New Study Peeks Inside the Psychopathic Brain

How does the psychopath relate to the world beyond self? iStock

Whether you get your information from slash films or abnormal psychology texts, you probably know the skinny on psychopaths. Their brains are different than (presumably) yours and mine. While we can't help but feel a portion of the pain we inflict on others, the psychopath is immune to this sympathetic backwash of feeling.

Treatment for psychopathy continues to be a gray area of study, so the research continues. The latest findings, published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, offer a little more insight into the neurology of the condition -- as well as a little hope.

In this study, a team of neuroscientists conducted fMRI scans on the brains of 121 medium-security prison inmates during the viewing of painful visual stimuli: stubbed toes, smashed fingers -- that sort of easily relatable "ouch." The researchers asked the subjects to imagine the pain happening to themselves as well as others.

The results? When highly psychopathic subjects imagined the pain happening to themselves, brain regions involved in empathy for pain lit up like normal. But when the imagined the pain inflicted on others, the same regions failed to activate. This drives home the notion covered in a previous blog entry: all the equipment is there for empathy, it's just not "on" by default. But it didn't stop there. The psychopaths also showed an increased activity in the ventral striatum, a known pleasure center, when imaging others' pain.

That all sounds fairly grim, I know, but the study suggests that further study in this area may lead to improved cognitive-behavioral therapies for psychopathic individuals, such as kick-starting techniques where the patient imagines their own pain when considering the suffering of others. Think of it as a conscious exercise to move the muscles of empathy that come so naturally to the rest of us.

About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.