Last update: 27 September, 2017
All animal species living in groups are endowed with the ability to be sensitive to the pain or suffering of their peers. Solidarity is part of their genetic makeup because in most cases it represents a guarantee for the survival of the species. So why are some people essentially insensitive to the suffering of others? How is it possible that they are emotionally closed to what is outside of themselves? What causes a person to be numb?
There are various possible answers to these questions. The causes of insensitivity range from the existence of serious pathologies to extreme vulnerability. Furthermore, the paths to becoming sensitive are varied and embrace manifestations of different types.
“Desiring the impossible and being insensitive to the evils of others: these are the two great diseases of the spirit”.
-Bias of Priene-
In general, insensitivity doesn't apply to everything. This means that, unless there is a severely disabling mental illness, people are not completely numb. The level, the object and the circumstances vary. In other words, one can be totally insensitive to the suffering of some and, at the same time, very sensitive to the pain of others. And it can be the exact opposite at a different time.
Being insensitive to suffering: causes and manifestations
If we live on a busy street, and unless our house is very isolated, we will probably hear outside noises. If we are not used to it, perhaps each of these noises will annoy us. Yet, after some time, the exact opposite can happen. Essentially, we stop paying attention to you and end up alarming when everything is silent. In other words, we become insensitive to noise.
In the universe of emotions, something similar happens, but not the same. Those who have experienced great emotional pain tend to be more empathetic and sensitive to the pain of others. But if this pain has exceeded certain limits or if it has led to a situation of extreme vulnerability, the opposite happens: one becomes numb.
The disconcerting thing is that the opposite phenomenon also occurs. This means that even those who have not had suffering, or have had it to a minimal extent, become insensitive. He fails to give meaning or emotional value to the suffering of others. His empathic capacity has not developed and shows a sort of affective ignorance that prevents him from being in solidarity with the suffering or even the happiness of others ... because the insensitivity is not only towards negative emotions.
Insensitivity to the suffering of others manifests itself in different ways. It is not just about remaining indifferent to the state of need or the request for help from others. It also includes all those behaviors for which other human beings are seen as organisms, tools, means, but without being an end at the same time.
When you are both sensitive and insensitive
Usually a person is sensitive and numb at the same time. It is also common for phases of insensitivity to occur in people who are usually sensitive and empathetic. There are many factors that contribute to making this happen. If you are going through great suffering, you probably don't have enough emotional energy to empathize with others.
There are people who fear suffering and who without realizing it develop strategies, mechanisms or methods to desensitize themselves. For example, this is the case with dependencies.
The use of psychoactive drugs raises a barrier of insensitivity to the suffering of others. It is a bubble that acts as an insulator. Building and nurturing a character that is too rigid is also a strategy to desensitize oneself. It is a way to take strong control over emotions, so that all the energy is invested in containing them.
Erich Fromm used to say that love and solidarity, if they are genuine, are also universal. He said that if you love a human being, you also love humanity. Making an analogy with these postulates, we can say that it is impossible to be insensitive to the suffering of a human being without being at the same time insensitive to the pain of all other human beings. This is what usually happens, albeit with different intensities.
Those who are not receptors of sensitivity may be affected by this state, but certainly those who do not have or do not manifest sensitivity. The instinctive inclination towards solidarity is not a whim of nature. In our genetic makeup there is information that has remained fixed as a guarantee of survival. Helping and being helped is one of the strategies available to life - and therefore us - to perpetrate itself.