Last year I posted on psychopathy and moral sentiment. This week Cosmos magazine reports that researchers from the Netherlands have determined that psychopaths can 'turn on' empathy on demand. In short, a study was structured that measured psychopath's empathy for others (not explained how) and then the subjects were told that the study was designed to measure empathy. After which a surprising thing happened. Their empathy 'normalized'.
Hmm. We'll have to wait for the next issue of Neuron to see the methodology of the study, but the subject is worth exploring a bit. The article defines empathy thusly:
We activate our own actions, senses and emotions when we witness them in someone else. This empathy doesn’t actually help us feel what others are feeling...our empathy is actually just a projection of how we would feel in those situations.
This activation apparently takes place at the neurophysiological level. When we see people doing something, our brain fires as if we were doing the same action. (This is true of other primates). Now, in order that we not simply be over stimulated by what is happening around us, we have a mechanism that suppresses the neurological empathy reaction in most circumstances. We don't want to be mirroring everyone else when we have our own stuff do.
To be clear, this is not a conscious decision or reaction, it operates automatically at the level of brain chemistry. And brain chemistry, we are finding, is in large part determined by a number of environmental factors. In the previous post, I explored the idea of whether - if moral sentiment is determined by brain chemistry and brain chemistry is determined by environment - someone lacking moral sentiment (psychopath) could be held accountable for their actions. They are programmed to be that way, so to speak and so may not be considered morally responsible.
This research seems to show that psychopaths don't lack empathy, rather that it is just abnormally suppressed. The suppression mechanism that helps regulate the response in normal people to allow them to function is 'over active' in psychopaths. When triggered by being told that they were being studied for empathy, the psychopaths were apparently able to turn it back on or check into the feeling somehow.
If true, this seems to add an Inception like layer to the debate about moral accountability. If certain individuals are determined by their environment to have a brain chemistry that basically makes them indifferent to empathetic responses and yet can overcome that when prompted, then the question becomes whether there is awareness and what exactly the mechanism to 'turn it back on' is. Perhaps some individuals are capable, others not. If that mechanism is itself determined by brain chemistry, then we have the beginnings of the regress. The first turtle, if you will.
the science of mirror neurons is much debated in the field but it will be interesting to watch and see if our folk wisdoms (and our legal systems) adjust to keep pace with the scientific developments, there are some intriguing but troubling trends for instance in relation to courts and addiction models (tho how science-based they are or are not is often a concern).
The better question is why we should value one set of chemical processes occurring in the brain over another. Maybe it is otherwise “normal” people who are lacking something that psychopaths have, they simply need to have their psychopathy turned back on correctly.
Wayne Schroeder says
Trauma therapists (i.e. Francine Shapiro, EMDR) are finding that their therapy for the victims of psychopaths, is working for the perpetrators as well. She has said that “if we do not treat more perpetrators we will have more victims.” Such therapy turns empathy back on since it has been turned off by their own trauma. Psychopaths have a disorganized attatchment disorder which results in over 90% violating social norms and becoming involved with the legal/prison system. Moral responsibility is not a category capable of dealing with the geneology of psychopaths.
Too bad for us then because this is also the concession that we’re locking them away senselessly and therefore humanity in general is incapable of acting rationally, there is no distinction to be made regarding psychopathy and the norm. Living in the United States, to me it is our legal/prison system itself that is clearly the violation of social norms which needs to come to an end. If we can not properly deal with the presence of psychopathy among the population then we need to restructure our society to accommodate that kind of person. Probably not making the suggestion that we lock them up for thought crime would be a good start.
Wayne Schroeder says
Ryan, you are falsely assuming that a category other than moral responsibility would imply no responsibility at all.
I’m sorry but I don’t know what else you could possibly be referring to. I don’t find my observance of the law to be a responsibility in any sense of the word, it is only a fiscal cost-benefit calculation. If it were more profitable to be locked up you can guess where I would be. Funnily enough, for many people here it is in fact better to get locked up in a mental house or a prison, rather than to be out on the streets helpless. Of course that doesn’t create the best situation for people like you who are petrified of crime being committed by the “mentally ill”.
Wayne Schroeder says
Ryan, I just noticed your last post due to dean’s post (below). What I was referring to about moral responsibility not being a category capable of dealing with the geneology of psychopaths is that psychotherapy (the proper category) is not a moralizing process, and not irresponsibility.
