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Empathy Develops the Human Brain

As discussed, emotional closeness and empathy are the two entities that bring about contentment, peace, and joy. Both alleviate depression and dissipate anxiety, improving the quality of life for both parent and child. Because empathy is an important theme, the origins of empathy are helpful for a parent to understand. A child's experience of empathy originates in infancy, and is often referred to as attachment.

An infant’s physical state is connected to their emotional well-being. The infant depends on their parent for food, warmth, protection, and soothing. In fact, infants are neurologically hard wired to attach to their parent, and when a parent responds empathically to the infant, the attachment becomes strong. The quality or strength of the attachment predicts an infant’s emotional health and development.

As most parents know, caring for an infant includes synchronicity. Picking up on the infants cues, and empathically responding; holding, rocking, soothing touch, feeding, cradling, patting, tickling, hugging, etc., are examples of empathy in action. The soothing and nurturing (empathy) that stems from a parent’s relationship with their infant is infinite. A parent’s lap is sometimes the safest place for a little one. Empathic attunement is imperative when raising a young child. If this sort of empathic attunement is absent from an infant’s life, the infant can become anxious and depressed, which can result in a failure to thrive.

A study done on attachment highlights empathic attunement as a need essential to a human being’s mental health and survival. The study was conducted by psychologist Harry Harlow at The University of Wisconsin in the 1950s, and is frequently referred to as, “The Monkey Love Experiments.” Although the experiment utilized monkeys, the study was extrapolated to human beings and became the foundation for studies relating to attachment and infant mental health.

Dr. Harlow separated a group of infant monkeys from their mothers and placed each with a surrogate mother. The surrogate mothers were machines that dispensed milk. One mother was made of wire and the other had a soft cloth draped and secured over it. Dr. Harlow’s landmark observation was that, when given the choice of mothers, the infant monkeys sought comfort and clung to the terry cloth mother, despite the fact that their physical nourishment came from bottles mounted on the wire mothers. This suggested that an infant’s love is not based on the fulfillment of their biological needs alone. Soothing touch and closeness was equally as important as a biological need. The research was immediately applied to infants. The importance of a parent’s empathic response was found to be imperative to an infant’s mental health.

A second finding which furthered this idea stemmed from the observations of the Romanian orphanages in the 1990s. Unfortunately, the conditions were dire and none of the infants were held, soothed, or responded to. The children were warehoused in metal cribs, naked and cold without human interaction. Some of these children were adopted by families in the United States, and within a few years, doctors discovered the early deprivation and emotional neglect caused neurological damage. Brain scans showed dark pockets in the children’s brains, absent of brain activity. Essentially, sections of the brain did not develop and some brain matter died because of the lack of empathic response from a caregiver/parent. The findings were clear, consistent empathic response from a caregiver/parent promotes healthy brain development in human beings

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