published Thursday, January 12th, 2012

Empathy gone awry and kids

Glance at the smiling photograph of 4-year-old Tyre'ke Evans as it has appeared several times in this newspaper, and you will think immediately of a child having a really good day -- perhaps attending a birthday party or playing a game or spending time outdoors simply being a boy. We might think of the grand experiences awaiting this child as he attends kindergarten, becomes a first-grader, discovers a special talent and grows into adulthood.

Instead, that life was violently interrupted. Police believe Tyre'ke and his 3-year-old brother, Donamiche, were severely abused by adults whom they should have been able to trust. Tyre'ke died; his brother was critically injured. The autopsy of Tyre'ke found evidence of earlier beatings.

These are not isolated tragedies either locally or nationally. Five children die each day in our country as a result of abuse. In 2009 an estimated six million American children suffered maltreatment ranging from physical and sexual abuse to neglect. In our community many individuals and organizations work tirelessly to prevent child abuse and to care for victims. Still the numbers of injured children increase.

We know that poverty, poor health, lack of education, and abuse of alcohol and drugs often contribute to the environment in which children are abused. Studies also document that an abused child is at risk of becoming an abusive adult.

Recent research defines a biological basis for cruel as well as kind behavior.

"The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty" by Simon Baron-Cohen provides a useful summary of these discoveries. The British author is a distinguished researcher in psychopathology. He defines empathy as the ability to recognize the need of another and to respond to that need. Cruelty, the author contends, springs from the absence of empathy.

Advances in brain imaging allow real-time study of our brains as we think and perform various mental tasks. These studies define a complex neural circuit of at least 10 inter-connected regions associated with empathy. Normally, the circuit is activated when a person considers situations that require acts of kindness. The degree to which our "empathy circuit" is activated when faced with the needs of others varies widely from one subject to another.

The experiments indicate absent or markedly diminished activity in persons who repeatedly commit cruel acts. The absence is noted especially in psychopaths, people who seemingly have no conscience.

Genetic studies have identified several genes which play a role in the development of empathy. Presumably, these genes direct the formation of the empathy circuit.

Environmental factors, some acting as early as fetal life, influence the development of empathy. For example, a male fetus exposed to high levels of testosterone will tend to have more aggressive behavior in later life. Drugs, alcohol, and many environmental toxins readily cross the placenta and can affect brain development in the fetus. Permanent damage to a child's brain, and possibly his or her empathy circuit, can occur before birth.

Empathy is powerfully influenced by a secure and loving attachment of an infant to a stable adult. Love expressed to a child early in her life may be the activator of the genes that direct the formation of empathy. Absent that love a child is at increased risk of becoming an abusive adult.

The information at hand highlights the delicacy and complexity of the biological processes that underlie empathic behavior. As our knowledge expands, we will be able to identify additional chemicals that jeopardize normal brain development in fetuses and children. We will learn other means of safe-guarding normal brain circuitry. Possibly, we will see the development of medications that might restore the empathy circuit when it is damaged or absent.

While we await advances in science, we can address as a society the known risk factors for abusive behavior. We can actively promote empathy in our domestic, educational, religious, political, and entertainment endeavors.

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