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People hold up red roses during a memorial service for the victims of the bomb and shooting massacre, organized by the Norwegian Labour party and its youth organization, AUF, in Oslo, Friday July 29, 2011. (Emilio Morenatti/Emilio Morenatti)
People hold up red roses during a memorial service for the victims of the bomb and shooting massacre, organized by the Norwegian Labour party and its youth organization, AUF, in Oslo, Friday July 29, 2011. (Emilio Morenatti/Emilio Morenatti)

Evil and empathy: Scientists shed light on hearts of darkness Add to ...

When Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg spoke to his grieving nation in the wake of a rampage that killed 77 people, he said, "Evil can kill a person, but it cannot conquer a people." That quote, in slightly different translations, zoomed around the world.

A day later, Geir Lippestad, the lawyer for the accused mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik, was asked if his client had shown any empathy for his victims when he allegedly mowed down dozens of teenagers on the island of Utoya: "No," the lawyer said. His client had shown no empathy. He believed that Mr. Breivik was insane.

It was an understandable way for the tragedy to be framed: This was the evil, inexplicable act of a cold-blooded killer. But is it enough to leave it there? Scientists don't like to be told things are "inexplicable." Science is trying to explain the actions of someone like Mr. Breivik - not as the presence of evil, but as the absence of empathy. If empathy can be identified, at least partly, as springing from complex circuitry in the brain, then its absence can be explained as well.

Long regarded as a hippie-ish preserve unworthy of study, empathy is now being placed in the spotlight, and a better understanding has begun to emerge of what eminent British psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen calls "one of the most valuable resources in our world."

In Prof. Baron-Cohen's office, the walls are sparsely decorated: A framed cover of an issue of Newsweek magazine that featured his autism research, a couple of small oil paintings, two brain scans pinned to a bulletin board, their different regions picked out in lurid colours.

To a layperson, the neuro-imaging means nothing. But it's the mapping of various regions over the past couple of decades that provides the foundation for Prof. Baron-Cohen's new book, The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty. That's the North American title. Apparently "evil" is book-buying bait on this side of the Atlantic. In Britain, it goes by the less inflammatory title Zero Degrees of Empathy.

"Evil's an easily accessible term to describe when people do bad things," Prof. Baron-Cohen says, settling into a utilitarian chair under the office's one tiny window. "But it doesn't take us any farther."

Empathy, on the other hand, can be understood by looking at a combination of neuroscience and genetic and social factors. "Empathy is much more on the [scientific]agenda than it ever has been," he says. "People are beginning to take it seriously. It doesn't seem to be woolly or unrealistic, which is perhaps how it was seen in the past."

A 30-year journey to understand the motivating factors behind human cruelty has brought Prof. Baron-Cohen to this office on the leafy outskirts of Cambridge University, where he is both the director of the Autism Research Centre and a professor of developmental psychopathology ("the study," he says dryly, "of what happens when the mind doesn't work in the usual ways.")

When he was a boy, Prof. Baron-Cohen's father told him that Nazis had turned Jews into lampshades, into soap. His father told the story of a friend's mother whose hands had been severed by Nazi scientists and sewn back - on the opposite arms. The question never left his mind: How do humans come to switch off their fellow-feeling for another person who is suffering?

The answer, he argues, lies partly in your brain, partly in your genes and partly (you knew this was coming) with your parents, if they were cruel or neglectful. There is an empathy spectrum, it is quantifiable and we all sit somewhere on it.

"The spectrum approach reminds us that none of us are angels and none of is the devil," says Prof. Baron-Cohen, who at 52 is tall and lean, and in his soft speech bears little resemblance to his much more famous cousin, Sacha (also known as Borat, Bruno and Ali G). "When your empathy either fluctuates or is compromised in more permanent ways, it shifts where you are on that scale."



This spectrum, he says, is built on interwoven factors: First, there is the "empathy circuit" in the brain, which he identifies as at least 10 interrelated areas that control functions such as emotional recognition and response.

There is a genetic component, as Prof. Baron-Cohen and his Cambridge team have identified several genes that appear to be linked to empathic behaviour.

Mitigating all of this are social factors: how stable an individual's childhood is, for one thing, or how much pressure there is from environmental forces.

A terrorist may sit somewhere in the middle of the empathy spectrum, but at the moment he has detonated his bomb he has managed to turn off his normal emotional responses (and, Prof. Baron-Cohen believes, if you could scan his brain at that moment, the change would register on the empathy circuit).

