The Empathetic Capacity of Psychopaths and its Neurological Implications


     Our ability to express empathy is vital for our emotional and social functioning and well-being. As humans we are evolutionarily social beings, and as many of us have come to realize – some of us the hard way – you need to show empathy in order to receive it.  Empathy is a key characteristic in ones capacity for attaining a healthy co-existence between one’s peers and the rest of the world. An absence in one’s ability to express empathy, in extreme cases, can lead to the facilitation of psychopathic tendencies. What are some neurobiological structures that characterize psychopaths in their inability to show concern for others? An interesting study done at the University of Chicago last year looked at the neuronal responses for pain in criminal psychopathic individuals.

     This study assessed 121 criminals using fMRI screening which measured blood flow regions of the brain associated with empathy pain. These regions included the anterior insula, anterior midcingulate cortex, the somatosensory cortex, and the right amygdala. Participants were told to adopt either a self-perspective or an other-perspective while viewing visual stimuli depicting painful and non painful situations. Examples of everyday painful stimuli were pinching one’s finger in a door, catching one’s toe under a heavy object etc. Neutral stimuli included limbs in the same type of situation but without the pain component. For example, hand on the drawer as opposed to a hand being caught in one. They found that activation in regions associated with empathy for pain in high psychopathic individuals when adopting the self perspective – imagining the painful situation on themselves – was very much pronounced. However, when these individuals were asked to imagine pain happening to others, these brain regions failed to become activated. Interestingly enought, these individuals, rather than expressing evidence for empathy, showed increased activity in the ventral striatum, an area of the brain associated with pleasure.

                This research depicts a phenomenon that is widely misunderstood: though psychopaths and perhaps criminal psychopaths may not express empathy for others, it does not mean that they do not understand empathy for others, being that they are able to empathize on a personal level. Thus, studying the neurobiological roots of psychoempathy and neural pathways that make people more empathetic, can lead to the development of intervention treatments and provide us with the tools to identify and attempt to prevent such aggressive like disorders.

Something else to further consider: Is everyone born with an equal capacity to express empathy? Are there some whose brains are wired to be more or less empathetic? And how do life experiences play a role in the facilitation and development of empathy?

Decety, J., Chen, C., Harenski, C., and Kiehl, K.A. (2013) An fMRI study of affective perspective taking individual with psychopathy: Imagining another in pain does not evoke empathy. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 7, 1-11.


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