New Study Speaks to the Zen of Psychopathy

Meshuggah's "Obzen" explored the zen of obscenity. Joachim Luetke

Buddhism tells us to seek detachment. In freeing ourselves from the world we free ourselves from the chains that bind us to the wheel of suffering. But the Buddha also taught the importance of compassion -- and doesn't empathy just bind us to the world anew? Should we be able to turn off our empathy at will to attain enlightenment?

I'll leave that quandary for the theologians, but a new study from the Netherlands seems to suggest that psychopaths might just have a leg up on the whole "empathy on, empathy off" deal.

Psychopaths & Reduced Empathy

Psychopaths demonstrate significantly reduced empathy with the feelings of others, supporting the theory that this deficit makes it easier for them to inflict pain on victims. Their mirror neurons are too out of whack for them to feel their victim's pain, making the most cold-blooded of homicides little more than a physical exercise.

It's a great theory, but getting psychopaths and fMRIs together in the same room for tests is easier said than done. But now the Social Brain Lab of the University Medical Center in Groningen has pulled it off -- and the results raise new questions about the empathic abilities of psychopaths.

The Experiment

The first round of tests worked out as expected: Psychopaths and non-psychopaths viewed scenes from a movie and, according to the brain scans, psychopaths engaged their brain's mirror system far less. No surprises there.

Then, in the second round, things got interesting: The researchers explicitly asked the psychopaths to empathize with the characters in the film and the differences in the brain scans basically vanished. In other words, the psychopaths' empathic abilities didn't kick in automatically but could be "turned on" by conscious will.

So does this mean psychopaths merely suffer from a reduced propensity to empathize? It certainly seems to shed more light on how psychopathic killers can "turn on the charm" to seduce their victims. It just means that the "mask of sanity" they assume is far more alive than you might think.

In a twisted way, they're all ready one step closer to enlightenment -- at least on the detachment front.

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.