The Human Journey
Introduction to Intercultural Understanding and Empathy

Creating a Sustainable Future

Intercultural Understanding and Empathy


Pages 12


The advantages of bipedalism were many but, as a consequence, the female pelvis narrowed, and children had to be born “prematurely” – that is, earlier in their development compared with other animals. The human child is born with only 25% of adult brain size. The more brain development that takes place once the offspring is born, the more adaptive the animal is. Human beings are able to live all over the planet and in all conditions because we can adapt to and change our environment, developing different strategies for survival anywhere on earth; and because we have the ability to understand that different people have different ideas and experiences than ourselves, and we can learn from them and adapt to and with them.

Baby with ball

And we are born with abilities that help us live in diverse groups. From a very young age humans have a foundational appreciation of the minds of others. Children as young as fifteen months old can think of the shapes around them as having emotions and wishes and projects that are distinct from their own. We have an innate ability to attribute mental states to ourselves and others which predict and explain behavior. Called Theory of Mind, this uniquely human ability means that we can recognize mental states in others, communicate them to others, manipulate them in others and reflect on our own mental states.

As we know from reviewing our ape ancestors, social animals can hunt, mate, nurture their young, recognize others and emotions in others, group in hierarchies and make alliances, all without this ability. But they cannot teach or tease others; they cannot trade with others, nor communicate ideas or complex emotions. Nor can they manipulate beliefs, know what someone else is thinking, or reflect on what they are thinking themselves; and they are not self-aware.

From the beginning of life, babies begin to cultivate this ability: when they are awake and not hungry, they prefer to look at a face and hear a voice to anything else. At as young as fifteen months children understand false beliefs; from 18 months they exhibit inherent “mentalizing”: they pretend play, understand deception, intention, and implicit or false belief. By the age of five children can explain and predict behavior in others on the basis of their inner state: their intention, desires, beliefs, etc. This mentalizing ability increases our range of social behavior enormously; it allows us to accumulate cultural knowledge and transmit it by teaching. No other animal can do this.

Childhood brain development

In the first year of life a baby’s brain grows to 60% of its adult size. It’s generally known that the early years are the most important: this is the period where we identify our group, develop our language and social behaviors. 90% of our brain growth takes place in the first three years of life, but the human brain undergoes a lot more maturation and development over the next two decades. In contrast, the chimps brain is fully mature and developed at about age three. Until recently it’s been hard to tell what’s going on developmentally in the early years of our lives. For at least the first year the child is nonverbal, has very little physical control and is totally dependent on others for survival. Additionally, once she is verbal, she has no memory at all of what it was like to be an infant.

Baby and rubber duck

Brain-imaging methods aren’t suitable for babies; but since the 1980s psychologists have studied infant development by observing two things that very young babies can control: the movement of their eyes and the rate at which they suck. How long babies stare at an object or a person – their “looking time” – can show a lot about their understanding. At a basic level, eye movements can indicate whether an infant can tell one thing from another. A psychologist might repeatedly show an infant a picture of a cat or a red square, and time how long the baby focuses on the image. Each occasion he sees that image the baby is less and less interested and looks at it for less and less time – he becomes bored or “habituated”; he’s taken in all he can from the image. But if the psychologist changes the image and the baby is shown a picture of a dog or a green square and he becomes focused again and looks at the dog or the green square for a longer amount of time, then we know that the baby is able to recognize the difference between a dog and a cat, or a red and green square.

Through this same procedure researchers found that babies actually see and understand the physical world as we do. Showing babies scenes that appear to violate the principles of physics – such as removing the support from a block, which then remains suspended in space – will make them look longer than if the laws of physics are adhered to and the block remains supported, or is moved by the researcher to another support.

“The moral sense, or conscience, is as much a part of man as his leg or arm. It is given to all human beings in a stronger or weaker degree, as force of members is given them in a greater or less degree.”  Thomas Jefferson

Baby smiling

But by far the most interesting recent finding indicates that infants are born with a nascent moral sense. As developmental psychologist Paul Bloom states in his book Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil, “we now understand how the amoral force of natural selection might have instilled within us some of the foundation for moral thought and moral action. … This is not the same as an impulse to do good and avoid doing evil. Rather, it is the capacity to make certain types of judgmentsto distinguish between good and bad, kindness and cruelty.” In other words, as a consequence of our biological evolution, humans come into the world with the moral underpinnings that help ensure our survival as individuals who co-habit with others.

From his observations in1872, Charles Darwin realized that “If the one tribe included  …   courageous, sympathetic and faithful members who were always ready to warn each other of danger, to aid and defend each other, this tribe would without doubt succeed best and conquer the other.” (The Descent of Man, pt. 1)

We come into the world with a moral foundation which helps us survive as individuals within a group. So our first priority is to know what group that is and who’s in it. Babies constantly have to distinguish between “Us” and “Them” and are primed to prefer “Us.” Newborns make distinctions between familiar and strange people almost immediately. Babies learn to use the rate at which they suck on a pacifier to control which voice they hear read a story: their mother's or a stranger's; and at less than three days old infants show a uniform preference for their mother’s voice. As babies develop, they quite naturally base their preferences, their adaptive biases, on the people around them: their own group.

7 babies

It seems that we are born with the ability to judge who is “like me” and who isn’t: not in appearance, but in mind. Babies as young as seven months old prefer people who are like-minded – who, for example, might prefer Cheerios to Graham Crackers as they do – and they dislike those whose opinions differ. More than 80% of babies under a year old, and 100 % of those a little over a year old continue to prefer like-minded individuals even when they appear to harm others who are not like them! It obviously had to be a priority for us to distinguish and prefer our own group from the start, and to be wary of outsiders.

Babies prefer to hear the language that is the most familiar to them, and young children tend to prefer a playmate who speaks their own language, which makes sense, since it is so much easier; but strangely there is also a bias not only towards the same language, but towards the same accent. Race plays no part in children’s choices: a white child will tend to choose a black child with the same accent over a white child with a different accent.


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