Empathy: The Oxygen of Civilization

‘Some people scarcely move when touched.  While some are moved with scarce a touch’- Source Unknown

 Night Cityscape Of Dubai, United Arab Emirates“What, Me Care? Young are Less Empathetic.”.1 Empathy, long considered innate, has been unexpectedly challenged by a U.S. study led by Dr. Sara H. Konrath and published online in Personality and Social Psychology Review. In this self-reported study of 14,000 students, the researchers found empathy levels have declined over the past 30 years.

On the other side of the same coin, another self-reported study carried out by psychologists, Jean M. Twenge with W. Keith Campbell, reported narcissism, a psychological condition characterized by self-preoccupation and a lack of empathy, has reached new heights. Their book, “The Narcissism Epidemic” (2009), explores the rise of narcissism in American culture.2 In a TV interview on the Meredith Vieria Show, Twenge describes the U.S. condition as “suffering from an epidemic of narcissism.”3

In addition, drawing on a database of more than 75,000 assessments from 2011-2013, a global sample was created by EQ, an organization dedicated to increasing emotional intelligence around the world. The report, “The State of the Heart,” also noted emotional intelligence that encompasses empathy and compassion in young people is declining in comparison with people over 40 years of age. 4

What makes these studies particularly relevant in today’s world is their association with known character traits expressed, ranging from schoolyard bullying to heinous violence. The problem is widespread among children and youth and, too often, comes with serious consequences.

In Canada, for example, StatsCan reports that at least one in three adolescent students have reported being bullied; 47% of Canadian parents report having a child victim of bullying; and any participation in bullying increases risk of suicidal ideas in youth.5

Amanda Todd, who committed suicide by hanging herself in October, 2012, left flash cards to tell of her experience.6 It went viral after her death raising worldwide attention.

These findings are very disturbing as they have far-reaching negative consequences. With media screaming news daily of horrific violence exploding in hot spots around the world on any given day, one word comes to mind   – EMPATHY. This word that underlies the basis of civilization needs to be rescued from extinction.

So what do we know about empathy? What is undermining its growth and what can be done to reverse this trend? The literature over the past several decades is plentiful, especially with the contributions of new research in brain science.

Cognitive and Affective Components

In a TED Talk on YouTube, for example, Simon Baron-Cohen, a professor of developmental psychopathology at the University of Cambridge, tells us empathy has two distinct components – cognitive and affective.7 Cognitive empathy refers to the ability to imagine someone else’s thoughts and feelings, while affective empathy is the ability to respond to them appropriately.

In his book, “The Science of Evil” (2012), Baron-Cohen describes six different levels of empathy in the two abilities, as well as within the individual in each area.8 They range from no empathy to those with unusually high empathy. The greatest concern for society comes from those at the extreme low end in what he calls ‘empathy erosion,’ a state in which the individual views people as objects.

With extreme deficits of empathy, behaviors from sadistic cruelty to indiscriminate, depraved and barbaric killings are perpetrated by individuals and groups who lack scruples or restraints, without conscience or remorse.

And Daniel Siegel, M.D., clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California at Los Angeles, and author of “Mindsight” (2010), notes that although empathy has generally been considered innate, “early experiences can change the long-term regulation of the genetic machinery…through a process called epigenesis.”9

Chemicals control how genes are expressed in specific areas of the brain, which can alter how the nervous system shapes who we are. In other words, genes can be turned ‘off’ or ‘on’ by the social context within which they are experienced. This suggests that empathy can, in fact, be innate, but its expression shaped by environmental circumstances.

Mirror Neurons

When we see someone smile, for example, we feel the same experience and smile back. A sad movie can bring us to tears. What causes this to happen are the “mirror neurons” activated in our brains. “Mirror neurons” (smart cells), discovered in 2001 by Giacomo Rizzolatti and his team of researchers in Italy, allow us to understand the actions, intentions and feelings of others through a “chameleon effect,” and this ability begins very early in life.10 Through facial expressions, gestures and words, the mirror neurons will fire in response to just watching other people’s actions. In fact, this is the foundation for all learning throughout life.

What can society do to re-direct this negative trend? It was long believed the brain was unable to change mental abilities lost from damage or disease. However, in  “The Brain That Changes Itself, ” a Canadian psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, Dr. Norman Doidge, introduced us to the discovery that, “‘the brain can change its own structure and function in response to mental experience—the phenomenon of neuroplasticity.”11

Siegel suggests it begins with knowing yourself first. Even people who have suffered a difficult or traumatic childhood can begin to develop reflexive skills, which will lead to self-awareness and empathy.12

 Prevention, however, is far more favorable (and less expensive) than having to re-train the brain. Appropriate modelling for children, therefore, is fundamental to all areas of behavior because imitation of complex skills is what we call culture and is passed on in this way from one generation to the next.

In “Ages and Stages: Empathy,” (, the authors provide practical examples of how to encourage the development of empathy from newborns to kindergarten.13 For example, by soothing an infant the child learns to soothe himself. The toddler will mimic the comforting behaviors of the adult who comforts her.

With repetition, empathy continues to grow so one can observe a three-year-old gently rocking her baby doll to sleep. By four years, children are capable of seeing a situation from another’s perspective, while the more verbal five- and sixyear-olds have developed the capacity to read actions, gestures and facial expressions.

Brain development is first nurtured by the parent/child bond from birth in a safe, secure and stable environment with attuned, empathic parents. The brain circuitry will be laid down through repetition during the early years of childhood. Empathy flows from this attachment.

“The steady drip of daily life establishes pathways for lifelong learning, behaviour and health that are inextricably linked to the development of the whole child.”14

            Empathy is to survival of civilized life as oxygen is to survival of human life. Empathy is the oxygen of civilization.



Empathy: The Oxygen of Civilization

Libby Simon, MSW

Libby Simon, MSW, is a retired school social worker and parent educator who was employed in child welfare for several years followed by 20 years with the Child Guidance Clinic of Winnipeg. Also a late-blooming freelance writer, her numerous publications have appeared in a variety of periodicals in Canada and the U.S.


APA Reference
Simon, L. (2019). Empathy: The Oxygen of Civilization. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 18, 2020, from


Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 23 Sep 2019
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 23 Sep 2019
Published on All rights reserved.