Is compassion familiar to “people without hearts”?


They are not just people with difficult temperaments. In childhood, out of curiosity, they torture animals, manipulate relatives and friends, blackmail teachers. They learn early on how to use others for their own purposes and learn to imitate emotions in order to evoke the desired reactions in others.

Growing up, they become either dissolute adventurers or subtle manipulators (therefore, they often make a successful career in politics and business). Until now, it seemed that psychopaths cannot understand or even simply feel the experiences of other people. And without empathy, you cannot assess the harm from your actions, you cannot understand how much they can affect others.

Empathy is an innate ability to put oneself in the place of another, to understand what he feels, by facial expression, body position … Dogs, cats, monkeys and many other higher animals are capable of empathy.

This sensitivity is largely due to the action of neurons, called “mirror”. They are activated when we perform an action or see (imagine) how someone else is performing it.

We seem to “try on” the behavior of another person and thus understand it. We are talking about a whole system of connections, in which the insular lobe of the brain (part of the cerebral hemispheres) plays the most important role. So if psychopaths really don’t have empathy, this particular part of the brain will not be active.

The problem of psychopaths is not in the inability to perceive other people’s experiences, but in the fact that their nervous system lacks arousal

Testing this hypothesis, neuropsychologist Harma Meffert from the University of Groningen (Holland) refuted it and proved the opposite (1). Neurons in the corresponding areas of the brain are active, which means that heartless, cruel, asocial people are still capable of empathy.

But unlike most of us, the mechanism of impulse transmission is “jammed” in them, and the desired effect must be provoked artificially. In Harm Meffert’s experiment, participants with psychopathic personality disorder were shown short video clips in which hand movements expressed two different emotions.

In the first fragment, one hand stroked the other, in the second, it struck it with force. During the scan, the tomograph did not record activity in the areas of the brain associated with the manifestation of empathy. But when the experimenter directly asked the participants to describe (and imagine) how a person who is beaten on the hand feels, their brain activity became almost comparable to that observed in ordinary people.

The problem of psychopaths, according to Meffert, is not the impossibility of perceiving other people’s experiences, but the fact that their nervous system lacks arousal. Perhaps this is the clue of why sometimes the most inveterate criminals experience a sudden outburst of remorse and even do noble deeds (for example, saving young children at the cost of their lives).

1. Brain, 2013, vol. 136.

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