Author Topic: Psychopaths have an "empathy switch"?  (Read 757 times)

Offline Ant22

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Psychopaths have an "empathy switch"?
« on: January 29, 2017, 04:36:36 PM »
I’ve come across numerous attempts to downplay the impact of psychopathy on individual lives as well as the society as a whole, from describing it as a personality trait to trying to help psychopaths be more like us.

The below research talks about a discovery made in 2013 that psychopaths have an empathy switch that can be turned 'on' at will, with it's default setting being 'off'. In the study quoted below psychopathic individuals were asked to empathize with people in videos they watched and the MRI scan showed activity in the parts of the brain responsible for an empathetic reaction in non-psychopathic individuals.

It's the other way round with non-psychopathic individuals, whose default setting for empathy is 'on'. It can be turned off in certain situations, for example if we are being chased by someone with a knife and they fall and hurt themselves our empathetic response will be off. We wouldn’t empathize with this person and go back to see if they're OK.

In the light of what I've read so far about psychopathy, the approach described in the article below, that there is a "bleak prospect" of "devising therapeutic interventions" that would encourage psychopaths to "turn empathy 'on' more automatically" is naive, to say the least. With such perception of the issue in the world of science, no wonder people who struggle with psychopaths at work and in their personal lives are left to fight rather a lonely battle. 

_http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-23431793

Quote
Psychopaths do not lack empathy, rather they can switch it on at will, according to new research. Placed in a brain scanner, psychopathic criminals watched videos of one person hurting another and were asked to empathise with the individual in pain.

Only when asked to imagine how the pain receiver felt did the area of the brain related to pain light up. Scientists, reporting in Brain, say their research explains how psychopaths can be both callous and charming. The team proposes that with the right training, it could be possible to help psychopaths activate their "empathy switch", which could bring them a step closer to rehabilitation.

Mirror neurons
The ability to empathise with others - to put yourself in someone else's shoes - is crucial to social development in order to respond appropriately in everyday situations.

Criminals with psychopathy characteristically show a reduced ability to empathise with others, including their victims. Evidence suggests they are also more likely to reoffend upon release than criminals without the psychiatric condition.

Psychopathy is a personality disorder characterised by superficial charm, pathological lying and a diminished capacity for remorse. Now scientists have found that only when asked to empathise did the criminals' empathy reaction, also known as the mirror system, fire up the same way as it did for the controls. Without instruction, they show reduced activity in the regions of the brain associated with pain.
This mirror system refers to the mirror neurons in our brain which are known to activate when we watch someone do a task and when we do it ourselves. They are thought to play a vital role in the ability to empathise with others.

'Bleak prospect'
Christian Keysers from the University of Groningen, the Netherlands, and senior author of the study, said it could change the way psychopathic criminals were viewed.

"The predominant notion had been that they are callous individuals, unable to feel emotions themselves and therefore unable to feel emotions in others.

"Our work shows it's not that simple. They don't lack empathy but they have a switch to turn it on and off. By default, it seems to be off."
The fact that they have the capacity to switch empathy on, at least under certain conditions, could have a positive side to it, Prof Keysers said.

"The notion psychopaths have no empathy at all was a bleak prospect. It would make it very hard for them to have normal moral development.
"Now that we've shown they have empathy - even if only in certain conditions - we can give therapists something to work with," Prof Keysers told BBC News.

Brain activation in individuals with psychopathy was greater when asked to imagine pain (foreground)

But he explained that it was not yet known how this wilful capacity for empathy could be transformed into the spontaneous empathy most of us have.

Million-dollar question
Essi Viding from University College London, who was not involved with the study, said it was an extremely interesting finding, but that it remained unclear whether the psychopathic criminals' experience of empathy felt the same as that of the controls.
"It's dangerous to look at brain activation and say that it means they're empathising. They are able to generate a typical neural response, but that doesn't mean they have the same empathetic experience," Prof Viding told BBC News.

"We know they can generate the same response but they do that in an active and effortful way. Under free-viewing conditions they don't seem to. Just because they can empathise, doesn't mean they will.
"Psychopathic criminals are clearly different. The million-dollar question is whether we can devise therapeutic interventions that would shift them do this more automatically."

Randall Salekin, from the University of Alabama, US, who works with youth offenders said: "These findings fit with much of the treatment I am doing using a mental model program, whereby youth are informed about how the brain works and then asked to make specific plans for improving their lives.
"This study is impressive because it actually shows the brain mechanisms or neural networks involved in activating the inmates' empathy."

I’m not an expert on the issue but my take on this is that even if the findings do prove psychopaths have an 'empathy switch' that can be turned on at will, it simply makes them even better manipulators. It's one thing to pretend a feeling one has no concept of. But having first hand experience of that feeling enables the psychopath to use that experience to push the right buttons for manipulative purposes more effectively. What’s more, it may also make psychopaths even tougher to spot.

