Empathy towards the diverse


Today we are talking about a topic that many believe to be central to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and beyond: empathy, or rather, the lack of empathy.

We will later explore the meaning of empathy, its different aspects and its neurophysiological basis.

In this period of Covid, the word empathy oozes from the mass media and from social networks, so much so that we have reached the limits of boredom. In this blog we will talk about it in a different context: not of empathy, more or less obvious, between “us”, between those who are part of the same group, but of that (which is missing) between rival groups.

Today I shall begin by telling you about a scientific work that had deeply impressed me, because it was the first to deal directly and practically with the possibility of influencing empathy between Israelis and Palestinians.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is considered one of the most intractable, combining ethnic, political, national, religious and economic rivalries, complex and sensitive topics to which we will return.

In general, people easily feel a strong social empathy towards the members of their group, towards the people they perceive as their own kind. The question that the scientific world is asking is whether it is possible to “manipulate” the brain to foster empathy between adverse groups.

The neurophysiology of empathy is quite complex and in part still unknown. But it is certain that oxytocin, a hormone produced by the posterior pituitary and other parts of the brain, is an essential component.

In 2013, scholars from the University of Haifa wanted to test this possibility*. They subjected 55 Israeli adults to an experiment, showing them images of Israelis and Palestinians in situations of physical pain, and evaluating, with a specific test, their emotional reaction to the sight of these images. That is, they quantified their degree of empathy in that context.

They then assessed their emotional reaction to the same images after nasally giving them a spray containing oxytocin or an inert substance (placebo).

The result of the experiment was really interesting: while the oxytocin administered did not modify the empathic reaction towards the suffering of the Israelis, already high even without it, the hormone had definitely increased the empathy towards the suffering of the Palestinians, empathy that, with the placebo, remained absent.

Moral of the story? No basic empathy towards the enemy in pain! But just think, oxytocin had been able to change this indifference by making that group of Israelis compassionate towards the suffering of the enemy.

Of course, the empathic effect lasted a few hours, the time it takes for the body to dispose of the drug.

I was fascinated by this observation, as it seemed to me a potential way out of this interminable conflict, and, probably, from others that haunt the world. It is a question of being able to identify oneself, consciously, in the suffering of “others”, of the “different”, to feel it on one’s own skin, thus creating at least one of the conditions necessary to give peace a chance.

This experiment represents a manipulation of the brain with a drug. As such, it can appear ethically questionable. But keep in mind that the brain can be “manipulated” in less invasive and more acceptable ways. We know, for example, that psychotherapy can change us in depth. But it is also known that every experience in life, however normal, as long as it is emotionally intense, is able to do so, especially if takes place in childhood or adolescence. Positive experiences in these sensitive periods of life could also favor reconciliation between the two peoples and facilitate peace. This topic deserves to be taken up and looked at in depth.

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* Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2013 Dec;38(12):3139-44. Giving peace a chance: oxytocin increases empathy to pain in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Simone G Shamay-Tsoory , Ahmad Abu-Akel, Sharon Palgi, Ramzi Sulieman, Meytal Fischer-Shofty, Yechiel Levkovitz, Jean Decety

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