Why do psychopaths stare so carefully

Switch for compassion

When the famous Hollywood psychopath Hannibal Lecter torments people on screen, the average viewer tenses up in the cinema because we instinctively empathize with the victim. Not so the psychopath himself: A fellow human being in need, someone else's pain, his own guilt - all of this leaves him indifferent and makes him a threat to society. However, Dutch researchers have now shown through brain scans that psychopaths do not in principle lack the brain functions that are necessary for the ability to empathize: When asked to consciously empathize with victims, their brain shows normal reactions of compassion - so empathy just does not arise spontaneously.

Researchers have been tracking down the causes of psychopathy for some time because it is not just a single creepy phenomenon. It is estimated that around one percent of people are psychopathic. Their threatening character is by no means always superficial, on the contrary: Psychopaths often even appear extremely charming and charismatic to their fellow human beings. They hide their cold feelings, enter into relationships, adapt to social norms and thus lead a largely inconspicuous life. Nevertheless, psychopathy is clearly reflected in the crime statistics: According to studies, 20 to 30 percent of prisoners in US prisons are psychopaths. So you are responsible for a disproportionately high proportion of crime and violence in society.

Previous studies of the brain functions of psychopaths had shown that they do not react to pathetic scenes with the typical brain activity that is associated with empathy in normal people. In principle, the current results of the researchers led by Christian Keysers from the University Medical Center Groningen also confirm this phenomenon. But the previous assumption that psychopaths simply lack the brain function for empathy is wrong, their studies also suggest.

Look into the psychopath's brain

The researchers conducted the study on 18 subjects who had previously been diagnosed with psychopathy. These were Dutch prison inmates who were allowed to undertake a strictly secured “trip” to the Social Brain Lab of the University Medical Center Groningen for the study. There they were shown video films while a brain scanner recorded their brain activity. For comparison, the researchers used a control group made up of subjects without psychopathic predisposition. All participants saw short video clips of two people interacting with each other, with the focus on their hands. The film clips showed different types of touch: loving, painful or neutral.

In normal people, a kind of mirror system ensures that we empathize with what happens to our fellow human beings. The images of the brain scanner also clearly documented this in the subjects of the control group: Their pain centers in the brain were activated when they observed the painful interactions. This was not the case with the psychopaths: The sight of twisted hands did not trigger a pattern in their brain that corresponds to an empathic "ouch".

However, the researchers then asked the psychopathically inclined test participants to consciously put themselves in the shoes of the victim of the video clip. Lo and behold: the images from the brain scanner now showed brain activity that corresponds to that of normal people with pain empathy. The mirror system is not broken or missing in psychopaths, it is just not activated spontaneously, the scientists conclude.

According to the researchers, the reduced spontaneous empathy combined with the ability to be able to consciously activate it is possibly a fatal combination: It allows psychopaths to be pitiless when they harm their victims, but they can put themselves in their shoes beforehand in order to harm them seduce The scientists emphasize that it has yet to be clarified whether they actually use this system consciously. On the other hand, the fundamentally existing ability to empathy could possibly be used in the context of therapies: One should now test therapy approaches that aim at psychopaths automatically activating the existing capacity, say Christian Keysers and his colleagues.

(University Medical Center Groningen, July 25, 2013 - MVI)

July 25, 2013