Empathy, oxytocin and adolescence

Empathy, oxytocin and adolescence

Let’s go back to the subject of empathy because, in my opinion and not only, it could be a central element of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

We know that empathy consists in the emotional and cognitive ability to perceive the emotions and thoughts of others and to help them. It involves the famous mirror neurons, because it is necessary to “mirror” oneself in the souls of our fellow men and beyond.

Without doubt, in empathy, oxytocin is the protagonist. It is a peptide, a small protein, produced by the posterior pituitary gland and by various centers of the brain. Its effects, physical and psychic, are very complex. It is the hormone that stimulates the uterus to contract during childbirth and promotes breastfeeding, but it also has important psychic effects concerning the parental bond, that of the couple and social cognition. Its deficit is believed to be an important element in autism. Although certainties are still lacking, its administration has been found to be useful in autism spectrum disorder.

Although emotional and cognitive-behavioral empathy derives from very large and complex brain activities compared to that of oxytocin alone, this neuropeptide is considered the most important modulator of empathy.

This molecule is now being studied not only in autism but also in various psychiatric disorders, such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, narcissism and other conditions that interfere with socialization. For example, the administration of oxytocin reduces social anxiety in adult males.

Just think, in animals, the administration of oxytocin during the first periods of life seems to be capable of influencing social behavior as adults. If this observation were confirmed and also valid for us, it would open the perspective – certainly, on the ethical level, a somewhat questionable perspective – of the ‘manipulation’ of this hormone in the infant in the hope that the child, in adulthood, could become more sociable and aware of the suffering of others.

In this regard, it is interesting the importance of empathy we are starting to give today even to our intestinal flora. In fact, it has been seen that, in animals, the abundant presence in the intestine of a particular commensal germ, Lactobacillus reuteri, favors the cerebral production of oxytocin1.

Pediatricians often use this probiotic to soothe colic in infants. The question then follows: Do infants who receive Lactobacillus reuteri have a greater chance of becoming more sociable adults, more likely to worry about others? A fascinating question, but also a disturbing one.

In the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, scholars are analyzing the importance of the lack of empathy between the two peoples on the continuing state of war. The topic was also the subject of a conference, sponsored by the Child Foundation, with the significant title: “Peace, empathy in conflict zones: neuroscience to build bridges between Israelis and Palestinians 2.

The team of the Israeli, Moran Influs, of the psychology department of the University of Bar Ilan (Ramat Gan), focused on the topic. In the context of studies on the neurobiology of belonging, the scholar, in a paper of 20193, observes that the centennial Israeli-Palestinian conflict is creating more and more ethnocentric hatred and despair among young people. By ethnocentric conflict we mean the clear division between “us and them” and is considered the main barrier to the development of cognitive-behavioral empathy towards strangers.

Starting from the consideration that adolescence represents a particularly sensitive period in the formation of one’s social psychological attitude, professor Influs studied the consequences on empathy of an 8-week period of intensive interaction between 88 Israeli and Palestinian teenagers. The experiment led to the demonstration that, at the end of the period, empathy towards the enemy grew significantly. It is also interesting that only in those who had developed a more empathic relationship with the members of the adverse group, the oxytocin blood values ​​also increased.

We will return to the subject. A hope for peace?

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  1. Brain Behav Immun. 2017 Mar;61:36-49. – Microbial lysate upregulates host oxytocin – Bernard J Varian  et al. 
  2. Pace, l’empatia nelle zone di conflitto: le neuroscienze per costruire ponti tra israeliani e palestinesi – Anna Maria De Luca – 2017
  3. Soc Neurosci. 2019 Aug;14(4):378-389. – A social neuroscience approach to conflict resolution: Dialogue intervention to Israeli and Palestinian youth impacts oxytocin and empathy – Moran Influs , Maayan Pratt, Shafiq Masalha , Orna Zagoory-Sharon , Ruth Feldman.

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