We all know the movie versions of psychopaths where they are either crazy or out trying to kill you, maybe even a serial killer. While they may appear like that in the movies, real life psychopaths for the most part are much different. They know how to blend in and go unnoticed, until it’s time to strike if they have a set goal in mind. One of the defining qualities of being a psychopath is their lack of empathy for other living beings. Because of this they are ruthlessly ambitious and are remorseless when stepping over other individuals to get ahead as their inability to feel for other people allows them to do so without guilt. For many, it would seem to be unimaginable that a person could truly have no conscience at all. So are there any instances, where true empathy is displayed rather than a facade to get something that they want?
The first study I looked at was performed by members of a Dutch Clinic who took 21 convicted psychopathic offenders and put them under a scanner to measure brain activity. The team wanted to measure emotional responses using an fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging). The test was to see how the emotional regions of their brains would react to movies displaying people hurting one another. Doctoral student, Harma Meffert, conducted the study went into the scanner room after they’ve been engaged in the movie and proceeded to slap the patients hands to localize the regions of the brain that regulate touch and pain. After doing this the images of the brain scanning could be more closely looked at to see if the patients felt any pain of their own when watching the footage. The results were concluded from 26 men of similar age and IQ. The patients who lacked the stimulation of motor, somatosensory and emotional brain regions were lower than the normal individuals. A second trial was then performed, but this time the instructions of the prisoners were to now try and empathize with those being harmed in the film. All the sudden, the regions of the brain that respond to empathy lit up and were activated as if it was a regular person expressing genuine empathy for the victims suffering. This seems to contradict the theory that they have no empathy, rather they are more able to control when to express it. In other words, the average person can feel the agony of a traumatic shooting or car accident, but the psychopath is more able to decide if they care to be empathetic or not.
To better understand this lack of empathy in this group of people, neuroscientists studied the brains of 121 inmates at a medium-security prison and used the same technique of scanning their brains with fMRIs’. The inmates were asked to look at visual images showing physical pain, for example, a finger slammed by a door or a stuck toe. Once shown these visuals, the inmates then had to visualize themselves in the same situations. They also had to imagine another person in the same predicaments. Next peaceful scenarios were shown to them where no pain was involved like a hand on a doorknob. Using the standard PCL-R, a diagnostic tool to identify their degree of psychopathic tendencies, the inmates were divided into three roughly equal sized groups. The groups were highly, moderately, and weakly psychopathic. For the highly psychopathic group, when asked to visualize pain to themselves, they had an expected neural response to what anyone would feel when dealt physical pain. The brain regions that control empathy for pain, such as anterior insula, the anterior midcingulate cortex, somatosensory cortex, and the right amygdala all lit up showing a sensitivity to pain. The opposite can be said when pain happened to others. The regions that lit up at the thought of self pain did not do so at the thought of pain that happens to anyone that is not them. Furthermore, there was the unsettling fact that these individuals ventral striatum, a pleasure region, was quite stimulated when thinking about others’ in pain. It was as if they got real enjoyment out of it.
The conclusion to be drawn is that psychopaths don’t have an automatic response for empathy. They can use it when it’s necessary and don’t feel compelled to display it unless it serves some kind of benefit to them. Psychopaths only care about themselves if harm is inflicted towards them so they are empathetic to themselves, but when it comes to others all bets are off.