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.