Unequipped With Empathy

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“A marked lack of empathy is a hallmark characteristic of individuals with psychopathy,” describes Jean Decety,  a famous expert on the neuroscience of empathy. He is also an Irving B. Harris Professor in psychology and psychiatry at the University of Chicago in Illinois. He blames lack of empathy as being responsible for creating psychopaths.

The Ventromedial Prefrontal Cortex

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The ventromedial prefrontal cortex shown above is the main point where we make our moral decisions. This image has been drawn by Patrick J. Lynch who is a medical illustrator. Many researchers have talked about a neural basis for empathy is either malfunctioning or missing altogether in the psychopathic brain. This what causes psychopaths to be so callous.

Lesser Gray Matter

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Experts claim that there is a problem with the mirror neuron system in psychopaths. These neurons in a healthy brain, are able to understand the actions and implications of others and ourselves when we do it. There is also a significantly less amount of gray matter in the brain’s so-called paralimbic system — the conglomerate of brain regions which maintains self-control, emotions, placing goals, and being motivated during stressful times.

Scanning Inmates

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Just a few years back, Prof. Decety has done a few experiments and research on the psychopaths, finding out that simply do not have the neural “equipment” for empathy. With his team, he examined the brains of 121 inmates held in a U.S. medium-security prison during which they were exposed to painful situations. The study participants were also tested with the Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R).

Highly Psychopathic

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If the subjects appeared to be”highly psychopathic” they were asked to assume them feeling the pain, parts of the brain linked to empathy did “light up” in the functional (MRI) machine like the anterior insula, the anterior midcingulate cortex, somatosensory cortex, and the right amygdala. But when they were asked to imagine this pain on other people, it did not light up.

No Emotions For Others

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It was also found that the participants’ insulae and ventromedial prefrontal cortices (vMPFC) did not make a connection when asked to imagine another person’s perspective. The vMPFC or the “social hub” of the human brain, is what makes the empathetic decisions which means it judges our actions and its effects on us and others altogether. Sadly psychopaths proved to have no human emotions when this test was run.