This past week in the New York Times Magazine I came across this article, The Hazzards of Growing Up Painlessly, about a teenager who has a genetic condition that makes her unable to feel pain. Coincidentally on the same day I read this blog post by a Korean Adoptee, Joy Lieberthal. Joy writes, “It is so bittersweet to realize that without the pain, there can be little in the way of true joy and I struggle to make sense of the idea that oftentimes in adoption, this paradox exists time and time again.”

I’ve been thinking about this concept a lot in the past few years. I’ve talked about it in terms of something I’ve noticed frequently with adoptive parents who tend to over-compensate for the pain and trauma their child has experienced by attempting to eliminate pain in their children’s lives. One of the things I found most interesting about the story of people who do not feel pain is that some question whether or not these folks that can’t feel pain can also feel empathy or emotional pain.

The idea that empathy is driven from being able to relate to someone else’s pain based on one’s own knowledge of pain is fascinating. Roland Staud, the doctor who treated the teenager profiled in the NYT article, wondered if the connection between feeling physical pain and emotional pain would affect the teen. Author Justin Heckert writes, “[w]e sometimes experience emotional pain physically — Staud used the tried-and-true example of heartbreak, how the end of a romance can cause a physical pain — and he wondered if the relationship between the body and emotions also goes the other way; if a person lacks the ability to feel physical pain, is her emotional development somehow stunted?”

As it turns out, Ashlyn Blocker, the teenager at the center of this article, does cry and does react to others’ pain, even if she can’t describe hurt or pain. Is it true that to experience joy once must feel pain? Is it imperative to have a physical understanding how pain and suffering feels in order to be able to develop empathy? This study on folks with Congenital Insensitivity to Pain (CIP) and empathy found that those with CIP relied on their (what I imagine must have been learned) empathetic skills to imagine others’ pain.

In the past I have used the analogy that when we experience “growing pains” both physically and emotionally that it is a time of development and growth; like Joy, I have always subscribed to the idea that to know happiness and to be empathetic, one must have known pain personally. I have told adoptive parents who describe the ways they try to take the pain involved in adoption away that they can only provide a “soft landing” for their child because you can’t take away or prevent pain, and that it’s a normal part of growing as a human being – and further that those who don’t experience “growing pains” don’t “grow.” But this article gave me pause; clearly there are those growing and developing without first-hand experiencing the “pain” associated with growth; however I am still left curious about how pain is defined; and if the brain still reacts to painful stimuli even if it doesn’t tell your nerves to react.

How much is empathy a learned concept that can be taught or modeled by parents and how much is it a factor of our own experiences? And in what ways does this impact social work?  How schools of social work teach empathy for students who haven’t experienced much personal experience with pain or suffering?  On the other hand, how do we help students that have experienced trauma, pain or suffering to be reflective of how their own experiences impact the way their empathy is triggered and/or applied?