Neonatal antecedents for empathy

Miguel A. Diego, Nancy Aaron Jones

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

5 Scopus citations


Introduction To properly address the concept of empathy during infancy, developmental theorists must first define empathy, keeping in mind the resources of infants. Rather most theorists focus on the limitations when referring to empathy during infancy. For example, normal functioning infants have been described as dysregulated, less-than-conscious, egocentric and too immature in their representational and self-other capacities to experience empathy (Eisenberg, 1989; Kiang et al., 2004; Strayer, 1987). It is disheartening to think that newborns must be considered inept, rather than simply developing or evolving. Further these definitions indicate an insufficient understanding of infancy and the way that the brain forms during development. Intuitively it is assumed that emotions are ubiquitous during infancy (Fox, 1991). While it is obvious that newborns do not have the cognitive and experiential abilities required for fully developed forms of empathy, human beings are equipped to function emotionally from birth and emotionality is a key component of evolving empathy. Studies have shown that newborns can imitate, discriminate and display many of the primary emotions (Field et al., 1982). Findings from these studies suggest that individuals are born with the dispositional tendency to be alerted by emotion signals and that individual infants differentially respond to these signals (Jones et al., 1997b). Brothers (1989) has even suggested that newborn imitation of emotions is a signal for the capacity for empathy (in some precursor form) in the normal brain, one that is elaborated by cognitive maturation and social experiences.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationEmpathy in Mental Illness
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages23
ISBN (Electronic)9780511543753
ISBN (Print)0521847346, 9780521847346
StatePublished - Jan 1 2007

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Medicine(all)


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