Psychopaths Have Empathy Switch

a-clockwork-orange-1971Apparently psychopaths can empathize with other people, they just don’t as a general rule.

Psychopaths do not lack empathy, rather they can switch it on at will, according to new research.

Placed in a brain scanner, psychopathic criminals watched videos of one person hurting another and were asked to empathise with the individual in pain.

Only when asked to imagine how the pain receiver felt did the area of the brain related to pain light up.

Scientists, reporting in Brain, say their research explains how psychopaths can be both callous and charming.

The team proposes that with the right training, it could be possible to help psychopaths activate their “empathy switch”, which could bring them a step closer to rehabilitation.

Keep reading.

19 Comments on "Psychopaths Have Empathy Switch"

  1. Anarchy Pony | Jul 26, 2013 at 4:06 pm |

    I have an empathy switch, it’s generally in the on position. But significant anger triggers an auto shutdown.

  2. Ted Heistman | Jul 26, 2013 at 6:03 pm |

    I am still skeptical of this “disorder” like ADHD its basically a laundry list of traits. Like for example, “shallow charm”. What is deep charm? Isn’t charm inherently shallow? Getting your way through charm is basically manipulation. Is it it really pathological because its not deep? Normal people are deeply charming but psychopaths are shallow with the charm? OK. Most of the things on the list are all symptoms related to various aspects of the criminal justice system. It almost like its a disorder only convicts can have. Basically anyone how has never been convicted of a crime can’t be diagnosed. These factors wouyld not apply:

    Juvenile delinquency

    Early behavior problems

    Revocation of conditional release

    Criminal versatility

    So that is very odd. I mean what is the neurological pathway for violating probation? Is there like an “obeying probation gene” and then some how psychopaths have a mutation? Its convoluted.

    Like ADD/.ADHD though, I think, even though its mostly b.s. it might have some basis in terms of evolutionary psychology. There has been recent evolution since the dawn of agriculture in terms of digesting milk and so forth, but for the most part for over 85% at least of our evolutionary history, and more for some groups of people like eskimos etc. Human beings were hunter gatherers.

    That means people lived in small groups or bands and people outside the band were enemies, so there was constant low level warfare. By virtue of being born male, you were a warrior and required to fight. So you would have to be able to kill the warriors in the neighboring enemy tribe. This is still the case in parts of Papua New Guinea/Indonesia and also the Amazon in tribes such as the Yanomamo. So having lots of empathy that you are unable to shut off, would be a liability.

    So since the development of Agriculture and Social Stratification, division of labor and the birth of states, violence is monopolized by the State. I think this corresponds to a certain domesticating effect on human beings.

    But this level of domestication doesn’t go very deep and I think people often reject mass society revert to the wild behavior of living in little bands where all the men are warriors and that is why we have criminal gangs.

    So its natural behavior. Its not a disease. So maybe, you might argue further domestication of humanity is a worthy goal, but I don’t think the case can be made that a propensity for instrumental violence is a disease. Because its an evolutionary adaption.

    Personally I am kind of torn on it. I mean I am very sympathetic to the Native Americans and their way of life, but there was lots of warfare between nations and tribes. You couldn’t just walk around freely without having to carry a weapon. You had to be always ready to fight. This is the way it is in parts of New Guinea to this day.

    • Joel Tattooing | Jul 27, 2013 at 7:03 am |

      There are a few things in your argument I think you should look into before feeling to certain about the theory of constant prehistoric warfare.

      Papua New Guniea was among the first places in the world to start using agriculture, the people there have not lived as hunter gatherers for thousands of years and there is really no data on how they lived before the advent of agriculture, plus it is an isolated Island which is in no way representative for the way most human groups lived, open enormous spaces were more the rule.

      Second is the Yanomamo who were studied long after they had first been in contact with modern man. They allready had modern weapons and metal boats by that time. The studies depicting them as a warrior people have been very criticized.

      Not saying war was not a part of life, just that it was probably not the rule. Most conflicts were likely solved by diplomatic means, payment for someone accidentally killed rather than blood revenge for example, exchange of women, annual meetings with games (often warlike and dangerous) and trading.