Here's also a link to an article by the University of of Groningen in the Netherlands, where the senior author works:

_http://www.rug.nl/news/2013/08/0725umcg-psychopaten-met-aangeleerde-empathie?lang=en

The information provided is similar to the article above and they also indicated the study opens the door for more effective therapy:

Quote
There are two sides to these findings. On the one hand, the combination of capacity and suppressed activation could be the ‘cocktail’ that enables psychopaths to be ruthless when causing their victims harm or grief, and sly when practising the art of seduction. Further research is needed to find out whether people with a psychopathic disorder are capable of switching their empathic faculties on and off, depending on the social situation in which they find themselves. On the other hand, the findings could be an important new lead for therapists working with psychopaths. Rather than trying to develop their patients’ capacity for empathy, the emphasis could be shifted to consciously mobilising their existing capacities. The researchers are stressing the need for more research before the results can be used to develop new therapies
"If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, Infinite.
For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro' narrow chinks of his cavern."

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Offline CNS

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Re: Psychopaths have an "empathy switch"?
« Reply #1 on: January 29, 2017, 05:15:02 PM »
Hi Ant22,

I appreciate your synopsis on these articles.  I believe you were perspicacious while reading through the BS.  These types of articles tend to perpetuate the myth that psychopaths aren't that different from you and me, when in reality, there is a world of difference.  I tend to think that they just have the ability to 'fake' empathy, and that is why their mirror neurons flare during the MRI.  But even if they can empathize, I think you're right, it just makes them better manipulators.  If it is true, they probably use this function as bait or a lure technique.   During their machinations, while seducing their victims, they want to appear as human as possible, and generally try to use their victim's empathy against them.  So yeah, they probably have the ability to mimic.  That makes sense.  But as for being able to 'save' them...IDK...I seriously doubt it.

Online BrenXHkm

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Re: Psychopaths have an "empathy switch"?
« Reply #2 on: January 30, 2017, 12:40:06 AM »
Quote
I’m not an expert on the issue but my take on this is that even if the findings do prove psychopaths have an 'empathy switch' that can be turned on at will, it simply makes them even better manipulators. It's one thing to pretend a feeling one has no concept of. But having first hand experience of that feeling enables the psychopath to use that experience to push the right buttons for manipulative purposes more effectively. What’s more, it may also make psychopaths even tougher to spot.

I agree with you, the whole post remind me about the OP's and their behavior. Maybe they are pretending that they feel empathy? I have the theory that If a person is subjected to a lie detector machine, one of those who measure the physiological responses and if the person really gets into the character and does not think about "I have to pretend" and only does it without more could get to pass the lie detector. The person must "act" and take that lie as real and own, if he achieves this his physiological responses could be genuine, but this is only a theory that I have. I think this could also happen with psycopaths but it is easier because they are used to lie and pretend to feel something for others, maybe they are just pretending without the thought "I have to pretend that...", they just do it and this generates activity in the part of the brain responsible for empathetic reactions. It seems like this "empathy switch" is nothing more than a program that makes even harder to identify a psycopath and makes them act or seem "normal".

Offline Flashgordonv

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Re: Psychopaths have an "empathy switch"?
« Reply #3 on: January 30, 2017, 01:45:37 AM »


I agree that it is highly unlikely that psychopaths have an ON/OFF switch for empathy.  In reality though, if that is the case it makes them even more reprehensible.  It's one thing for somebody to be born a psychopath without the ability to empathise.  Their actions are a natural result of their lack of empathy, they are apex predators and we need to be extremely wary of them, as of any predator.

If on the other hand they are able to turn it on and off, that makes them reprehensible immoral monsters - it means they physically decide to stop empathising - in my opinion a far worse situation than somebody who is not capable of empathy.  Frankly the article opinion that this is a positive is so far from reality as to be complete delusion.  It means the monster is worse than we ever believed.

"When the truth is replaced by silence, the silence is a lie."  Soviet dissident Yevtushenko

Offline Ant22

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Re: Psychopaths have an "empathy switch"?
« Reply #4 on: January 30, 2017, 10:39:11 PM »
Thank you for your replies and feedback guys. I guess the post merely demonstrates the extent to which the subject of psychopathy is played down and twisted. I work in a HR related profession and such disinformation is quite a popular take on psychopaths. It just goes to show that this profession is a part of the “human potential” movement really, so there’s bound to be a lot of "research" backed disinformation floating around. I once came across an opinion that even if psychopaths could be identified at the interview stage, turning them down for a job on that basis would be discrimination!

