16 July 2012

Psychopaths can feel empathy on demand

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Psychopaths do not lack empathy and can turn it on when they want to, according to new research that challenges the current understanding of the psychological disorder.
Knife blood drain

Psychopaths can 'turn on' empathy, but it is not their default mode, new research has found. Credit: iStockphoto

DUBLIN: Psychopaths do not lack empathy and can turn it on when they want to, according to new research that challenges the current understanding of the psychological disorder.

Psychopaths involved in the study showed very little empathy for others, but this was reversed once they were told the experiment would measure their levels of empathy.

“It was one of the really exciting and surprising results,” said Christian Keysers from the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience, who announced these results at the Euroscience Open Forum in Dublin, Ireland.

“We would certainly expect them to have reduced empathy. What I wasn’t expecting so much was that simply giving the instructions to empathise would almost completely normalise it. And that turns out to be the most exciting finding.”

The results will be published in an upcoming issue of the peer-reviewed journal, Neuron.

Projecting ourselves

Despite being such an ingrained part of humans’ social lives, research into the neural mechanisms of empathy only began in the 1990s. Scientists started to look at the way monkeys imitated others and wanted to determine the areas of the brain involved in watching and performing a task. They found that there was an overlap – when the monkeys watched others perform a task the same parts of their brain fired, as though they had completed the task themselves.

It is now clear that the same is true for humans. We activate our own actions, senses and emotions when we witness them in someone else. This empathy doesn’t actually help us feel what others are feeling. Previous research by Keysers showed that the same parts of the brain for performing an action were activated when watching a person perform the task – and when watching a robot. This indicated that our empathy is actually just a projection of how we would feel in those situations.

“We don’t just understand people with our own intellect but with our body. This mirror system allows us to project our own states on others. Next time you think your girlfriend is cheating on you, think about if that says something about your girlfriend – or you,” joked Kaysers.

Tribal origins

It is important that we can control how much we mirror other people’s actions to ensure we carry out our own tasks – otherwise you would get up and start walking every time someone walked past your desk.

Not surprisingly, males and females regulate their empathy differently. In one experiment where participants played a card game with a fair and an unfair opponent, the woman’s brain responded equally when she saw the opponents in pain. In males, however, their pain region only activated for the fair player (and they almost had a reward response when the unfair player was in pain). This ability to up- or down-regulate our empathy would have been vital for survival when supporting and fighting for your tribe.

In comparison, the study showed that psychopaths generally have their empathy down-regulated, irrespective of who the other person is.

Participants first underwent an fMRI scan while their hands were hit, touched and caressed, and then they watched videos of this happening to someone else, to determine if their empathic system was activated when watching others.

Empathy not ‘default mode’ for psychopaths

It wasn’t. Though the brain responded when they themselves experienced the feelings, these parts of the brain were not then activated when watching others. Their empathic systems were naturally down-regulated.

Most interesting though, was when the psychopaths were informed that their empathy levels would be measured, their empathic responses to actions, senses and emotions were all up-regulated. This indicates psychopaths do have the capacity to empathise with others but it’s just not their default mode.

This is significant research that could change the way psychopaths are treated. Rather than introducing empathy to them, treatment could try and change their default to a more empathic response.

Potential for empathy biomarker

Orla Hardiman, a neurologist from Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, is excited about how these empathy systems could impact on her work with neurodegenerative diseases.

“It could actually explain some of the things that we didn’t ever really understand. It looks like it’s going to be imbedded in some of the big questions we’ve been asking around neurodegeneration,” she said.

It’s possible that by understanding how empathy is down-regulated, a biomarker for diseases that cause lower empathy could one day be developed. “It’s a really new discipline. I’m really excited, I think there is so much potential there,” said Hardiman.

In the meantime, Keysers would like to focus on understanding what is happening at the neuronal level of emotional empathy. “The next step is to understand how we help others, what leads to sympathy,” he said.

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