To survive, humans and other animals must “navigate their species-specific social environment” (Bachevalier & Meunier, 2005, p.19). For humans, this is a complex task and includes understanding emotional states of others. Emotion understanding is the ability to discern and comprehend emotions. It is linked to empathy, the lack of which may free a person from guilty feelings about committing violent acts. The lack of empathy may be due to deficient emotional empathy or intellectual deficits. The individual may simply lack the capacity to understand the emotional or physical or cognitive states of others, not simply be disinclined to do so.
The development of emotion understanding in others begins very early. The human neurological system is designed to recognize emotions in others. Heberlein and Adolphs (2005) describe a complex integrated system where some structures have very specific duties (for example, the fusiform gyrus is used in our perception of faces and the superior temporal sulcus processes visual stimuli related to human bodies and human movement to ascertain agency and goal-directedness), and other structures, such as the amygdala and orbitofrontal cortex appear to receive information from a variety of sources and orchestrate our recognition of emotion in others and coordinate our response.
While signs of empathy development in infants clearly suggest innate processes, environmental factors, such as parenting, are very likely to influence the development of emotional understanding. A normal part of human development (“average expectable”) is the exchange of emotional responsivity between infants and caregivers. If either one is affectively unresponsive, affective disturbances may occur (Field, 1987). Sometimes infants appear to be learning how to respond emotionally, using “social referencing” to gauge their mothers’ response before deciding how to react to a situation (Smith et al., 2003). Laible and Thompson (1998) found that secure attachment was associated with better scores on emotional understanding in their preschool sample, though the finding may be limited to negative emotions like sadness. Thus, we can see how parents who are rejecting, cold, mentally ill, abusive, or neglecting, could cause impairment in emotion understanding.