Psychopaths can turn on the empathy mode
Psychopathy is a personality or mental disorder characterized partly by antisocial behavior, a diminished capacity for remorse, and poor behavioral controls. The psychopath can appear normal, even charming but appear to have no conscience or empathy, making them a significant threat to society.
Neuroscientists have associated empathy and its interindividual variation with how strongly participants activate brain regions involved in their own actions, emotions and sensations while viewing those of others, according to the study’s summary,
According to Dr. Professor Christian Keysers, PhD, Professor for the Social Brain at the medical faculty of the University Medical Center Groningen, Group Leader of the Social Brain Lab at the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience at the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW), and senior author of this study commented “Convicted criminals with a diagnosis of psychopathy are confined to high-security forensic institutions in which state-of-the-art technology to study their brain, like magnetic resonance imaging, is usually unavailable”. “Bringing them to scientific research centers, on the other hand, requires the kind of high-security transportation that most judicial systems are unwilling to finance.”
The Dutch judicial system is the exception and joined forces with academia to promote a better understanding of psychopathy. As a result, criminals with psychopathy were transported to the Social Brain Lab of the University Medical Center in Groningen (The Netherlands). The lab has state of the art high-field functional magnetic resonance imaging which allows research to look inside the brain of criminals with psychopathy while they view the emotions of others.
This new study included 18 18 individuals with psychopathy and a control group. The study was conducted in three parts.
In the first part of the study, former PhD student Harma Meffert, of the Social Brain Lab, currently post-doctoral fellow at the National Institutes of Mental Health in Bethesda, first author of the paper explained “All participants first watched short movie clips of two people interacting with each other, zoomed in on their hands. The movie clips showed one hand touching the other in a loving, a painful, a socially rejecting or a neutral way. At this stage, we asked them to look at these movies just as they would watch one of their favorite films”.
In the second part of the study participants re-watched the clips however, this time researchers instructed participants specifically to “empathize with one of the actors in the movie,” that is, they were requested to really try to feel what the actors in the movie were feeling.
In the third and final part of the study, researchers performed similar hand interactions with the participants while they were lying in the scanner. “We wanted to know to what extent they would activate the same brain regions while they were watching the hand interactions in the movies, as they would when they were experiencing these same hand interactions themselves,” said Meffert.
The “mirror system” possibly constitutes a crucial part of our ability to empathize with other people, and it has been previously shown, that the less you activate this system, the less you report to empathize with other people. It has been suggested that individuals with psychopathy might somehow suffer from a broken “mirror system,” resulting in a diminished ability to empathize with their victims.
When asked to just watch the film clips, the individuals with psychopathy indeed did activate their mirror system less. “At first, this seems to suggest that psychopathic criminals might hurt others more easily than we do, because they do not feel pain, when they see the pain of their victims,” said Keysers.
As the second part of the study revealed, however, it’s not quite so simple. Instead of generally activating their mirror system less, individuals with psychopathy rather seem not to use this system spontaneously, but they can use it when asked to.
Valeria Gazzola, Assistant Professor at UMCG, and second author of the paper explains . “Psychopathy may not be so much the incapacity to empathize, but a reduced propensity to empathize, paired with a preserved capacity to empathize when required to do so.” The brain data suggests that by default, psychopathic individuals feel less empathy than others. If they try to empathize, however, they can switch to ’empathy mode”.
There might be two sides to these findings. The darker side is that reduced spontaneous empathy together with a preserved capacity for empathy might be the cocktail that makes these individuals so callous when harming their victims and at the same time so socially cunning when they try to seduce their victims. Whether individuals with psychopathy autonomously switch their empathy mode on and off depending on the requirements of a social situation however remains to be established. The brighter side is that the preserved capacity for empathy might be harnessed in therapy. Instead of having to create a capacity for empathy, therapies may need to focus on making the existing capacity more automatic to prevent them from further harming others. How to do so remains at this stage uncertain.
The researchers write” “Our results suggest that psychopathy is not a simple incapacity for vicarious activations but rather reduced spontaneous vicarious activations co-existing with relatively normal deliberate counterparts.”