Just put it all out in the open and let all of us make our own choice. Isn’t this what we are supposed to do? One of the above posters is clearly angry about having to hide his psychopathy. So let’s stop making them hide it. Let’s tell everyone the truth about psychopathy. That it’s genetic, chromosomal, and that there is nothing “wrong” with them but that it is their very nature to be what they are. But let’s ensure that we give EVERYONE the heads up so that each person entering into any type of relationship whether it be romantic, business, school etc., knows that if someone is a psychopath, no matter the personsality displayed, that their brains don’t process the emotions of love, guilt, shame, gratefulness etc., that non-psychopaths do. And also let them know that psychopaths NEED stimulation and they will get this in all manner of ways and that they must always be against at least one person, or govenrment etc. That greed seems to be the predominant emotion felt by them, but each psychopath, like each non-psychopath, is unique, so it may not be greed but jealousy, hatred, contempt etc. So true peace will never be found in their presence for any length of time. Let’s just put it out there, all of it, and let us all CHOOSE based on the truth rather than whatever the latest crap cooked up and dished out by the psychology field, in order to AVOID admitting that there are millions, perhaps BILLIONS, of psychopaths. That most psychopaths have been deliberately or mistakenly mis-diagnosed with other personality disorders in order to keep the non-psychopaths and psychopaths from truly getting help or getting out. I think we underestimate people. I think even with TRUTHFUL information, psychopaths would still have plenty of prey. Some may even CHOOSE to be with a psychopath for any number of reasons.
MRI’s that check for psychopathy should be standard practice for any job, bank loan, college entrance, court case and part of the pre-marital checklist. Both the non-psychopath and the psychopath should be made aware of the differences in brain functioning of the other, and how this could affect them and the success of their relationship. And there could even be dating services that do this to help others choose their perfect partner. The genetics aspect needs to be addressed as well. That this is a trait passed down so there are entire families full of this and that even two non-psychopaths can end up with a psychopathic child. And here again, we need true information and testing so that non-psychopathic parents can make true decisions on how to care for their psychopathic child so as not to place unrealistic expectations on them. It’s cruel when we do this to other people with chromosomal differences such as Down’s Syndrome, and it’s also cruel to the non-psychopaths by not giving them a way to defend themselves. The “Blank Slate” theory has been proven to be completely wrong, (Dr. Robert Hare addresses this in an interview with NPR) yet we still seem to be pushing it. So I agree with Ryan, let’s stop making them hide. Let’s instead educate everyone and let it be taught from the earliest grades in school so that we don’t spend endless years running in circles pretending we are all the same. DNA shows that we are all unique. But keep in mind, psychopaths don’t think anyone else truly exists except as some sort of being to somehow manipulate. And as a last resort you may wish to check out the Bible as there is a perfect “checklist” to identify and explain the traits of a psychopath and it also gives a suggestion on how to respond to them. 2 Tim 3:1-5. Ryan, you sound so REASONALBE and one Bible commentator stated that this is an inherent trait of the Devil. He uses the example of when the serpant is talking to Eve. He is SO VERY REASONABLE.
Dean, I agree with much that you say.
Ryan, we must agree to differ.
I have come to the opinion that the issue of empathy as a key component of human nature is one of the main ‘sleeper’ issues of the modern era. Consistently dysfunctional situations that arise because empathy is not involved in important decisions involving interpersonal and inter-communal relationships and policies and strategies of corporate entities. This has always been the case for humans, ever since the advent of versatile language [100K years or more BP].
As I see it, empathy and communication constitute the essence of human nature, pretty much that anyway. From what I have read here and there I take it that about 99% of men and a greater percentage of women are born with the capability to experience empathy, so long as the capacity of the infant to do so is not thwarted by some form of abuse. I take this pervasive inheritance to be primafaci evidence that being human requires the ability to empathise. In other words the ability to empathise is easily as important as the ability to see in colour. I think the analogy with colour vision is quite effective for showing some of the seriously practical aspects of the issue.
For example, non empathic people are not going to be able to make good decisions about the care and welbeing of others, not without assistance anyway, and certainly non empathic people should not be allowed to be in charge of large social organisations. I liken this to the craft of driving passenger trains, or flying passenger transport aircraft, in that we do not want a person who cannot distinguish between red and green signals to be in the driving seat of such a machine when the very lives of all the passengers depend on a driver readily distinguishing those colours.
I am not sure what the experimental situations described in the main article really involved, so I am a bit sceptical of the idea of somebody just ‘turning on their empathy’. I can relate to the circumstance of people – young men especially – growing up in a dysfunctional family situation where interpersonal relationships were more or less ruined by sibling strife and contradictory and perverse parenting. My family was a fair bit like that, but no where near as bad as some I have seen or heard about. After many years of dismal confusion and false consciousness I have been able [or ‘lucky enough’] to come to understand my situation and that of my siblings, and indeed of much of the world in general. I was lucky to meet people who could explain some things to me and in particular, at different times, a few people who clearly must have had real insight.
