26 January 2011

Psychopathy, brain damage and empathy

People diagnosed as psychopathic have difficulty showing empathy, just like patients who have suffered frontal head injury.


People diagnosed as being psychopathic have difficulty showing empathy, just like patients who have suffered frontal head injury.

This has been shown in a new study from the University of Haifa. “Our findings show that people who have psychopathic symptoms behave as though they are suffering frontal brain damage,” said Dr Simone Shamay-Tsoory, who conducted the study.

Psychopathy is a personality disorder that finds expression in extreme anti-social behaviour and intentional harm to others, including a lack of compassion and empathy. An existing explanation for such behaviour suggests inability to comprehend the existence of emotions in others.

However, the fact that many psychopaths act with sophistication and deceit with intention to harm others, indicates that they actually have a good grasp of the mental capacity of others - and are even capable of using that knowledge in order to cause them harm.

Research on psychopaths

Earlier research by Dr Shamay-Tsoory has examined individuals with frontal head injury, i.e., damage to parts of the brain that are responsible for emotional functioning. She has shown that people suffering this type of brain damage have difficulty showing empathy. Having observed similar emotional deficiency in psychopathic behaviour, she set out to see if there is in fact a similarity between the two cases.

The current study assessed 17 people who had been diagnosed by psychiatrists as psychotic - and not suffering from any known brain damage; and another 25 individuals suffering frontal lobe injury.

Each of the participants underwent a computerised test examining cognitive ability to recognise feelings in another and the ability to demonstrate empathy for another’s emotions.

They were also tested to gage their capacity to understand another’s thoughts. The results of these tests showed that both groups demonstrated a similar difficulty in showing empathy, while two control groups of individuals with no known mental disorders or brain damage and individuals with non-frontal brain damage both showed different results with positive empathy capabilities.

“Seeing as psychopathic behaviour is similar to that of a person with brain damage, it could be that it could benefit from similar forms of treatment,” Dr Shamay-Tsoory noted.(EurekAlert/ January 2011)

Read more:
Famous serial killers
The mind of a monster 
The makings of a psychopath 
Understanding psychopaths



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