Is Empathy Determined By Genes?

Education and experience certainly play a role in how well an individual understands other people's feelings. But there may be certain genetic predispositions at work too.

Children walking through New Forest National Park
Paul Molga

PARIS — The human capacity to read the emotions of others does not depend solely on our education and experiences. It is also influenced by our genes, according to a major international study published in the journal Translational Psychiatry. When it comes to empathy, in other words, we don't all start off with the same innate abilities.

Nor is there one objective measure of empathy. The scientists involved in the study, therefore, based their research on a "quotient of empathy" as gaged in a questionnaire developed in 2004 at the University of Cambridge. Researchers from France's Université Paris-Diderot, Institut Pasteur and Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), the national research body, also participated in the study, which focused on 46,000 clients of the genetic analysis company 23andMe.

The "quotient" measures two types of empathy: cognitive, which means recognizing the feelings of others; and affective, which is about making an adapted emotional response. Participants completed the questionnaire online and provided a saliva sample. Comparing the data, researchers found that at least one 10th of the variation of the feelings of kindness, compassion and caring depends on our DNA. They also demonstrated that women, on average, are more empathic than men.

A newborn macaque imitates tongue protrusion — Photo: Evolution of Neonatal Imitation/Wikipedia

Several months ago, another University of Cambridge study came to the same conclusion. Researchers looked at so-called "eyes tests' carried out on 89,000 people to gauge emotional responses — empathy, in other words. By dissecting the findings further, they may have even identified one of the genes responsible for the variability: LRRN1 (leucine-rich repeat neuronal protein), which exists in several variants, some of which, found among women, seem to be correlated to a better perception of emotions. What's more, LRRN1 is very active in a part of the brain called the "striatum," which imaging has proved to be very involved in decision-making and cognitive empathy.

Scientists are especially interested in LRRN1 and other possible gene influencers because of disorders like autism, which is characterized by a difficulty identifying what others feel.

Going into the study, the researchers predicted that in the case of autistic subjects, they would see a genetic profile that is less favorable to the development of empathy. And in fact, that's exactly what they did find, according to geneticist Thomas Bourgeron, a Université Paris-Diderot professor who co-authored the study. What they weren't able to determine, however, is which — if any of the 12 susceptible genes they focused on — has a decisive influence in the predisposition to empathy. "They all probably contribute a little," Bourgeron says.

Nor is empathy linked to a single part of the brain, according to research done by neurosurgeon Hugues Duffau, who has revolutionized his discipline by operating on people's brain tumors while they're awake. Empathy is instead linked to a set of zones, each of which plays a role, he found.

One 10th of the variation of the feelings of kindness, compassion and caring depends on our DNA.

Duffau is interested in "mentalization," a concept neuropsychologists use to designate the ability of individuals to understand themselves and to understand relationships with others in terms of mental states. He found that mentalization is not controlled by a particular region of the cortex, but by networks of diffused and interconnected neurons.

One family of neurons in particular — so-called mirror neurons — is essential in understanding others. In the 1990s, Italian researchers working with neuroscientist Giacomo Rizzolatti made a staggering discovery by studying what happens in a monkey's brain when it observes an action. Its motor neurons, which control the body, kick into gear — just as they would if the monkey were repeating the action, rather than just observing it. It's as if by looking at someone act, the monkey feels itself acting. It sees itself in the other, as in a mirror.

Roy Mukamel of the Laboratory of Cognitive Neurophysiology of Los Angeles, in the United States, believes that human have mirror neurons as well, and that they play a key role in cognitive processes such as the understanding of emotions or learning by imitation. These mirror neurons may also be linked to the phenomenon of emotional contagion or mass hysteria.

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Why Chinese Cities Waste Millions On Vanity Building Projects

The so-called "White Elephants," or massive building projects that go unused, keep going up across China as local officials mix vanity and a misdirected attempt to attract business and tourists. A perfect example the 58-meter, $230 million statue of Guan Yu, a beloved military figure from the Third Century, that nobody seems interested in visiting.

Statue of Guan Yu in Jingzhou Park, China

Chen Zhe

BEIJING — The Chinese Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development recently ordered the relocation of a giant statue in Jingzhou, in the central province of Hubei. The 58-meter, 1,200-ton statue depicts Guan Yu, a widely worshipped military figure from the Eastern Han Dynasty in the Third century A.D.

The government said it ordered the removal because the towering presence "ruins the character and culture of Jingzhou as a historic city," and is "vain and wasteful." The relocation project wound up costing the taxpayers approximately ¥300 million ($46 million).

Huge monuments as "intellectual property" for a city

In recent years local authorities in China have often raced to create what is euphemistically dubbed IP (intellectual property), in the form of a signature building in their city. But by now, we have often seen negative consequences of such projects, which evolved from luxurious government offices to skyscrapers for businesses and residences. And now, it is the construction of cultural landmarks. Some of these "white elephant" projects, even if they reach the scale of the Guan Yu statue, or do not necessarily violate any regulations, are a real problem for society.

It doesn't take much to be able to differentiate between a project constructed to score political points and a project destined for the people's benefit. You can see right away when construction projects neglect the physical conditions of their location. The over the top government buildings, which for numerous years mushroomed in many corners of China, even in the poorest regional cities, are the most obvious examples.

Homebuyers looking at models of apartment buildings in Shanghai, China — Photo: Imaginechina/ZUMA

Guan Yu transformed into White Elephant

A project truly catering to people's benefit would address their most urgent needs and would be systematically conceived of and designed to play a practical role. Unfortunately, due to a dearth of true creativity, too many cities' expression of their rich cultural heritage is reduced to just building peculiar cultural landmarks. The statue of Guan Yu in Jingzhou is a perfect example.

Long ago Jinzhou was a strategic hub linking the North and the South of China. But its development has lagged behind coastal cities since the launch of economic reform a generation ago.

This is why the city's policymakers came up with the idea of using the place's most popular and glorified personality, Guan Yu (who some refer to as Guan Gong). He is portrayed in the 14th-century Chinese classic "The Romance of the Three Kingdoms" as a righteous and loyal warrior. With the aim of luring tourists, the city leaders decided to use him to create the city's core attraction, their own IP.

Opened in June 2016, the park hosting the statue comprises a surface of 228 acres. In total it cost ¥1.5 billion ($232 million) to build; the statue alone was ¥173 million ($27 million). Alas, since the park opened its doors more than four years ago, the revenue to date is a mere ¥13 million ($2 million). This was definitely not a cost-effective investment and obviously functions neither as a city icon nor a cultural tourism brand as the city authorities had hoped.

China's blind pursuit of skyscrapers

Some may point out the many landmarks hyped on social media precisely because they are peculiar, big or even ugly. However, this kind of attention will not last and is definitely not a responsible or sustainable concept. There is surely no lack of local politicians who will contend for attention by coming up with huge, strange constructions. For those who can't find a representative figure, why not build a 40-meter tall potato in Dingxi, Gansu Province, a 50-meter peony in Luoyang, Shanxi Province, and maybe a 60-meter green onion in Zhangqiu, Shandong Province?

It is to stop this blind pursuit of skyscrapers and useless buildings that, early this month, the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development issued a new regulation to avoid local authorities' deviation from people's real necessities, ridiculous wasted costs and over-consumption of energy.

I hope those responsible for the creation of a city's attractiveness will not simply go for visual impact, but instead create something that inspires people's intelligence, sustains admiration and keeps them coming back for more.

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