You may be wondering how could such a person do destructive and violent actions such as killing, kidnapping, torturing, raping, and some sorts of gruesome behaviors considered as “evil.” Meanwhile, you might be surprised of someone doing exemplifying things such as sacrificing for someone, giving, and desire to help other people, which are all regarded as “good.” These are the faces of the two social and violent beings, who exist in this world, namely the psychopaths and the extreme altruists, respectively.
Jean Decety, a social neurologist at the University of Chicago, said that humans are the most social species on Earth, and they are also the most violent species on Earth. He further said that they have two faces because these two faces were important to survival.
The origin of how good and evil manifest has been debated by some philosophical and religious sectors for centuries. However, recently, scientists involved themselves in understanding the science behind doing good and evil.
Studies have shown that empathy, which is an emotional trait, played a significant role in both extreme altruists and psychopaths. Empathy is the ability of the brain to be aware of the feelings and emotions of other people. It is how people understand what others are experiencing or going through.
Ashley Aldridge risked her life to save a man stuck on railroad tracks. Serial killer Todd Kohlhepp left clues of his murders in bizarre online reviews. Our capacity for empathy shifts from person to person—and it may depend on the wiring in our brains. https://t.co/VyAwdw1JlT
— National Geographic (@NatGeo) January 3, 2018
According to National Geographic, the scientists discovered that empathy is the key element that ignites compassion in the human hearts to help others in distress. Meanwhile, other studies have shown that lack of empathy characterized the psychopathic, violent, and antisocial behaviors. This is rooted in damaged neural circuits.
Likewise, Dr. Abigail Marsh, the author of the new book, Fear Factor and who studies psychopathy and the origin of care and compassion for quite some time, has found that those who are psychopathic are characterized by smaller amygdalas, less reactive to the sight of others’ fear, could not recognize others’ fear and have fearless personality, according to Forbes.
Amygdala is an almond-shaped nucleus that is located in the temporal lobes of the brain. It is the key element and center for emotional behavior and motivation. It is also responsible for emotions such as fear, anger, sadness, and aggression, according to the University of Texas.
Meanwhile, Marsh and her team also found that extreme altruists have larger amygdalas, more responsive to the sight of others’ fear and could better recognize others’ fear. This could explain their compassion and sensitivity to help other people.
Dr. Marsh concluded that the capacity for both compassion and cruelty are parts of human nature. She further said that studying the brain basis of these phenomena has enlightened her what it means to be human and also how ones could make other humans better, as noted by Forbes.