Inside the Mind of a Psychopath – Empathic, But Not Always
Brain imaging shows psychopaths can empathize but do not empathize spontaneously
Posted Jul 24, 2013
To be sure, most psychopaths neither have Hannibal Lecter’s brilliant mind nor his rather peculiar culinary taste. They usually do not eat the liver of their victims. And yet, Lecter’s character does illustrate one of the conundrums of psychopathy: they can be socially cunning if they want to. They are able to seduce their victims into a dark alley, and, seconds later, turn into cold blooded rapists or murderers. Unlike most murderers, who act in the heat of a passion, and later feel guilty about what they have done, psychopaths feel no such remorse.
Empathy is key to our normal moral development. As kids, we are told not to hurt others, and we are told not to speak with our mouth full. Kids quickly come to feel very different about violating these two types of rules. Empathy is what makes the difference. Each time you hurt someone, that person’s distress becomes your pain, and you start to associate your vicarious pain with harming others. Violence then starts to feel intrinsically bad. Helping others, on the other hand, makes you feel their happiness, and will start to feel good.
If you were to lack empathy, this would never happen. Hurting others would leave you numb, and be as trivial as eating with your mouth full - just another convention. In that case, the only reason for doing neither would be fear of punishment – not guilt or compassion. If such an unempathic man would be alone in a dark alley with an attractive women and no one to punish him what would stand in the way of his lust?
To test if psychopathic individuals lack this empathic brain activation, the clinic transported 21
Each patient was then shown movies of people hurting each other while brain activity was measured using fMRI. First, patients were simply told to watch the movies carefully. Later, Harma Meffert, the doctoral student who conducted the study (now at NIMH in Bethesda) went into the scanner room and slapped the patients on their hands to localize brain regions involved in feeling touch and pain. We could then zoom into these brain regions to see if the patients activated their own pain while viewing that of others. We did the same with 26 men of similar age and IQ. The results of the study, which are published today in the journal Brain, indicate that the vicarious activation of motor, somatosensory and emotional brain regions was much lower in the patients with psychopathy than in the normal subjects. The theory seemed right: their empathy was reduced, and this could explain why they committed such terrible crimes without feeling guilt.
So psychopathic individuals do not simply lack empathy. Instead, it seems as though for most of us, empathy is the default mode. If we see a victim, we share her pain. For the psychopathic criminals of our study, empathy seemed to be a voluntary activity. If they want to, they can empathize, and that explains how they can be so charming, and maybe so manipulative. Once they have seduced you into doing what serves their purpose, the effortful empathy would though probably disappear again. Free of the constraints of empathy, they is then little to stop them from using violence.
How can psychopathic individuals switch their empathy on and off? All of us have such a switch. We are more empathic towards the pain of our friends, than towards the misery of the people on the other side of the globe. Acupunctures learn to supress their empathy to the sight of a needle entering skin. Reducing empathy, sometimes, has clear evolutionary benefits: if you need to defend your family from an attack, you cannot afford to empathize with your aggressor. Our default mode, however, seems to have our empathy on. Individuals with psychopathy seem to have a slightly different switch: their default mode seems to be off. But
Much still needs to be understood about why and how individuals with psychopathy seem to have the potential to empathize sometimes but have this capacity switched off by default. For therapists, our finding suggests that the best approach may not be to teach them empathy - they already seem capable of empathy. Instead, therapies may need to learn to be empathic always. How to do so is unclear, but it might be best to start such training early, before violence has become a way of life. A recent study from the group of Essi Viding at the UCL in London has shown that a callous unemotional subgroup of kids with conduct disorder already seem to lack spontaneous empathy: they also activate their empathic brain less when simply watching others in pain. These kids are known to have a heightened risk of becoming psychopathic adults. Intervening early, in these children, to make empathy automatic, might be a promising approach.
For more information about the neural basis of empathy and psychopathy, have a look at the book The Empathic Brain.