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New functional brain scan research on psychopathy reveals strikingly distinct patterns of activation among psychopathic prisoners in response to seeing other people in painful situations, suggesting a neural basis for their lack of empathy.
A lack of empathy is a signature trait of psychopaths— fascinating in fiction, inexplicable in reality. Now, a new study on psychopathic prisoners reveals strikingly different brain patterns that may limit their ability to emotionally respond to other people’s pain.
“This is the first time that neural processes associated with empathic processing have been directly examined in individuals with psychopathy, especially in response to the perception of other people in pain or distress,” said lead researcher Jean Decety, a psychology professor at the University of Chicago, in a news release.
While previous studies have found differences between the brain structure of psychopathic convicts and controls, this is the first to observe neural differences in how they respond to distressing situations.
Empathy is a basic and evolutionarily ancient instinct, wrote Decety’s team in the study, and sensitivity to the pain of others is one of the earliest forms of it to develop in young children. The neural circuit of empathy is believed to involve connections among outer regions of the brain like the insula, orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), and ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC), as well as inner regions like the brainstem, amygdala, and hypothalamus.
Psychopathy is a personality disorder in which people have a “callous disregard for others,” according to researchers, as well as high impulsivity and aggression. It is estimated to be present in about 1 percent of Americans, and up to 30 percent of the United States prison population.
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