Addicts and the Loss of Empathy

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Dr. David Fawcett

The ability to understand the feelings of another person is a remarkable quality that enables us to form deep connections and bonds with others. We are literally hardwired to observe other people and be able to feel what they are feeling. This ability gives us a tremendous evolutionary advantage in terms of cooperation and forming larger communities. Unfortunately, our ability to empathize with others is very often a casualty of addiction, especially intensity addictions such as sex, porn, and sexualized drug use.

Humans have a set of structures in the brain that create what neuroscientists call the empathy circuitry. This circuitry was discovered in the mid-1990s. It enables us to achieve remarkable levels of connection. The key element of this circuitry is something called mirror neurons, which are located on the parietal and frontal areas of the brain’s cortex. These enable us to predict the motions and actions of others when their behavior is intentional. For example, if I observe someone drinking coffee, my brain records the observed patterns and motions of that person’s hand while they are intentionally raising a cup to their mouth. Once I notice and record this behavior, my brain will recognize those motions again, giving me the ability in the future to predict the behavior that follows.

More remarkably, these neurons and the sensory input they receive enable us to predict not only the behavior of others but their emotional state. Through the observation, sensation, and history of observed behaviors in others we begin to resonate with their emotions. In other words, we not only know which action is coming next, we can feel the emotional energy to which it is connected.

While individuals vary in their level of empathic ability, any addict will eventually begin to lose their empathic ability. This is partly due to the nature of addiction itself, which pulls the individual into their own world of denial and rationalization, slowly disconnecting them from others. Intensity addictions such as sex, porn, and sexualized drug use seem to have a more pronounced negative impact on empathy, at least some of which is neurologically based. Chronic meth users, for example, have a severely impaired ability to interpret the emotions expressed on someone’s face. This misreading of social cues is disorienting for the addict. Even worse, in cases where the addiction process involves paranoia or aggression, it can be dangerous.

Addicts often do not feel that their empathy has been impaired, but answering the following questions typically reveals deficits:

  • Do you ever lose interest when someone goes into detail about how they feel?
  • Is it hard to put someone else’s needs and feelings ahead of your own?
  • Have you ever stopped being friends with someone rather than confront uncomfortable feelings they bring up in you?
  • When a good friend or family member talks about their problems, do you feel disconnected and less close to them?
  • Do you feel uncomfortable talking about your true feelings to people you care about?

In my next post to this site, I will discuss ways in which addicts who have diminished ability to feel empathy can (re)establish that quality.

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If you or someone you care about is struggling with sex, porn, or chemsex addiction, help is available. Seeking Integrity offers inpatient treatment for sex, porn, and substance/sex addicts, as well as low-cost online workgroups. At the same time, SexandRelationshipHealing.com offers a variety of free webinars and drop-in discussion groups, podcasts, and more.