Psychopaths Feel Empathy But Can Switch It Off, Study Finds

Psychopaths feel empathy, contrary to popular belief. Findings in a new study say that psychopaths do not completely lack the ability to relate to others. Like a flick of a switch empathy can be turned off though. These new findings may be a breakthrough in rehabilitating psychopaths.

The recent study comes out of the Netherlands. There, researchers conducted the largest such study by taking brain scans of 18 violent psychopathic criminals.

The LA Times describes the experiment where the subjects were placed in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines. Their brains were scanned while they were shown video clips of two hands coming together. The hands were shown touching in a neutral way, hitting each other, or caressing. Without any instruction, they simply watched.

Compared to the control group of non-psychopaths, these subjects were found to have less activity in the frontal lobe. The brain circuits there are known to be related to vicarious experience and likely empathy.

The second trial was the real finding. The subjects were put into the MRI scanners and shown the hand clips again. However, this time they were asked to imagine one of the hands as theirs. Brain imaging showed that now the frontal lobe was active. Basically the psychopaths felt empathy for the person being filmed after being asked to.

Brain imaging is proving to be a breakthrough in research on psychopathy. Questionnaires and interviews have limited use because of the manipulative nature of many psychopaths. Brain activity, however, cannot be controlled at will.

BBC News says that the researchers hope that their new findings can lead to innovations in rehabilitation. It has been known for some time that psychopathic criminals are unlikely to empathize with their victims and others. This places them in high risk of repeat offending.

Some are skeptical, but believe this could be a step forward in understanding psychopathy. However, others are more hopeful that this could lead to new therapies to teach psychopaths to feel empathy in the near future.

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