Empathy, derived from the Greek word “empatheia,” meaning “affection," bonds with our conscience to act as compassion’s compass in our relationships. It is the foundation for ethical behavior. Without empathy, we cannot suffer with, or for, others. My simple definition of empathy is one individual being affected by the emotional state of another.
The ability to empathize is innate in all social animals. It plays a significant role in individual and group survival, and it is highly evolved in some individuals and species. Think of contagious panic, stampedes, mob rage, mass migrations, hordes of adulation, and the infectious “high” of being with others of like mind. Think of the sympathy pains of expectant husbands, and of the mothers of most species responding to the distress calls of their offspring.
The current discussion in the media of the evident lack of empathy in certain individuals, cults and regimes calls for analysis of this spreading pathology in our own species. Selective, often situational, inhibition of empathy can be a conscious or conditioned response of avoidance and denial.
Some individuals are behaving like subjects in a series of famous behavioral studies by J.B. Calhoun of the National Institute of Mental Health. In the 1960s and 1970s, Calhoun studied laboratory rats and mice. They were kept well-fed, watered and clean, and were allowed to reproduce. They were given more food as needed, but no additional living space. Eventually, the colony populations rose and then crashed as overcrowding stress caused constant aggression: males killing males, mothers killing their offspring and other harmful, abnormal behaviors. But a few subjects, the “beautiful ones,” continued to thrive but never bred or engaged in social interactions because they were unaffected by the emotional states of others. Their adaptive strategy was empathy inhibition.
I feel vindicated, after years of decrying the lack of public recognition of animals’ emotions and empathy, by the recent publication of two illustrated books by Time Inc. Special Edition: “Inside Animal Minds” and “The Animal Mind.” They give much evidence of the highly evolved empathetic sensitivity in animals. One edition concludes with the question: “As we learn more about what animals think and feel, the questions posed are as much ethical as scientific. What are we going to do with that knowledge?”
Doing a moral inventory of how we harm other beings, human and non-human, directly and indirectly, to sustain our lives and communities and how we might reduce those harms -- improving our health and well-being in the process -- is the first significant step in the development and expression of empathy. The animals can show us the way back to our authentic, emotive, naturally caring selves -- like our recently rescued dog, Kota, who now enjoys equal consideration in our home and quickly learned to respect our wishes as we embraced her basic needs. As empathy is our bridge of emotion, so ethics is our bridge of reason. Both are in dire need of repair in all our relationships, human and non-human.
DEAR DR. FOX: We have a lovely little 8-year-old Shih Tzu we adopted 7 years ago from a shelter. She seems to know her bedtime, so she retires to the laundry room, on her own, to spend the night on her pillow at 9 p.m. However, she has developed one unusual habit: Before she falls asleep, she scratches on the dryer door vigorously with her front right paw, then the left. (We are not worried about the dryer.) She continues this for about 10 to 15 minutes. Sometimes she will stop, then start again for a few more minutes. We take her for walks twice a day, about one mile each time. She lets us know when she wants to go out in the backyard. She is in good health.
What do you think of this? -- P.S., Silver Spring, Maryland
DEAR P.S.: Your dog’s ritual-like behavior may have started as a comfort-seeking activity that provides some release of anxiety before sleeping.
Dogs will instinctively turn and repeatedly paw around and around to make their lying area comfortable and clear of possibly injurious objects. My guess is that the dryer door-pawing behavior was triggered by sounds that the machine made, possibly at a high frequency that you could not hear, that upset your dog. Many devices produce such sounds, even when not operating but still plugged in.
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