Psychopaths Not Hardwired to be Empathic

News Editor: Tina Pentland

Empathy, unlike sympathy, is the capacity among individuals to literally feel another person’s emotions. This ability to reflect another person’s emotional experience as if it were one’s own experience – be it pain, joy, suffering or happiness – involves a wide range of higher-level cognitive functions and behaviours. According to Jean Decety, the Irving B. Harris Professor in Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Chicago, empathy is an essential element in social cognition, including morality and the regulation of aggression. In a new study published recently in JAMA Psychiatry, Decety and colleagues at the University of New Mexico report that psychopaths crucially lack the ability to empathise and thus to feel another person’s pain. Their study, entitled “Brain Responses to Empathy-Eliciting Scenarios Involving Pain in Incarcerated Individuals with Psychopathy”, compared the brain patterns of psychopaths and non-psychopaths in a US prison who, when presented with visual images depicting emotional suffering or pain, showed major differences in the brain functions involved in emotion processing.

While lack of empathy is a known hallmark characteristic of psychopathy, to date no study has directly examined the neural responses associated with empathy, especially in response to perception of pain in others. The study carried out by Jean Decety at UChicago and his colleagues at New Mexico was developed specifically to investigate possible brain differences in psychopaths when compared with non-psychopaths by directly examining the neural functions associated with empathy.

empathy Participants were eighty male prisoners classified as psychopathic or non-psychopathic (the control group) according to the Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R). The two groups were presented with various stimuli – such as images of humans showing expressions of pain or otherwise inflicting pain on others – which would be expected to trigger empathic responses in normal individuals (the controls) but show an absence of empathic responses among individuals with psychopathy. Any differences in behavioural response could be measured according to distinctively different brain patterns, as shown by fMRI imaging. The study found that psychopaths showed significantly less brain activity in the frontal regions of the brain associated with recognising pain and processing emotion – e.g., the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, the lateral orbitofrontal cortex and amygdala – compared with the controls but, interestingly, they also showed significantly greater brain activity in the insula. The insula is a part of the brain directly associated with emotion processing and feeling pain. This finding was a little surprising; nevertheless, it clearly showed that both regions of the psychopathic brain respond distinctly differently to the normal brain when presented with stimuli designed to trigger an emotional response.

The findings of this study go some way towards improving our understanding of the neural bases of psychopathy and should, in turn, better inform the future development of clinical intervention programs for treating psychopaths.


Images: No Empathy

Images of people suffering pain, or deliberately inflicting pain on others, were presented to participants in the study. Notably, psychopathic individuals did not respond emotionally to these stimuli, according to fMRI measures of brain activity.

Image courtesy Jean Decety/UChicago News, 24 April 2013.

 

Source: University of Chicago

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