Coldhearted Psychopaths Feel Empathy Too

psychopath mris
Brain scans of psychopaths show they exhibit less empathy toward others, except when they consciously try. (Image credit: Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences)

Psychopaths may be capable of empathizing with others in some situations, a new study has found.

The study's researchers investigated the brain activity of psychopathic criminals in the Netherlands. As expected, the psychopaths' brains showed less empathy than mentally healthy individuals while watching others experience pain or affection. But when asked to empathize, the psychopaths appeared to show normal levels of empathy, suggesting the ability to understand another's feelings and thoughts may be repressed in these individuals rather than missing entirely.

Psychopaths are traditionally characterized as manipulative individuals who lack the capacity for empathy. Their unnerving detachment seems to make it easier for them to harm others. [The 10 Most Controversial Psychiatric Disorders]

"Psychopaths can be sometimes very charming and socially cunning, and other times be callous and perform atrocities," said study researcher Christian Keysers, a neuroscientist at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands.

When healthy people see others perform an action, that observation turns on "action" areas of their own brain — known as the mirror neuron system. Similarly, when people experience pain or pleasure, they mimic these feelings in their own brains, too, Keysers told LiveScience.

Few studies have looked at what's going on in the brains of psychopaths in situations that elicit empathy in normal people.

Empathetic brains

Keysers and his colleagues obtained rare access to a group of psychopathic criminals for the study.

The psychopaths were put in a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner and shown movies depicting two hands interacting in a loving or a painful way, such as one hand stroking or hitting the other.

First, they simply watched the movies in the scanner. Then the researchers instructed the participants to watch the movies again and attempt to empathize with the subjects in the movies. (Specifically, they were told to "feel with the receiving or the approaching hand.") The researchers also performed the same hand actions on the psychopaths' own hands, to see whether it activated the same brain areas as watching the movies did. They compared the brain activity of the psychopaths with that of healthy people viewing the movies.

This image shows the movies shown to the participants (left) and brain activation of the participants with psychopathy without instructions (behind) and with instructions to empathize (front). (Image credit: Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences)

The scientists looked at brain activation in three areas associated with a person's own actions or feelings: the premotor system, which plans movements; the somatosensory system, which is responsible for feelings of pain; and the insula, which lets people feel emotional pain. When the psychopaths watched the movies the first time, their brains showed decreased activity in these areas compared with healthy individuals. This finding supports the notion that psychopaths feel less empathy toward others.

But surprisingly, when the psychopaths were instructed to try to empathize while watching the videos, their brains showed the same level of activity in these brain areas as normal individuals.

 "They seem to have a switch they can turn on and off that turns their empathy on and off depending on the situation," Keysers told LiveScience.

Treating psychopaths

The findings suggest psychopaths are, in fact, capable of empathy, if they consciously control it. This ability may explain why a psychopath can be charming in one instant, and brutal the next, the researchers say.

The idea also has implications for therapy. Most current therapies assume psychopaths lack empathy, and so try to produce the ability. Rather than creating empathy in psychopaths, therapists could find ways to make it automatic, Keysers said.

Mbemba Jabbi, a neuroscientist at the NIH's National Institute of Mental Health, who was not involved with the study, found the results convincing. When it comes to empathy, "psychopaths maybe have a different baseline," Jabbi said, just as "somebody with a thick skin gets the sensation of a pinch much more slowly." He added that future studies should investigate more sophisticated, emotional forms of empathy.

The findings were detailed today (July 24) in the journal Brain.

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Tanya Lewis
Staff Writer
Tanya was a staff writer for Live Science from 2013 to 2015, covering a wide array of topics, ranging from neuroscience to robotics to strange/cute animals. She received a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a bachelor of science in biomedical engineering from Brown University. She has previously written for Science News, Wired, The Santa Cruz Sentinel, the radio show Big Picture Science and other places. Tanya has lived on a tropical island, witnessed volcanic eruptions and flown in zero gravity (without losing her lunch!). To find out what her latest project is, you can visit her website.