There is a book that I ordered from Amazon quiet a while back and it was recommended to me by a therapist. Born for Love : Why empathy is essential and endangered. I haven’t read it all yet but I am very interested in the chapter No Mercy where authors Maia Szalavitz and Bruce D. Perry lay out the case of a teenage junior prom guy who invited a disabled girl to his party in order to rape her and make fun of her in front of her friends. Perry is trying to get to the bottom of how such a horrendous lack of feeling and empathy for someone could develop in a person raised in what seemed to be a ‘good home’.
It is clear that Ryan, the guy in question, is a sociopath and Szalavitz and Perry go into his background in detail. Raised by two affluent and successful parents, his mother’s idea of nurturing her baby and child was spending one hour a day with Ryan. The rest of the time Ryan’ care was farmed out to a succession of nannies, 18 in all over the first 3 years of his life. By 3 Ryan had become a ‘good’ child, he no longer cried or showed any distress. He was clearly the victim of disrupted attachment and so had learned from a very early age that if he wanted to survive he must repress all need for attachments. Why not? As soon as he got close to a nanny she left, his way of coping was to learn to ‘be good’ and need no one and to look to things for comfort. Later in life he developed a bullying style.
Before he even started kindergarten the emotional part of his brain had become stunted and began to function abnormally…his capacity for empathy was underdeveloped and immature (he was selfish), it was disorganised (he got no pleasure or soothing from reciprocal relationships), and ultimately it was non functional (he was incapable of being empathetic).
Lack of consistent care and nurturing in the first few years of our life strongly affects both the development of our brain and our emotions as well as the development of empathy within us. These actions actually affect the presence of neurotransmitters in the brain such as oxytocin and dopamine, both essential to mood regulation, bonding and our capacity to self soothe.
Being subject to a number of broken bonds or severed attachments in Ryan’s case was extreme, the many broken attachments set up a stressful environment in Ryan’s brain that had a clear impact on his later life, together with other environmental factors concerned with his parent’s disconnected emotional style which placed value only on externals.
Perry and Szalavitz outline research undertaken by a colleague of Michael Meaney, director for the Programme for the Study of Behaviour, Genes and Environment at McGill University in the United States which shows how early life events affected stress responses in rats.
Meany’s research focused on mother rat’s nurturing style and found that those rat mothers who showed greater affection and soothing towards their offspring actually decreased the stress response within their offspring’s brains. To make sure it was not just a case of genetic transmission, Meany used a trial group of rats born to low affection/nurturance rat mothers and fostered them to high affection/nurturane mothers. The trial group’s brain chemistry and behaviour was positively affected by the nurturing behaviour in a way the non trial group’s were not. The results as outlined in the book show clearly that the way in which we are or are not nurtured does affect our brain chemistry and development and in addition it causes changes in our DNA.
Outlined in the book are the other factors that contributed to Ryan developing such a ‘cold’ personality. The affluence of his family environment, coupled with the a string of consecutive broken attachments, the sense of entitlement passed down by his parents, together with the idea that money, status, physical and intellectual prowess, and power placed him far above others were other contributing factors, meant he developed into a person who was financially rich but emotionally impoverished. In addition his parents also failed Ryan, excusing his bullying behaviour when it was bought to their attention, failing to teach him that others, no matter what their status and intelligence level deserve respect, love, care and empathy.
Does Ryan deserve our empathy? I will have to leave the answer with you. Certainly his behaviour was inexcusable and he was punished for it, but by showing the very real forces in his background Perry and Szalavitz make a number of interesting points and conclusions while deepening our insight into the factors within which lead to a lack of empathy.
We ignore the emotional needs of our children at our peril. Mix child illiteracy with an individualistic culture that promotes competition instead of collaboration, add a melange of electronic media that can be isolating and violent and can reduce time spent socialising, and you create a world where empathy is threatened…. a society where everyone is just bit less connected to each other, where we all find nurturing one another just a bit less rewarding.