      • Ted Heistman | Jul 27, 2013 at 7:16 am |

        How far back do you want to go? Chimps fight each other in territorial disputes.

        Maybe these chimps need psychotherapy.

        I will say though that hunter gathers were probably less war like than primitive horticulturalists, probably, mainly because they had smaller numbers. For some reason as hominids lost our big canines, but then we constructed knives and spears and projectiles. So there have probably been cycles.

        Over all humanity is becoming less violent, because of States monopolizing violence and criminalizing it to non-soldiers/police.

        • Calypso_1 | Jul 27, 2013 at 11:06 am |

          Wild chimps show signs of PTSD and depression post territorial & interpersonal violence.

          Animals do have therapy – licking their wounds, grooming.

          Just as our constructed weapons are an extension of natural physical adaptations to neuroendocrine fight-or-flight, so our treatment modalities an extension of tend-and-mend.

          • Ted Heistman | Jul 27, 2013 at 11:11 am |

            So you are saying psychopathy is acquired rather than a “genetic disorder” ?

          • Calypso_1 | Jul 27, 2013 at 11:20 am |

            I said nothing pertaining to those concepts.
            If it interests you, perhaps you should look into how genes can be acquired.

          • Ted Heistman | Jul 27, 2013 at 11:24 am |

            Do chimps aggress due to a genetic disorder?

          • Calypso_1 | Jul 27, 2013 at 11:31 am |

            As part of general behavior, no & neither do humans.

            Can genetic mutations (in any species) that result in sub/dysfunctional biochemical mechanisms result in behavior that is aberrant to species norms & confer little or no long-term competitive advantage to the organism & no advantage to the species?


          • Ted Heistman | Jul 27, 2013 at 11:48 am |

            What would be an advantage? Are we talking about wild animals or factory farmed chickens? Lots of things that confer an advantage to a red jungle fowl, make life in a 6 inch diameter cage really tough. Basically a machine like process of domestication is weeding out wild characteristics.

            In a similar vein a certain number of outlaws, I think are required for the genetic health of humanity, for when this project of civilization runs its course, and everyone needs to revert back to older forms of organization.

            Groups of “psychopathic” outlaws such as pirates, vikings, mongol, huns have been very influential throughout history. Everyone is not going to be a well behaved peasant.

            And if outlaws end up dead or in jail, that’s life also. I am just skeptical that violent con artists have some weird disease that has suddenly cropped up in the gene pool somehow. I also think there is free will and choice involved too and not simply strict genetic determinism. I think a person choosing to join a criminal gang will have a different outcome than a person who decides to do something else more conventional and hopefully more positive.

            It takes all kinds to make the world go around.

    • Joel Tattooing | Jul 27, 2013 at 7:06 am |

      Another interesting thing is that very violent males among primates are often the genetic loosers. They die young, often before breeding. The same should be true of humans. So among us evolution has probably favored the diplomatic, clearly it has not eradicated the brutal though.

    • Jeremy Strain | Jul 30, 2013 at 7:36 am |

      ADHD is a proven biological problem, it isn’t mere psychology.

  3. Hadrian999 | Jul 26, 2013 at 8:11 pm |

    teaching people how to turn off empathy would get a lot more funding

  4. In order to remain adaptable to changing conditions we need genetic diversity. That diversity will produce extremes. A portion of humanity will have little or no concern for the welfare of others. Another portion will have little or no concern for the welfare of themselves. A majority will have a reasonable, workable balance of concern for self and other that allows a society to exist, but even that majority will form into groups that dehumanize other groups.

    Anarchy Pony notes the obvious… Strong emotion can overpower rational thought, empathy, social conditioning, even the will to survive.

    In some cases we admire this. In other cases we deplore it. Somebody who hacks off another person’s head might be called a hero by some and a monster by others.

    I do not wish to lose the ability to become enraged and defend myself with courage. Neither do I wish to become an asshole bully.

    What a mess.

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