Psychopaths are able to feel empathy, but only when prompted to do so.
A new study found people with psychopathy were able to activate the brain regions associated with empathy, but the response was not as automatic as the general population, a Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences press release reported.
Psychopaths are often uncaring, irresponsible, insincere, overconfident, selfish, violent, and have narrow attention spans and shallow emotions. A common symptom is lack of empathy. Psychology Today reported.
The mental disorder affects about one percent of the population and 10 percent of male inmates, the press release stated.
A team of researchers wanted to find out if these symptoms were associated with brain regions that are typically activated when one "experiences emotions, feels sensations, or performs actions." The region also shows activity when watching others do the same.
A person's level of empathy depends on the level of activation in this "mirror neuron system."
The study scanned the brains of psychopaths, and a control group of people not suffering from psychopathy, while showing them videos of people touching hands in a "loving, dismissive, painful or neutral way."
The researchers played the videos again, this time they asked the participants to empathize with what they saw. In the final section of the trial the scientists actually performed hand interactions with the study subjects.
In the first part of the study the psychopaths showed less activation in the mirror neuron system than the rest of the participants. When asked to empathize with the images the people with psychopathy had very similar brain activity to the control group.
The team hopes to discover if psychopaths are able to switch their ability to feel empathy on and off, which would explain why they are often able to perform violent acts without remorse but still employ the art of seduction.
"The predominant notion had been that they are callous individuals, unable to feel emotions themselves and therefore unable to feel emotions in others. Our work shows it's not that simple. They don't lack empathy but they have a switch to turn it on and off. By default, it seems to be off," Christian Keysers of the University of Groningen and senior author of the study, said, the BBC reported.
The information could also improve psychopathy therapy. Instead of trying to develop the ability to empathize, therapists could work to "[mobilize] their existing capacities," according to the press release.