By On August 1st, 2013

Can Psychopaths Feel Empathy if They Try?

When we imagine sociopaths and psychopaths, we normally assume they are entirely unable to feel empathy. For a long time, this was the patent belief behind the two related conditions and much of the public still considers this trait the defining characteristic. But, according to research published in Brain: A Journal of Neurology, psychopaths do possess empathy, but they have to intentionally feel it for the brain functions related to empathy to trigger.

Psychopathy and sociopathy are both closely related, and there is tense discussion within the mental health community over the meaning, but for this study, the meaning is essentially the same. They are mental disorders used to describe individuals who appear to be unable to feel guilt, remorse, or empathy for their actions, usually most familiar to the public as the cold hearted villains of action and horror movies.

Dr. Christian Keysers at a computer

Dr. Christian Keysers analyzing brain scans. Photo credit: Dr. Keysers

However, it appears psychopaths actually are capable of feeling empathy, as high-field functional magnetic resonance imaging helped researchers from the Netherlands to see. The study examined 19 participants with psychopathy compared against a control group of 26 people. The researchers showed all participants short movie clips of two people interacting, with the camera frequently zooming in on the hands.

The clips showed the hands touching in four different ways, characterized as painful, loving, socially rejecting, and neutral. In the first part of the study, the participants were instructed to view the scenes as one would while watching an ordinary movie.

In the second part of the experiment, the participants were then asked to watch the same clips, but they were instructed to empathize with one of the actors and attempt to feel what the actor might be feeling. Then, in the final part of the study, the participants were scanned by a brain scanner while researchers performed hand interactions directly with the participants.

Harma Meffert, co-author of the study, explained for Medical News Today, “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.”

The results showed that in their default state, psychopaths feel less empathy than those in the control group, but, when “trying” to empathize, their brains were able to switch to what was referred to as “empathy mode.”

The researchers explained that the brain consists of a “mirror system” which automatically copies to movements and emotions of others, but they believe that psychopaths have a broken mirror system making them normally unable to empathize. Christian Keysers, senior author of the study, says the psychopath group revealed they did in fact use their mirror system less. He stated, “Regions involved in their own actions, emotions and sensations were less active than that of controls while they saw what happens in others. 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.”

Despite not normally using their mirror systems, the group with psychopathy seemed to be able to when asked. Valeria Gazzola, second author of the study, explained, “When explicitly asked to empathize, the differences between how strongly the individuals with and without psychopathy activate their own actions, sensations and emotions almost entirely disappeared in their emphatic brain. 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.”

These findings are radical to the long-held beliefs about psychopaths, but there are still many mysteries surrounding how individuals become this way. There has long been debate about a biological or environmental basis for the mental condition. But, the results do give insight to how “these individuals [can be] so callous when harming their victims, and at the same time so socially cunning when they try to seduce their victims.”

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