In the past ten years, cultural interest in the ways of psychopaths has exploded. This interest has been fueled by shows like Dexter that present a cold, calculated murderer as the loveable protagonist. Until now, the consensus view on Psychopaths and Sociopaths – which are basically the same thing at this point – is that their condition is caused by a complete lack of empathy. It turns out that psychopaths do feel empathy, but that they are able to selectively start and stop those empathetic feelings as they deem fit.
In the study, conducted by a team at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, criminal psychopaths were placed in a brain scanner and shown footage of one man hurting another. The psychopath was told to actively attempt to empathize with the individual being harmed. It was only when the psychopath made an active effort to feel empathy did sections of his brain associated with physical or mental pain begin to show activity. These results helped researchers conclude that psychopaths could in fact mirror the pain of others –the basis of empathy- but had to actively try to do so. In normal humans, empathy occurs naturally, even during periods in which the empathizer would rather not feel such discomfort.
The reasons for this selective empathy in psychopath involves the “mirror system”, a select group of neurons in the brain that fire when one watches someone else do a task, and then does that same task themselves. This mirror system plays a key role in several brain functions, including empathy. This new research theorizes that when psychopaths were asked try and empathize with the man in pain, that these mirror-system neurons fired in their brains and allowed them to empathize.
Lead researcher, Christian Keysers explained that these results prove that previous opinions on how psychopath’s brains work is too simplistic. He said, "Our work shows (psychopathy is) not that simple. (Psychopaths) don't lack empathy but they have a switch to turn it on and off. By default, it seems to be off."
This research reestablished hope that new treatments for psychopathy could be established. Currently, psychopathy is seen as a nearly untreatable condition, with most attempts at mental reform proving fruitless. With this new understanding that psychopath’s can, in fact, feel empathy, there is again hope that we may one day be able to medically, or therapeutically repair the disturbed minds of psychopaths.