for survival. This is in contrast to the more popular theory of kin selection, which ties the evolution of empathy and altruism to the natural inclination of an animal to engage in self-sacrificial behavior for the benefit of its relatives.
Whatever the origin of human empathy, it’s apparent that it has existed for a long time and has become a prominent aspect of our existence. It’s strong enough in us that we can even have empathy for fictional people, like the characters in our favorite books, movies and shows.
Neurologically, empathy is complex. It involves multiple networks across different regions of the brain involving our thoughts, emotions and ability to understand social cues. Empathy evolves as the human brain develops, with many of these brain regions not fully developing until late adolescence and into early adulthood.
That said, researchers think certain aspects of empathy are detectable in human babies around 6 to 8 months of age. To better understand empathy, it can help to categorize various elements of empathy into three groups: emotional, motivational and cognitive.
Emotional empathy, or the ability to share someone else’s feelings, is what scientists think emerges in early life due to a baby’s tendency and ability to mirror the facial expressions and sounds of someone else who is upset. At early ages, we experience personal distress as a response to the negative emotions of another, and as we age, this can become more nuanced in the form of having empathic concern for another’s suffering.
Coming back to Mead’s example, motivational empathy is what drives us to help one another. Often simply referred to as compassion, this is what compels us to provide a shoulder to cry on for our friends who are going through a hard time, or to extend a helping hand to someone who is struggling. This doesn’t truly kick in for young humans until around 3 to 6 years of age. Children start exhibiting the intention to comfort one another as early as age 2, such as sharing a toy or helping another child who is struggling with a task. In year 3 or 4, children start to get a better understanding of the connection between emotions and desires, and that further informs and motivates their empathy.
In subsequent years, children develop cognitive empathy. This is the most nuanced aspect of empathy which helps us understand the emotions of others by developing the ability to think from another person’s perspective. It helps us understand why people may feel the way they do.
False-belief tasks are used to test this ability in children because it requires them to infer that another person is missing information that they are themselves privy to. For example, children will be shown or told a story in which the audience has knowledge of a story element of which the character within the story is unaware. If children can demonstrate they understand that, it implies they grasp the concept that each individual has a unique perspective and experience.
Seeing that empathy has the ability to emerge naturally during childhood, it shows the human species has a long and deep-seated connection to this cognitive ability. This just scratches the surface, however, as empathy can be significantly influenced by culture, socioeconomic status, upbringing and other external factors.
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