While it is well established that individuals with psychopathy have a marked deficit in affective arousal, emotional empathy, and caring for the well-being of others, the extent to which perspective taking can elicit an emotional response has not yet been studied despite its potential application in rehabilitation. In healthy individuals, affective perspective taking has proven to be an effective means to elicit empathy and concern for others.
To examine neural responses in individuals who vary in psychopathy during affective perspective taking, 121 incarcerated males, classified as high (n = 37; Hare psychopathy checklist-revised, PCL-R ≥ 30), intermediate (n = 44; PCL-R between 21 and 29), and low (n = 40; PCL-R ≤ 20) psychopaths, were scanned while viewing stimuli depicting bodily injuries and adopting an imagine-self and an imagine-other perspective.
and Kent A. Kiehl
A neurological basis for the lack of empathy in psychopaths
When individuals with psychopathy imagine others in pain, brain areas necessary for feeling empathy and concern for others fail to become active and be connected to other important regions involved in affective processing and decision-making, reports a study published in the open-access journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.
Psychopathy is a personality disorder characterized by a lack of empathy and remorse, shallow affect, glibness, manipulation and callousness. Previous research indicates that the rate of psychopathy in prisons is around 23%, greater than the average population which is around 1%.
To better understand the neurological basis of empathy dysfunction in psychopaths, neuroscientists used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) on the brains of 121 inmates of a medium-security prison in the USA.
A new study using functional MRI shows that individuals diagnosed as psychopaths can turn off their empathy at will.
In the end, the research suggests that people with the psychological diagnosis can have the same areas of their brain activated as healthy individuals can. But the research does not go into whether the study's psychpathic participants could actually feel empathy on demand, rather than just regions of their brains being activated. "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," said Valeria Gazzola, one of the study's authors.
Using brain scans, researchers found no empathy in children with conduct problems when shown images of others in pain.
Their brain scans revealed little response from the bilateral anterior insula, anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), and inferior frontal gyrus. The ACC is particularly responsible for regulating reasoning functions, including empathy, impulse control, and emotion. Past studies show that the bilateral anterior insula exhibits weak responses to emotional faces following alcohol consumption, while the inferior frontal gyrus holds what's called Broca's Area, which is normally damaged in non-fluent aphasiacs or individuals who struggle with getting words out and speak in short sentences.
A brain imaging study in the Netherlands shows individuals with psychopathy have reduced empathy while witnessing the pains of others. When asked to empathize, however, they can activate their empathy.
Criminal psychopathy can be both repulsive and fascinating, as illustrated by the vast number of books and movies inspired by this topic. Offenders diagnosed with psychopathy pose a significant threat to society, because they are more likely to harm other individuals and to do so again after being released. A brain imaging study in the Netherlands shows individuals with psychopathy have reduced empathy while witnessing the pains of others. When asked to empathize, however, they can activate their empathy. This could explain why psychopathic individuals can be callous and socially cunning at the same time. Why are psychopathic individuals more likely to hurt others?
Psychopathic personalities are some of the most memorable characters portrayed in popular media today. These characters, like Patrick Bateman from American Psycho, Frank Abagnale Jr. from Catch Me If You Can and Alex from A Clockwork Orange, are typically depicted as charming, intriguing, dishonest, guiltless, and in some cases, downright terrifying. But scientific research suggests that psychopathy is a personality disorder that is widely misunderstood.
“I had all these high-risk alleles for aggression, violence and low empathy,” he says, such as a variant of the MAO-A gene that has been linked with aggressive behavior. Eventually, based on further neurological and behavioral research into psychopathy, he decided he was indeed a psychopath—just a relatively good kind, what he and others call a “pro-social psychopath,” someone who has difficulty feeling true empathy for others but still keeps his behavior roughly within socially-acceptable bounds.
Psychopathy is a personality disorder associated with a profound lack of empathy. 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. Here we compared brain activity of 18 psychopathic offenders with 26 control subjects while viewing video clips of emotional hand interactions and while experiencing similar interactions.
Brain regions involved in experiencing these interactions were not spontaneously activated as strongly in the patient group while viewing the video clips. However, this group difference was markedly reduced when we specifically instructed participants to feel with the actors in the videos. 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.
A new, riveting study from the University of Chicago, published in JAMA Psychiatry, has shown that people with psychopathy—who lack empathy, are likely to engage in criminal behavior and who are much more likely to be violent—have abnormal brain function.
Researchers examined 80 prisoners in a U.S. correctional facility with “functional MRI,” which shows brain activity, by measuring things like blood flow and oxygen use by brain cells.
They showed them pictures in which people were being attacked or were obviously in pain. And, for the prisoners with high levels of psychopathy, less than normal activity was found in a critical part of their brains linked to emotion—called the amygdala.
Neuroscientists identify specific brain areas linked to compassion.
Are some people born with a brain that is wired to be more empathetic? Can compassion be learned? What daily habits or life experiences reinforce selfishness, narcissism, and at a far extreme psychopathy?
Last night, I listened to an interview with Madonna and Anderson Cooper talking about the importance of teaching our children to be able to empathize and to not be complacent about fighting against oppression and inequality. Two studies in the past month have identified specific brain regions linked to empathy and compassion.
This morning, a new study was released by the Max Planck Institute for Human and Cognitive Brain Sciences that revealed the neurobiological roots of how our own feelings and experiences can distort someone’s capacity for empathy.
In my workshops orkshops on Lifting Your Emotional Intelligence, I spend a certain amount of time on how to recognise and deal with corporate psychopaths.
Many participants have difficulty in understanding how I can claim that one reason corporate psychopaths are successful is that they have considerable empathy. Far too many people immediately conclude that empathy and psychopathy are mutually exclusive. What I have said in workshops up till now is that while psychopaths do not have emotional empathy, they certainly have cognitive empathy.
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