The findings themselves are one thing. But the fact that they prompt professionals who conduct the research to even think that an approach can be designed to help them become like "us" is just plain crazy.
"If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, Infinite.
For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro' narrow chinks of his cavern."

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Offline Joe

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Re: Psychopaths have an "empathy switch"?
« Reply #5 on: January 30, 2017, 11:55:02 PM »
Hi Ant22,

I appreciate your synopsis on these articles.  I believe you were perspicacious while reading through the BS.  These types of articles tend to perpetuate the myth that psychopaths aren't that different from you and me, when in reality, there is a world of difference.  I tend to think that they just have the ability to 'fake' empathy, and that is why their mirror neurons flare during the MRI.  But even if they can empathize, I think you're right, it just makes them better manipulators.  If it is true, they probably use this function as bait or a lure technique.   During their machinations, while seducing their victims, they want to appear as human as possible, and generally try to use their victim's empathy against them.  So yeah, they probably have the ability to mimic.  That makes sense.  But as for being able to 'save' them...IDK...I seriously doubt it.

Indeed. The way I was just thinking about it was that "psychopaths" can simply decide to be "empathetic" in a given moment, but that there is essentially no 'instinctive' empathy that should trigger in classic situations when another is in pain etc. That they would also have to decide to be "empathetic" in these situations, mimic the reactions/actions of others. But even for non-psychopaths, empathy in more subtle scenarios is a pretty nuanced thing I think. I think it more or less comes down to getting over the human tendency to consider the self first, that tendency leads most people to show a lack of empathy at certain times. So "getting over" ourselves, which involves a deep understanding of our 'connection to all that is' as the Cs said recently, is probably key to be able to show true empathy.

On this score, psychopaths may have an functional or genetic inability to ever think of or put others first and sideline their own drives and desires. That's why the Work on the self really revolves around Gurdjieff's idea of external and internal consideration and self-observation. Maybe psychopaths also are unable to observe themselves in that way, similar to the claim that they have problems with abstract thought, because observing oneself requires a level of abstraction of thought, to see oneself form the 'outside' or, as Robbie Burns said, "as others see us".
"When you begin to separate limiting emotions based on assumptions from emotions that open one to unlimited possibilities, that means you are preparing for the next density."

Offline Joe

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Re: Psychopaths have an "empathy switch"?
« Reply #6 on: January 30, 2017, 11:57:22 PM »
I once came across an opinion that even if psychopaths could be identified at the interview stage, turning them down for a job on that basis would be discrimination!

"snowflake" psychopaths, now there's a scary thought! I'd say that the whole SJW 'movement' is a real attractor for psycho types. After all, it seems to offer the 'right' to be completely self-absorbed.
"When you begin to separate limiting emotions based on assumptions from emotions that open one to unlimited possibilities, that means you are preparing for the next density."

Offline Felipe4

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Re: Psychopaths have an "empathy switch"?
« Reply #7 on: January 31, 2017, 01:00:23 AM »
I think the "switch" is similar to a non-psychopath if asked to evoke a feeling to something which doesn't generate that association in itself.

for example if we are told to evoke a feeling of care and love for a cabinet for example we can create this feeling mentally yes, that doesn't mean there is any deep meaning to the cabinet or that there is any reinforced association from life or that the feeling is completely "honest" and/or pure.
 
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Offline obyvatel

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Re: Psychopaths have an "empathy switch"?
« Reply #8 on: January 31, 2017, 06:55:18 AM »
  Maybe the "scientific" error comes from considering mirror neuron activation to be a sufficient condition for empathy. Not surprising given many scientists believe that consciousness is an epiphenomenon of neural activity. BTW, V S Ramachandran, one of the neuroscientists who has stressed the importance of mirror neurons had this to say in an interview about the relation between mirror neuron and empathy:

_http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/do_mirror_neurons_give_empathy
Quote
JM: From your perspective, what do you think are some of the biggest misconceptions around mirror neurons—speculations that have yet to actually be validated by science?

VR: Well, I think as with any new scientific discovery, initially people are very skeptical. When people discovered that these neurons do exist, and that they exist in humans, then people went overboard and said they do everything. And I myself am partly responsible because I made this playful remark, not entirely serious, that mirror neurons will do for psychology what DNA did for biology and open up a whole new field of investigation. Turned out I was right, but it’s overdone—I mean, a lot of people, anything they can’t understand, they say it’s due to mirror neurons.

JM: And what are some of those things that people attribute to mirror neurons that we don’t yet know to be true?

VR: Well, I think my own theory about autism hasn’t been proven. It’s a plausible theory—it’s better than any other theories that are out there—but it still has not been proven. But the popular person latches onto it and says that autism’s caused by mirror neuron deficiency.

