The Roots of Mother’s Empathy

The Roots of Mother’s Empathy

 By Jim Windell

             When I was growing up, if I needed empathy and understanding I always went to my mother. I never thought about how she got to be the one I turned to when things weren’t going well in my life. I just knew she was always there and would always be supportive.

             Maybe when I was younger I just assumed that she, like all other moms, were just naturally empathetic. Of course, I matured and gained some much-needed perspective. But I also worked in a juvenile court and quickly learned that not all mothers had the kind of empathy that I was used to.

            We all know that empathy is the ability to feel and understand the emotions of others and is a core prosocial behavior. However, research has found that there are two types of empathy. One is cognitive empathy and involves understanding another person's emotions on an intellectual level. A second is affective empathy, which involves feeling another person’s emotions on an instinctual level after observing their expression or other mood indicators. Both of these types of empathy indicate how parents behave with their children. How a parent behaves to their children has a strong influence on their psychological development. Knowing how empathy is shaped can be very useful in understanding how certain parents react to their child.

           A new study, recently published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology, sheds some light on the interconnectedness among the oxytocin gene, brain structure, and maternal empathy.

           Scientists have long been interested in Oxytocin, the so-called "love hormone." It has been found in previous research that high oxytocin levels predict sensitive parenting. But what hasn’t been clear is how the oxytocin-related gene might generate variation in empathy and parental behavior. One possible explanation is epigenetic changes to the gene -- a way of altering gene function without changing the actual DNA sequence. Specifically, "DNA methylation" – the addition of a chemical group called the "methyl" group at specific locations – in the oxytocin gene (called OXT) has been associated with personality traits and brain structure in humans. This has led to a question. That question is whether methylation of OXT influences empathy in mothers. A team of scientists at the University of Fukui in Japan, led by Akemi Tomoda, decided to find an answer to this question.

           To look for answers, Tomoda and his colleagues measured OXT methylation through analyses of saliva samples from 57 Japanese mothers who were caring for at least one young child. In addition, they used an MRI technique called "voxel-based morphometry" to examine the size of brain regions related to OXT methylation. The intent was to identify any connections between brain morphology and DNA methylation. This is part of a new field called "imaging epigenetics" that seeks to explain behavior through linking epigenetic changes with brain structures and/or functions. Finally, the researchers used a well-established psychology questionnaire to determine the levels of cognitive and affective empathy these mothers had.

           The findings of this study showed that OXT methylation was positively correlated with a mother's "personal distress," which, in turn, was related to harsh parenting. Also, OXT methylation was negatively correlated with the volume of gray matter in the right inferior temporal gyrus. This suggested that high methylation of the oxytocin gene lowered brain volume in the inferior temporal gyrus while increasing personal distress.

           "This is the first study to find a correlation between DNA methylation of the oxytocin gene with empathy, and the first to link that methylation with both empathy and variation in brain structure," Dr. Tomoda said. "So, we've gained very important insight into the relationship between this gene and the phenotype – or the physical manifestation of gene expression."

           These findings increase our understanding of the complex processes involved in maternal empathy. This could contribute to better understanding psychological development in children. Dr. Tomoda says that this study helps to clarify the link between oxytocin gene methylation and parental empathy, as well as the effects on empathy-related parts of the brain. “This understanding augments efforts to better understand maltreated children and contributes to their healthy development."

           To read the original article, find it at:

Daiki Hiraoka, Shota Nishitani, Koji Shimada, Ryoko Kasaba, Takashi X. Fujisawa, Akemi Tomoda. Epigenetic modification of the oxytocin gene is associated with gray matter volume and trait empathy in mothersPsychoneuroendocrinology, 2021; 123: 105026 DOI: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2020.105026


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