Recent research on neuronal processes associated with empathy brings new hope for understanding and treating psychopaths. Surprisingly, their brains showed heightened response to certain emotionally-laden scenarios.
Lack of empathy is one of the cardinal features of psychopathy. Many think it’s the main reason psychopaths lack a conscience. And for the past several years, evidence has been steadily emerging that the brains of psychopaths don’t function in the same manner normal brains do, especially when it comes to processing information with emotional overtones. Most of this evidence has come from brain imaging studies examining activity levels in certain regions of the brain, the results of which have caused many to speculate that there might be abnormalities in the basic brain ‘wiring’ of psychopaths that makes it difficult or impossible for them to develop a normal sense of concern for the welfare of others. But no studies have directly examined the neuronal processes specifically associated with empathy in the brains of psychopaths — that is, until just recently.
Although there’s been a lot of hyperbole in some of the media with respect to the prevalence of psychopathy (for more on this, see “Psychopathy: Is It Really Everywhere?” and “Psychopathy 101”), true psychopaths comprise only about 1 percent of the general population. However, psychopaths have historically been over-represented in the prison population (between 20 and 30 percent of prisoners are estimated to be psychopaths), and such individuals tend to be those who not only commit the most serious crimes but also tend to engage in repeat offences despite being sanctioned. So it’s natural for authors of a study on psychopathy to look to prisoners for possible subjects. Indeed, that’s exactly what the team headed by Jean Decety of the University of Chicago did, recruiting volunteers in sufficient numbers (80 subjects in total) to get some fairly convincing data. And the team’s findings have just been published in the online version of the Journal of the American Medical Association — Psychiatry.
The researchers compared the magnetic resonance (MRI) images of specific neuronal processes in the brains of adult prisoners who scored high on the most common standardized measure of psychopathy to those of inmates scoring low on the psychopathy scale. Subjects were presented with scenarios of individuals being intentionally hurt, as well as images depicting individuals displaying signs of pain and distress. And, to concisely summarize the relatively complicated findings, the results showed that, compared to their non-psychopathic counterparts, psychopaths showed diminished activation of the neuronal areas of their brains typically associated with moral decision-making, expressing empathic concern, and valuing the well-being of others. Surprisingly, however, the brains of psychopaths displayed higher than expected neuronal activation in areas of the brain typically associated with emotion and ‘somatic resonance.’
So, once again there’s some convincing evidence that the brains of psychopaths not only work very differently from those of non-psychopathic individuals, but also may even be ‘wired’ differently than most human brains. And although it’s certainly premature to draw this conclusion, the surprising finding that certain emotion-sensitive neuronal structures actually exhibit heightened activity in the brains of psychopaths compared to non-psychopathic individuals, might also help explain a phenomenon I’ve long observed in my work with psychopathic individuals. I discuss this phenomenon in my book Character Disturbance [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK], and have mentioned it in some of the many articles I’ve posted on this site about psychopathy (see, for example, “Budding Psychopaths or Immature Characters?”). It has seemed to me (and others who have worked closely with the psychopathic population) that some of these deeply disturbed characters actually do appear to have some capacity for emotional responding, but also have an uncanny capacity to ‘compartmentalize’ or wall-off emotion when it suits them, or to simply not let emotion enter into the equation of their moral decision-making. The Decety et al. study at least suggests that the neuronal processes responsible for the empathy dysfunction in the brains of psychopaths is likely to be much more complicated than anyone thought. Psychopaths, it appears, can recognize and respond to pain, but also have the ability to be comfortable with acts that intentionally cause harm to others. Perhaps future studies will shed additional light on this issue and help explain why some psychopathic individuals can feel at some times, and then commit completely cold-hearted acts at other times.
The fact that the psychopaths in the Decety et al. study showed an unexpected response to visual images depicting persons experiencing pain also might assist clinicians in devising better intervention strategies. Presently, the outlook for effectively treating and rehabilitating individuals with strong psychopathic characteristics is pretty grim. And there’s some evidence that, despite the popular inclusion of ‘empathy training’ curricula in highly-structured treatment programs for high-risk offenders, the outcomes with respect to recidivism appear no better than the outcomes of programs that do not include an empathy training component. Some have suggested that the reason for this is that offenders with strong psychopathic characteristics can’t develop increased empathy because they simply lack the innate capacity for it. But it’s at least possible that empathy training programs don’t work because they don’t sufficiently expose participants to the clear, observable signs of pain in others, and don’t sufficiently help participants to mentally ‘connect’ any response they might have to pain that they witness to their social decision-making schemes. This possibility affords treatment providers at least some degree of hope that perhaps one day we might be better able to alter the behavior patterns of the heartless predators among us.