An 'empathy switch' allows psychopaths to feel at will

New study tested psychopathic prisoners by asking them watch video clips showing pain

An undated image of the human brain taken through scanning technology. REUTERS/Sage Center for the Study of the Mind, University of California
An undated image of the human brain taken through scanning technology. REUTERS/Sage Center for the Study of the Mind, University of California

It was previously thought that psychopaths lacked the capacity for empathy but new research shows they are able to switch it on and off 'at will'.

The study took eighteen psychopathic prisoners and showed them a variety of video clips of people hurting each other or displaying affection (see below). Brain activity in the regions involved with empathy were then monitored as the subjects watched the videos.

When the prisoners were left to watch the clips the relevant brain regions “were not spontaneously activated”, but once they were asked to try to empathise with what they were seeing brain activity increased significantly.

The study, conducted by the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience and published in the journal Brain, suggests that the ability to selectively ‘switch on’ their empathy allows psychopaths to more effectively manipulate those around them.

Stills from the video clips shown to the prisoners shows four separate emotions demonstrated by hands interacting with one another

There are also implications for the rehabilitation of such individuals, with the team proposing that their findings might help therapists ‘teach’ offenders to be more empathetic.

Individuals who display psychopathic characteristics areoften only concerned with personal gain. The ability to feel empathy selectively would help with this self-interest, allowing individuals to empathise with others when they need to charm or instill loyalty, but also disengage this capacity when it is necessary that they hurt others.

Scientists believe that human capacity for empathy is rooted in the operation of 'mirror neurons': parts of the brain that activate when we do something but also when we observe someone else doing the same thing.

“For most of us, seeing someone get hurt triggers vicarious activity in pain areas,” said the scientist behind the study. “This vicarious pain gives us an ‘egoistic’ reason to refrain from antisocial behaviour; do not hurt others because it (vicariously) hurts you.”

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