Ethical Wisdom

The examined life.

The Meeting Eyes of Love: How Empathy Is Born In Us

The mother's eyes are the refuge where children confirm their existence.

You learn the world from your mother's face. The mother's eyes, especially, are a child's refuge, the mirror where children confirm their existence. From the doting reflection of its mother's eyes, a baby draws its earliest, wordless lessons about connection, care, and love, and about how being ignored - which every child is sooner or later - makes the good feeling disappear.

The mother's gaze, or the father's (if he is the primary caretaker), determines more than you might realize about how you come to see yourself, your place in the world, and the moral nature of people around you. "The meeting eyes of love," novelist George Eliot called this all-important connection. According to Dan Siegal, a psychologist who specializes in early parental bonding, every child yearns for, and must have, this eye contact for healthy emotional development to occur. Siegal, who founded a new field of research known as interpersonal neurobiology (IPNB), has proved that the mother's gaze plays a critical role in how we develop empathy.

"Repeated tens of thousands of times in the child's life, these small moments of mutual rapport [serve to] transmit the best part of our humanity --our capacity for love -- from one generation to the next," Siegal has discovered. Without such mirrored transmission, children deprived of the mother's gaze are likely to feel disconnected from others later in life. Many of them will struggle to heal this disconnect in destructive ways ranging from dysfunctional love to substance abuse. Carl Jung described addiction as "a prayer gone awry"; indeed, there's an obvious link between the emptiness caused by a mother's absence and the spiritual impulse itself, with its goals of benediction, acceptance, and unity. Not long before his death, the late Pope John Paul II, who lost his own mother at an early age, was intrigued enough by IPNB - especially Dan Siegal's work on the mother's gaze - to invite Siegal to the Vatican for a private meeting to discuss how the pontiff's being orphaned had impacted his psychological and spiritual life.

Siegal suggests that that the visual interaction between mother and child primes the moral organ in visceral ways. "Through mirroring, attachment to caregivers helps the immature brain use the mature functions of the parent's brain to organize its own processes," he told a journalist. "We learn to care, quite literally, by observing the caring behavior of our parents toward us." By the age of seven months, these earliest attachments have led to specific organizational changes in an infant's behavior and brain function. Having found a secure base in the world, according to psychologist John Bowlby, the founder of attachment theory, the child learns emotional resilience. If the caregiver is responsive to the child's signals and interacts with sensitivity, a secure attachment will be formed, reinforcing the child's own positive emotional states and teaching him or her to modulate negative states. Deprived of the mother's gaze, the area of the brain that coordinates social communication, empathic attunement, emotional regulation, and stimulus appraisal (the establishment of value and meaning) will be faulty. Such children are likely to develop "insecure attachment" along with all sorts of subsequent losses in self-esteem and feelings of belonging. Infants whose mothers deliberately ignore them in laboratory experiments become agitated and distressed. Rather than crawl around like the babies being paid attention to, they stop exploring the environment and either brood alone or desperately solicit their mother for attention. Not surprisingly, children of mothers who display postpartum depression tend to be anxious and distressed themselves.

We've come a long way in understanding how harmful parental distance can be to children's emotional and moral development. Not long ago, popular wisdom held that in order for children to be self-reliant and well-behaved, parents should treat their kids as miniature adults. Before mirror neurons proved the vital link between empathy and parental attention, it was believed that children (little tabula rasas) were best initiated right away into the sort of alienation they could expect as grown-ups. "There is a sensible way of treating children," behaviorist John Watson counseled in 1928. "Never hug and kiss them. Never let them sit in your lap. If you must, kiss them once on the forehead when they say goodnight and shake hands with them in the morning." How different this withholding approach is from that of the Kung people of the Kalahari, whose mothers deliver children alone without anesthetic, stay in almost constant physical contact with them for several months, hold them in a vertical position during most of their waking hours - the better to see them face to face -- and nurse several times an hour for the first three or four years! Is it any surprise that the !Kung are among the most peaceful tribes in Africa? Not only is touch "both the alpha and omega of affection," as philosopher William James famously wrote, it's connected to our body's production of the hormone oxytocin - also known as the molecule of love - which the vagus nerve instructs the brain to release during lovemaking, nursing, and other connection moments.


Regardless of how they're raised, no other offspring in the animal kingdom come close to the intimacy shared by human parents and their young. Our unique evolution requires this close-knit bond. When humans finally, permanently, stood up on our hind legs, moving from tree life to flat savannah ground, Homo sapiens developed much narrower hips in order to walk upright. With the woman's pelvis narrowed for walking, human babies needed to be born prematurely in order to squeeze their already enormous heads through the narrower passage. Whereas other mammals are born only when their brains are more or less ready to control their bodies, human babies can do nothing for themselves. Once out of womb, these giant brains attached to helpless baby bodies need constant care, and this parental relationship - with its manipulations, give and take, and demands for justice, respect, and loyalty - becomes our ethical kindergarten.

In the complex relationship between parents and children, our earliest bonding patterns are formed. Our first glimmers of being loved by our mother, thereby feeling ourselves to be lovable, are indissolubly linked to our ability to care for others in our maturity. As anyone who's been a parent can attest, this love requires levels of patience, stamina, and selflessness beyond anything demanded by any other relationship. Luckily, the rewards can be equally epic. Through the mirrored love in our parents' eyes, we learn surrender, devotion, and trust.

Mark Matousek is the award-winning author of two memoirs, Sex Death Enlightenment (an international bestseller) and The Boy He Left Behind. more...

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