Psychopaths are typically described as lacking in empathy. New research from the Netherlands, however, suggests that psychopaths have the capacity for empathy, but it’s usually turned off.
The study was just published in Brain: A journal of neurology. I heard the first author, Dr. Harma Meffert, present the research when I attended the conference sponsored by the Society for the Scientific Study of Psychopathy in June.
The researchers asked convicted criminals, who had been diagnosed as psychopaths, to view short video clips while hooked up to fMRI machines, so that the activity in their brains could be observed. The videos showed two hands interacting in ways that were painful, loving, socially rejecting and neutral. As they watched the videos, the psychopaths’ brains did not show activity in the areas generally associated with empathy.
However, in the second part of the experiment, the psychopaths were instructed to empathize with one of the actors in the video. This time, they did show activity in the brain regions linked with empathy to approximately the same degree as the control group.
The researchers interpreted this to mean that psychopaths have the ability to feel empathy, but it is not automatic. Psychopaths only feel empathy when they consciously focus on it.
The lead author, Dr. Christian Keysers, explains the research in the video. The following articles also provide good summaries:
Researchers study brains of violent psychopaths, find empathy, on LATimes.com.
Criminal psychopaths flip a switch to ‘turn on’ empathy, on MedicalNewsToday.com.
Clears up confusion
Many Lovefraud readers, myself included, have experienced what we thought was empathy from the psychopaths in our lives. They seemed to understand how we felt. They not only said the right words, but we felt the appropriate “vibes.”
This is certainly what we saw in the beginning of the relationship when we were being seduced, but it slipped away, either slowly or suddenly. The glimmers of empathy would occasionally reappear, so that we’d hope the person we first met was returning, perhaps this time to stay.
Of course, it didn’t last very long, and they were soon back to the cold, calculating and remorseless persona that we so frequently saw. But those glimmers of empathy may have been enough to for us to think that the psychopaths really could change. Deep inside they were caring and empathetic, we thought, and if we could just show them enough love, that person could return.
So no, we weren’t imagining things. We did see empathy. But empathy is not a normal state of being for these people. Empathy is only present when psychopaths are using it to manipulate us.
Opportunity for therapy?
In the video, Dr. Keysers mentions that the finding that psychopaths may, in fact, have the capacity for empathy may provide a direction for therapy. Of course, other research has shown that asking psychopaths to empathize with their victims doesn’t do any good, and may actually make them into more cunning psychopaths.
Lovefraud has heard from several self-identified psychopaths who sneered at the emotions and empathy felt by people who aren’t disordered. Since they view themselves as superior, I don’t know what would motivate psychopaths to develop their capacity for empathy.
But there may be hope for children who are at risk for developing psychopathy, if they can get the right treatment early enough. That would certainly be a step that could benefit not only them, but the human race.
Here’s the original scientific study, which is not easy reading. The “Discussion” section, about halfway through the article, contains the researchers’ conclusions.
Reduced spontaneous but relatively normal deliberate vicarious representations in psychopathy, on Brain.OxfordJournals.org.