There is a deep nitty gritty to this though: evil is what happens as when and to the extent that a person is treated as if he or she is a mere thing instead of as another person ultimately equal in value to the abuser. I defy anybody to find fault with that assertion! So the clear imperative is:
Do not treat people as if they are things; whether you like it or not they are of equal value and importance to you and me as we are to ourselves.
Notso Slim says
The last part of your post, “There is a deep nitty gritty to this though: evil is what happens as when and to the extent that a person is treated as if he or she is a mere thing instead of as another person ultimately equal in value to the abuser. I defy anybody to find fault with that assertion! So the clear imperative is:Do not treat people as if they are things; whether you like it or not they are of equal value and importance to you and me as we are to ourselves.”
Here’s a response to it. It’s from an article titled, “No Sympathy for Psychopaths,”
By Lindsay Beyerstein. Check it, “The best we can do is dispassion regarding psychopaths, rather than compassion. We should understand that some people are inherently predatory and know that we should be on our guard against them.
Social shunning is the worst thing we can do to someone with a mental or developmental disability. Even from a purely self-interested perspective, we should embrace people with other mental problems because our acceptance makes them more functional and less dangerous. (If indeed they were ever a threat, which the vast majority weren’t.) Ironically, neglect and ostracism can make people who were never dangerous to begin with into threats.
With psychopaths, it’s almost the reverse. Our acceptance makes them more dangerous because they have more opportunities to prey upon us. Our “treatments” just make them better psychopaths. The best we can do in a free society is to recognize psychopaths and warn each other about them.
Psychopaths are always with us. We should feel sorry for ourselves that we have to put up with them, and sorry for all their victims including their parents, but not sorry for the psychopaths themselves.”
Wayne Schroeder says
I think the way around this false opposite of either having compassion for psychopaths (as if this term is defined) or not, is what society has done for Charles Manson who is technically diagnosed as both schizophrenic and criminal, is that he is locked up from harming society, and thus you can now safely have compassion for his condition, not his potential or past behaviors.
Your argument that ‘Our acceptance makes them more dangerous because they have more opportunities to prey upon us. Our “treatments” just make them better psychopaths,’ is not only defective on its premise, but offensive to the individuals, and their families, who suffer from empathy disorders. But even putting aside the political context, your comment is unsubstantiated from a purely clinical sense; ALL the professional literature (just try to find otherwise) on the topic suggests that extending active compassion to those people with neurobiologically ingrained empathy deficits (or just about any other mental illness for that matter) is a core component to their treatment and acculturation into productive society. I implore you recognize the prejudice and baselessness to your comment and to reevaluate your worldview into something more appropriate to an inclusive and tolerant society.
Moderator, when I edited my comment just before, and added in my facebook URL, your system knocked off my name ‘Mark’ and replaced it with “undefined” without my noticing it.
I may be a bit vague around the edges and in need of more physical exercise, but your system is telling a fib!
Wayne Schroeder says
Regarding the posted study, I can’t imagine the nature of empathy which can only be replicated in a research environment, but not elsewhere. This just sounds like more of the psychopath’s ability to be a chameleon for the purposes of exploitation.
I also disagree that “We activate our own actions, senses and emotions when we witness them in someone else. This empathy doesn’t actually help us feel what others are feeling…our empathy is actually just a projection of how we would feel in those situations.” This is an analogical perspective of emotion which we would all feel to be abnormal (psychopathic? Schizoid?) if this were actually how we relate to one another.
The mirror neurons (not controversial at all with established neuroscientists) which connects perceptual and motor centers of the brain at an automatic level are activated for example when someone in front and facing us raises their right hand, our own right hand motor neurons fire (although our right hand may not actually move to mirror the other’s). This physiological reaction plays a part in empathy, is not the main foundation.
More importantly is the bonding of the infant to the mother, resulting in secure attachment=empathy, or less than secure attachment=less empathy (anxious seeking, anxious avoiding attachment styles) or disorganized attachment=no empathy, characteristic of psychopaths. (See John Bowlby/ Mary Main)
Empathy being abnormally suppressed in psychopaths would be a major understatement. Their condition is not the result of some mystical neurology, but of failure of proper attachment.
Attachment has been shown to be determined by the mother not the child, since the infant can have a secure attachment with the father while having an insecure attachment with the mother (and other indicators). If you want to raise a psychopath, just practice the “blank face” stare (present in the literature) if you are the primary caretaker. I think we are safe from turtles.