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Study: Psychosis doesn't preclude empathy

| Thursday, July 25, 2013, 6:39 p.m.

Hannibal Lecter probably can feel for his victims, but only if you ask him.

A brain-imaging study of 18 violent, psychopathic criminals in the Netherlands, the largest such study undertaken, suggests they can summon empathy when prompted.

The report, published on Wednesday in the journal Brain, showed that empathic circuits that are unconsciously activated in the brains of normal people may be dormant or switched off in psychopaths — not absent, as commonly thought. Those circuits, the study showed, can be activated when psychopaths are prompted to see a situation from someone else's point of view.

“They do have empathy; it's just that it's not always on,” said neuroscientist Christian Keysers of the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience, lead author of the study, undertaken in Groningen, Netherlands.

Keysers and his team were given access to offenders who committed violent crimes, such as rape and murder, but who were found not responsible because of a psychopathy diagnosis.

Each of the diagnosed psychopaths was connected to a magnetic resonance imaging machine while he watched video segments showing two hands approaching each other and either caressing, hitting, pushing away or touching the other in a neutral fashion. They were not told what the experiment was about.

The imagery showed that frontal lobe circuits associated with vicarious experience were not activated nearly as much as were those of a control group.

At a second viewing, however, a researcher asked each to put himself in the point of view of one of the actors' hands. The empathy circuits became more active.

Working with psychopaths is never easy, and rehabilitation in a psychiatric facility often fails in the outside world. Psychopaths are known for adroit social skills that allow them to manipulate people for nefarious ends.

“I don't think they were manipulating their brain waves to give us what we wanted, which is what they do do when you give them a questionnaire,” Keysers said. “The simple reason is that during the first run when they just watched the movies, we didn't give them any instruction, and they didn't have any empathy.”

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