Drawing on his and his colleagues' work at Cambridge, and research from around the world, Prof. Baron-Cohen describes the web-like "empathy circuit," which, if damaged, can permanently or temporarily switch off - that is, cause someone to behave callously or cruelly.

Take the amygdala, for example, the region of the brain where emotional learning takes place, and which Prof. Baron-Cohen calls "the jewel in the crown" of the empathic network. In brain scans of test subjects who were asked to judge emotions from people's eyes, the amygdala lit up. Those with damage to the region had difficulty evaluating other people's emotions.

In another experiment at the University of Chicago, when a group of violent teens diagnosed with conduct disorder were shown a film where pain was being inflicted, the amygdala and the ventral striatum, the brain's reward circuit, were activated, suggesting they were enjoying the depictions of suffering.

In another famous case, Phineas Gage, a 19th-century railway foreman, suffered an accident in which an iron rod was driven through his brain. He survived, but his personality changed. He had been polite and kind; now he was rude and inconsiderate.

"He had lost his empathy," Prof. Baron-Cohen writes. The part of his brain that was affected was the ventral part of the medial prefrontal cortex, identified as being a central part of the empathy circuit.

For people who are in the normal range on the empathy scale, disruptions to the circuit can be caused by fatigue, anger, drinking or other fleeting factors. But for the small percentage of the people whom Prof. Baron-Cohen identifies as Zero-Negative - that is, lacking all empathy - this absence can have permanent, disastrous consequences.

He identifies three groups as Zero-Negative - psychotic, borderline and narcissist.

Another group, somewhat controversially, he labels Zero-Positive. These are people with Asperger's syndrome, on the autism spectrum, whose lack of empathy is offset by the positive qualities of being rule-abiding and good at systematizing.

Not everyone who is Zero-Negative commits atrocious acts, of course. There is important social conditioning at work, the most critical of which is a positive upbringing (emotional and physical deprivation in early childhood, he writes, "affects brain development, probably irreversibly").

In his practice, Prof. Baron-Cohen has treated people who showed zero degrees of empathy - Paul, who killed a man for looking at him disrespectfully, and Carol, unable to form a loving bond with her children.

Both were abused or neglected as children, deprived of what Prof. Baron-Cohen calls the "internal pot of gold," the crucial well of self-belief that children are given by loving parents, and which not only helps their brains develop but also allows them, as adults, to empathize with others.

But what of the unimaginable actions of others Prof. Baron-Cohen writes about - Congolese soldiers who committed rape or Nazis who drove the trains but turned off their natural worry about what would happen to their human cargo? Clearly they were not all psychopaths. How did they learn to turn off their normal responses and treat people as objects?

It was a week before the killings in Norway, but what Prof. Baron-Cohen said next was chillingly prescient: "There's this idea of identification with your own group, as opposed to the other group, which is sometimes called in-group, out-group relations.

Either for reasons of propaganda, or ideology, or being bombarded day after day with the idea that your group is under threat, and the enemy is this other group, you come to believe it.

"Your beliefs then change your behaviour, change your empathy toward the out group," Prof. Baron-Cohen says. "I'm not wanting to simplify what happens in these examples of mass massacre, but clearly empathy isn't just the result of your individual voyage through life. We are all subject to social influences."

As we have been since we were living in trees. Which is, apparently, where empathy began.

Across the Atlantic Ocean, at Emory University's Yerkes National Primate Research Center, Frans de Waal studies the behaviour of our bonobo and chimpanzee relatives. He remembers when he was a young primatologist and the subject of empathy, as a scientific field, was "in the category of telepathy or astrology." To argue that primates and other mammals were capable of such elevated - that is, human - behaviour was considered even more ludicrous.

Three decades ago, when he was still studying in the Netherlands, he had been among the first to notice chimps consoling each other after a fight. He was only mildly interested in primate peacemaking until one of his favourite monkeys was mauled to death by two others; at that point, he decided to study what holds society (both human and chimp) together.

Dr. de Waal, tired of biology being used to justify human selfishness and greed, has taken on social Darwinism in his latest book, The Age of Empathy: Na- ture's Lessons For a Kinder Society. In it, he draws on his studies of primates and other mammals to show that animals are capable of fairness, co-operation - and, yes, empathy.

Among others, he cites the case of Kuni, a bonobo, who found a stunned bird in her enclosure, took it to the top of a tree, spread its wings and helped it fly - not behaviour that could benefit Kuni at all. Chimpanzees terrified of water have drowned trying to save members of the group. After a fight, apes may hug and kiss the loser. They may also tear him limb from limb, Dr. de Waal points out in a phone interview.

