Thursday, July 01, 2010

Born for Love: Why Empathy Is Essential--and Endangered

Book Review

Born for Love: Why Empathy Is Essential--and Endangered

Bruce D. Perry, Maia Szalavitz
William Morrow (April 6, 2010)

Bruce Perry’s new book focuses less on therapy and more on society. The book is a plea to us all to fight the many threats to the development of empathy in our children, and a passionate description of why empathy is essential to all human life.

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 ability to love and to share the feelings of others.

In this provocative book, renowned child psychiatrist Bruce D. Perry and award-winning science journalist Maia Szalavitz interweave research and stories from Perry's practice with cutting-edge scientific studies and historical examples to explain how empathy develops, why it is essential for our development into healthy adults, and how it is threatened in the modern world.

Perry and Szalavitz show that compassion underlies the qualities that make society work—trust, altruism, collaboration, love, charity—and how difficulties related to empathy are key factors in social problems such as war, crime, racism, and mental illness. Even physical health, from infectious diseases to heart attacks, is deeply affected by our human connections to one another.

Born for Love describes the conditions that are necessary to produce compassionate adults. Although Perry and Szalavitz focus on society as a whole, it is also interesting to consider whether we are creating those conditions within our treatment programs. For example, empathy is created through the mirror neurons. Because these parts of our brain experience what we see others do, the children we treat will experience our caring responses directly. When we realize that the brain develops what it needs to be successful in the environment it faces, it is essential that we pay attention to what creates success in our environment. Does the child have to be loud and in distress to evoke empathy? If so, the brain will develop more distress.

Perry and Szalavitz emphasize the importance of safety, and how living with danger inhibits IQ development, makes it harder to fight infections, and floods the brain and so makes learning harder. This puts even more pressure on us to make sure that our treatment environments feel safe to the children who live in them.

We feel more empathy for those we think are more like us, for those who are part of "our group" and less for those we label "other". We are vulnerable to the influence of our group. What can we do to create a sense of belonging in our places? Rituals and rhythmic sharing help.

When children watch television and other media, they hear human voices but have no response to their own actions or talk. TV thus in some ways is a "frozen face" as in the famous experiments, in which a mother’s frozen face leads to escalation and then retreat in her baby.

Perry and Szalavitz report on how studying the hierarchical structure in baboons can illuminate our own response to leadership. The higher the perceived danger, the more likely animals are to blindly follow the leader. The larger the status differential between leader and follower, the more distress is seen in the follower. Sometimes depression becomes an adaptation to low status- a resignation to the impossibility of effective action. How does this relate to what happens between the youth in our programs?

Iceland, Perry and Szalavitz report, scores highest of all countries on all measures of happiness and social health. They attribute this to such factors as maternal/paternal leave and good child care but also to a feeling in that country that “We’re all in it together”. There are fewer difference and power differentials and more social cooperation. How can we develop communities like that?

In conclusion Perry and Szalavitz state that humans have a fundamental yet developmentally vulnerable capacity for empathy. In order to maximize it we need to practice love. We know that kind social contact relieves stress, and that developing empathy and relieving stress decreases both social and medical problems.

Do we practice love and offer kind social contact in our programs?

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