What do you think when you hear “psychopath”? The cold calculated hitmen, like Anton Chigurh from no country for old men? Or the genius manaics, like Hannibal Lecter, from the Silence of the Lamb? While people like this are chararactures of truly frightening fictional characters, they can still exist in everyday life as seemingly normal people.
To understand these concepts we must know where they stem from.
Psychopaths stem from Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASPD), a mental health condition characterized by a general disregard for other people, showing no regard for right and wrong, ignoring the rights and feelings of others, while showing little to no remorse.
Somthing they seem to lack is the ability to empathize with others. Since childhood, humans have been taught by parents, teachers, and friends the difference between right and wrong. Most people have the ability to empathize.
With people that have ASPD, trying to relate to others is almost impossible feat, because of their lack of empathy, helping or hurting someone leaves them numb, feeling neither guilt or compassion.
Are they to blame for this trait?
In a study conducted in a medium-security prison, researchers studied 121 inmates, dividing them into highly psychopathic, moderately psychopathic and weakly psychopathic groups. They were all shown images depicting physical pain, and asked to imagine the accident happening to themselves, and then to someone else.
When someone highly psychopathic imagined the pain happening to themself, their brains lit up in the areas involved with empathy, showing that these individuals were sensitive when it came to thoughts of pain happening to them.
But when they were told to imagine the pain happening to others, the same areas failed to light up. In some, the ventral striatum, an area associated with pleasure, lit up.This shows that they don’t care about the wellbeing of others, to a point where they enjoy seeing others in pain.
Though this research shows that they lack empathy for others, there are other experiments that say otherwise.
A different group of researchers investigated the brain activity of psychopathic criminals in the Netherlands.
The subjects were shown a movie by the researchers. When shown for the first time, they exibited less empathy than mentally healthy individuals, showing little activity in areas of the brain that delt with emotional pain.
Researchers put a twist on the experiment. After the inmates watched it for the first time, the reserchers showed the movie to them again, but encourage them to try to empathize.
The brain started showing activity that people without psychopathy showed.
“They seem to have a switch they can turn on and off that turns their empathy on and off depending on the situation,” according to Keysers, one of the researchers, to livescience.
Ultimately, research shows psychopaths are shown to lack empathy when physical or emotional pain happens to others, some even enjoy watching it happen. When pain happens to them, they empathize.
But the most interesting of all is the ability to turn on emotion at will, feeling empathy when they try, or when instructed to.
This is a turning point in what we know about the minds of psychopaths, and possbily everyone else who has ASPD.
Keysers, Christian. “Inside the Mind of a Psychopath – Empathic, But Not Always.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 24 July 2013, www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-empathic-brain/201307/inside-the-mind-psychopath-empathic-not-always.
“Antisocial Personality Disorder.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 4 Aug. 2017, www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/antisocial-personality-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20353928.
Lewis, Tanya. “Blame the Brain: Why Psychopaths Lack Empathy.” LiveScience, Purch, 24 Sept. 2013, www.livescience.com/39904-why-psychopaths-lack-empathy.html.
Lewis, Tanya. “Coldhearted Psychopaths Feel Empathy Too.” LiveScience, Purch, 24 July 2013, www.livescience.com/38421-psychopaths-feel-empathy-when-they-try.html.
Image from Sun Gazing