"It's always dependent on the context - we should not exaggerate the level of empathy. Chimpanzees can be perfectly empathic with each other, but they also eat other monkeys alive. That kind of switch is also true of our species - we can be very nice and friendly, then tomorrow we are at war with the same people."

Dr. de Waal and his researchers performed an experiment in which two capuchin monkeys had to work together to get food from a weighted tray. When the first had eaten, the tray sprang back and the other went hungry - until the first monkey, at no gain to itself, helped the second hold the tray down again. Somehow it had recognized, and responded to, the other's needs.

What's to be learned from such monkey business? Simply, Dr. de Waal says, that empathy is not some exalted human characteristic, but a very basic and ancient trait. He cites the groundbreaking research of Ulf Dimberg of Sweden on "embodied cognition" - the idea that our bodies respond involuntarily to other people.

Dr. Dimberg showed his test subjects slides of emotional expressions, and found the subjects mimicked what was in the slides; they smiled or frowned along with the images they were shown. The strange thing was when the slides were shown too quickly to be perceived by the human eye, the test subjects still mimicked the expressions.

Says Dr. de Waal, "He argued that these empathy responses go through the body, that we have bodily reactions that we have no control over. Empathy is not some sort of cognitive decision - I'm going to empathize with you. It's more automatic."

At the time, Dr. Dimberg had trouble getting the paper published: "There was an enormous resistance," Dr. de Waal says. "This was only 15 years ago, and now it's completely accepted."

On the subject of embodied cognition, a recent study from researchers at the University of Southern California found that Botox may impede empathy. In an experiment, subjects who has had the muscle-freezing treatment were less able to identify emotions in pictures they were shown, possibly because they could no longer mimic those expressions themselves.



The point, Dr. de Waal says, is that if biology can be used to justify competition - "survival of the fittest," for example - it can also be used to justify co-operation and empathy, which are just as deeply ingrained in our fibres.

And yet, he notes, such talk is mistrusted in his adopted country: When U.S. President Barack Obama talked about America's "empathy deficit" and said that it was a quality he would seek in a Supreme Court justice, "people jumped all over him - what's so good about empathy?"

This, says Dr. de Waal, is now the elephant in the room. "In the United States, we have this debate about health care, and what is that but a debate about whether we should empathize with people, yes or no?"

And while Prof. Baron-Cohen's book was generally well-received, some critics have taken issue with the determinism they find implicit in his work. A reviewer for the Telegraph wrote, "In dispensing with the notion of 'evil' as an explanation for anything, he also dispenses with the notion of 'choice.' "

The Wall Street Journal's review calls the book "profoundly naïve" and goes on to say: "Wickedness throws a troubling wrench in any attempt, religious or otherwise, to consider the world systematically. That does not mean we are uninterested in figuring out the biological basis for cruelty, just that biology alone is not likely to go far enough in describing our actual experience of life out there in a cruel world."

As Prof. Baron-Cohen continues his research into how the brain's empathy circuit functions, however, his investigations are more practical than philosophical. He is focusing on how empathy works in the real world. If deficits and damage to the circuit can be identified, can they be rectified?

There are promising avenues, he says, in counselling and therapy. The educational tools that help autistic children understand the minds of others can also be used by those who lack empathy. This could be as simple as teaching emotion recognition - associating pictures of laughing faces with being happy, for example.

The chemical oxytocin may also prove useful. Secreted by mothers after birth to help bond with their babies, "the love hormone" has been shown to increase empathy and trust when given as a nasal spray.

And then there's just good, old-fashioned human endeavour. Last year, Prof. Baron-Cohen was in a synagogue in north London when two men got up to speak. The first, Ahmed, was a Palestinian who lost his son to an Israeli bullet. The second was Moishe, an Israeli who had lost his son to a homemade gasoline bomb thrown by a Palestinian teenager.

Through a charity called Parents Circle for Israelis and Palestinians, Moishe had called Ahmed out of the blue, from Jerusalem to Gaza, and said, "We are the same. We have both lost our son." Now, they tour mosques and synagogues talking about the need to listen to, and understand, the other side.

"They'd crossed the divide through empathic or emotional channels, by phoning up and saying, 'I know how you feel,' " Prof. Baron-Cohen says. "It was really from the bottom up, these two individuals reaching out, not saying, 'I represent a country,' just saying, 'I represent me.' "



Elizabeth Renzetti is a member of The Globe and Mail's European bureau.

Evil; Simon Baron-Cohen; Elizabeth Renzetti; Norway; Anders Behring Breivik; empathy; neuroscience; psychopathy; mental illness; massacre; Frans de Waal; primatologist;

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