New Findings Spur Debate: Are Some Psychopaths Curable?
2013-08-15 0:00

By Cynthia Fox | Bioscience Technology

A new study finds psychopaths do not lack empathy. They just possess the ability to turn it on and off—perhaps making some curable.

Critics say psychopaths only lack a certain form of empathy. Their ability to understand it is part of what makes them so dangerous.

“The findings are fascinating,” says Martha Stout, author of The Sociopath Next Door. The UK and Germany apparently agree, recently making a book by the new study’s author a Der Spiegel bestseller.

Psychopaths can be alternately charming and brutal. There is something real in both their “faces.”

For the new Brain study, psychopathic criminals, lying in MRI’s, watched videos of a person being hurt by someone else. Only when asked to imagine the receiver’s pain did appropriate areas in psychopaths’ brains—involving pain response—ignite in a way mirroring controls’.

Without instruction, psychopaths displayed reduced activity in brain regions associated with both pain and pleasure. “The vicarious activation of motor, somatosensory, and emotional brain regions was much lower in the patients with psychopathy... The (standard) theory seemed right: their empathy was reduced, and this could explain why they committed such terrible crimes without feeling guilt,” wrote Groningen University neuroscientist Christian Keysers in a Psychology Today article about his new Brain study. (Keysers’ new book is The Empathic Brain.)

But when the team showed movies after mandating empathy, “this simple instruction sufficed to boost the empathic activation in their brain to a level that was hard to distinguish from that of the healthy controls. Suddenly, the psychopaths seemed as empathic as the next guy. Their empathy was switched on.”

The finding may bring hope, Keysers added by email. "There is a fundamental difference between the capacity for empathy, which psychopaths have, and the propensity to always be empathic by default. If we can turn capacity into propensity, we could really help them."

Some supporters note many therapists try this with psychopathic children. They tell kids how “mirror neurons” light up in the same brain areas of people watching others—and those being watched. (Keysers’ team pioneered mirror neuron research.) Such therapists tell patients that brain synchrony indicates they can empathize.

Others are less sure.

“It’s very important people not misunderstand,” says Stout. “Sadly, I don’t think the results speak to a cure. “

Studies of “disorders of consciencelessness," she says, show that “psychopaths/sociopaths are often exceedingly charming, can ‘read’ people when it suits their purposes, and can learn (with calculated effort) to recognize and imitate overt signs of emotion in others. I find it interesting but not surprising that functional mirror neurons are present. Psychopaths can read other people if they choose.”

But, says Stout, “They just don’t usually choose to, because the tragic deficit appears to be the maldevelopment of the paralimbic system (the brain’s emotional area). This more general deficit prevents psychopaths from forming bonds to others, prevents them from loving or caring. Where emotion is concerned, psychopaths can see it in others when they make a concerted conscious effort. They just don’t care to do so unless they can use it to their own advantage.”


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Tune into Red Ice Radio:

Mike Cross - Hour 1 - Philosophy of a Psychopathic Society

Mike Cross - Hour 2 - Template of Conformity & The Psychopath’s Utopia

Thomas Sheridan - The Labyrinth of the Psychopath & The Intraspecies Predators

Mark Passio - Hour 1 - Dark Occult Forces & Natural Law

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