Psychopaths have long been portrayed as non-sympathetic individuals incapable to empathizing with others and therefore very capable of causing others pain.
Now, however, new research from the Netherlands has found that individuals with psychopathy are in fact capable of feeling empathy, but less readily than others without the condition, according to a report in the journalBrain.
Researchers said the Dutch government’s focus on their penal system allowed them to conduct research on psychopathic criminals that would be difficult to conduct in other countries.
“Convicted criminals with a diagnosis of psychopathy are confined to high-security forensic institutions in which state-of-the-art technology to study their brain, like magnetic resonance imaging, is usually unavailable,” explained study co-author Christian Keysers, head of the Social Brain Lab in Amsterdam. “Bringing them to scientific research centers, on the other hand, requires the kind of high-security transportation that most judicial systems are unwilling to finance.”
For the study, 18 psychopathic criminals were transported to Keysers’ lab at the University Medical Center in Groningen where they participated in a three-part test.
“All participants first watched short movie clips of two people interacting with each other, zooming in on their hands,” said Harma Meffert, who was a graduate student in the Social Brain Lab while the study was conducted. “The movie clips showed one hand touching the other in a loving, a painful, a socially rejecting or a neutral way. At this stage, we asked them to look at these movies just as they would watch one of their favorite films.”
The participants were then asked to watch the videos again, but this time they were asked to “empathize with one of the actors in the movie.”
“In the third and final part, we performed similar hand interactions with the participants themselves, while they were lying in the scanner, having their brain activity measured,” Meffert said. “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.”
Previous research has shown that the human brain is equipped with a ‘mirror system’ that causes us to watch someone have an experience and feel the same emotions as they do. Scientists have also found that the less an individual uses this system – the lower their reported capacity to empathize with others. These previous findings support the theory that psychopaths have a defective mirror system and are less capable of empathizing with others.
In the first part of the study, the Dutch team found that their participants did indeed show signs of a defective mirror system.
“Regions involved in their own actions, emotions and sensations were less active than that of controls while they saw what happened in others,” Keysers said. “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.”
However, the second part of the study revealed something different. The participants were able to empathize with others when asked to.
“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 empathic brain,” explained co-author Valeria Gazzola, an assistant professor at the Dutch university. “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.”
The researchers theorized that this switching between being empathetic and non-empathetic brain patterns could explain why psychopaths are able to harm their victims, but also able to identify with them when trying to seduce their victims. The scientists added that the capacity for empathy in the psychopathic brain could be used in future treatment strategies