The other important thing I want to say is that mirror neurons are obviously the starting point for things like empathy, but that’s all it is—I mean, you need much more. If mirror neurons are involved in things like empathy and language and all of that, then monkeys should be very good at these things. One of the things I argue, and others have argued, is that mirror neurons are important in transmitting skills from generation to generation. I need to put myself in your shoes to observe what you’re doing, and to mime it accurately. Mirror neurons are important in that.

  And here is a snippet from Robert Hare's research and how he helped Nicole Kidman portray the role of a psychopath, through the use of mimicking. Mimicking is connected with mirror neuron activation, as shown in studies with monkeys.

http://www.hare.org/links/saturday.html
Quote
  Three decades of these studies, by Hare and others, has confirmed that psychopaths' brains work differently from ours, especially when processing emotion and language. Hare once illustrated this for Nicole Kidman, who had invited him to Hollywood to help her prepare for a role as a psychopath in Malice. How, she wondered, could she show the audience there was something fundamentally wrong with her character?

"I said, 'Here's a scene that you can use,' " Hare says. " 'You're walking down a street and there's an accident. A car has hit a child in the crosswalk. A crowd of people gather round. You walk up, the child's lying on the ground and there's blood running all over the place. You get a little blood on your shoes and you look down and say, "Oh shit." You look over at the child, kind of interested, but you're not repelled or horrified. You're just interested. Then you look at the mother, and you're really fascinated by the mother, who's emoting, crying out, doing all these different things. After a few minutes you turn away and go back to your house. You go into the bathroom and practice mimicking the facial expressions of the mother.' " He then pauses and says, "That's the psychopath: somebody who doesn't understand what's going on emotionally, but understands that something important has happened."

   
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Offline Ant22

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Re: Psychopaths have an "empathy switch"?
« Reply #9 on: January 31, 2017, 09:32:29 AM »
Maybe the "scientific" error comes from considering mirror neuron activation to be a sufficient condition for empathy. Not surprising given many scientists believe that consciousness is an epiphenomenon of neural activity. BTW, V S Ramachandran, one of the neuroscientists who has stressed the importance of mirror neurons had this to say in an interview about the relation between mirror neuron and empathy: (...)

That's a great point obyvatel. I was browsing through the forum over the weekend and I came across this quote from Laura in another thread:

Reading "The Prehistory of the Mind" gives a good background for the way the architecture of the brain is set up to house the consciousness and act as an interface between it and the material world.  Of course, the author intends it to be an explanation of consciousness, but for a variety of reasons, it falls far short of that.  Mirror Neurons are certainly part of this architecture but not the explanation for empathy - merely the vehicle for bodily empathy.

Similarly, I have two arms and 10 fingers, just like Picasso did. And just because I have a physical vehicle to create art doesn't make me a painter. There's a lot more involved.


I think the "switch" is similar to a non-psychopath if asked to evoke a feeling to something which doesn't generate that association in itself.

for example if we are told to evoke a feeling of care and love for a cabinet for example we can create this feeling mentally yes, that doesn't mean there is any deep meaning to the cabinet or that there is any reinforced association from life or that the feeling is completely "honest" and/or pure.


This is a very useful metaphor to illustrate it Felipe4. And the fact that we can evoke a feeling when prompted doesn't mean this feeling will automatically appear when I see the cabinet. In fact, it is very likely that to me the cabinet means just as much as other people mean to a psychopath, hence in their mind it would be pointless to even consider evoking that feeling when not prompted. Referring to the bolded section in Joe's post:

Indeed. The way I was just thinking about it was that "psychopaths" can simply decide to be "empathetic" in a given moment, but that there is essentially no 'instinctive' empathy that should trigger in classic situations when another is in pain etc. That they would also have to decide to be "empathetic" in these situations, mimic the reactions/actions of others. But even for non-psychopaths, empathy in more subtle scenarios is a pretty nuanced thing I think. I think it more or less comes down to getting over the human tendency to consider the self first, that tendency leads most people to show a lack of empathy at certain times. So "getting over" ourselves, which involves a deep understanding of our 'connection to all that is' as the Cs said recently, is probably key to be able to show true empathy.

On this score, psychopaths may have an functional or genetic inability to ever think of or put others first and sideline their own drives and desires. That's why the Work on the self really revolves around Gurdjieff's idea of external and internal consideration and self-observation. Maybe psychopaths also are unable to observe themselves in that way, similar to the claim that they have problems with abstract thought, because observing oneself requires a level of abstraction of thought, to see oneself form the 'outside' or, as Robbie Burns said, "as others see us".

Thanks for building links to the C's and Gurdjieff Joe, it's very helpful.

Edit: grammar and clarity.
« Last Edit: January 31, 2017, 09:38:02 AM by Ant22 »
"If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, Infinite.
For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro' narrow chinks of his cavern."

- William Blake