Apr 25 2013


It should not come as a surprise to anyone that, as a strict materialist, I accept the standard neuroscientific model of consciousness. That means that everything we think, feel, remember, and do is a function of the brain. This includes the emotion of empathy.

We are not empathic because it makes sense to be empathic – meaning that most humans don’t simply reason their way to empathy. Nor do we simply learn empathy (although brain development is an interactive process with the environment, so we can’t rule out environmental influences). For the most part, we have empathy because our brains are wired with empathy as a specific function.

Like every function of the body you can think of, if it is not essential for survival then some subset of the human population likely has a disorder or even absence of this function. We recognize the absence of empathy as the disorder, psychopathy.

Our understanding of all mental disorder began as mere descriptions, then was embellished with epidemiology and outcome measures. We are now, however, just at the beginning of exploring the brain function that underlies these mental disorders. Many mental disorders are in fact brain disorders, no different from brain disorders that cause problems with motor function, memory, or sensory processing.

There is a circuit in most people’s brains that senses when another creature, especially a human, is feeling pain or is in some distress or experiencing fear. That circuit detects the signs of these emotions and then and then links to the emotion centers in the brain to produce the same emotion. When someone says, “I feel your pain,” they can mean it literally, especially if they are referring to emotional pain.

Psychopaths clinically lack empathy. There is therefore nothing stopping them from doing any horrible thing to other people if it is in their interests or if they simply want to. It is a scary thing to consider – another person who does not care about you at all, who would not feel a thing if they watched you suffer in the most intense way, and in fact if they were causing the suffering.

It is estimated that about 1% of the general population are psychopaths, while about 20-30% of the US prison population.

A new study looked at prison inmates who scored highly on clinical measures of psychopathy. They studied their brain activity with functional MRI scanning while viewing other people in pain or distress. They found:

The participants in the high psychopathy group exhibited significantly less activation in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, lateral orbitofrontal cortex, amygdala and periaqueductal gray parts of the brain, but more activity in the striatum and the insula when compared to control participants, the study found.

The prefontal cortex is involved in planning and decision-making, while the amygdala is involved in emotions, especially fear. This study supports what was suspected clinically – that psychopaths simply lack that circuit in the brain that creates empathy.

This study also supports those who claim that psychopaths should be treated more as patients than criminals – they are just as much a victim of their brain’s hardwiring as the people they hurt. This does not mean that they should not be punished for crimes or locked away to protect the public from the truly dangerous psychopaths, but it does mean that perhaps we can view them with a bit of compassion and explore ways to hopefully one day correct the deficit.

On the other end of the spectrum, another recent study looked at the response of (non-psychopathic) subjects to either affection or abuse targeted at a person, a robot, and an inanimate object. They found that people had similar brain responses to affection toward a human or robot, but not inanimate object. They also had similar responses to abuse, but the response was stronger for humans than robots.

This study support previous research which indicates that people are capable of reacting toward non-living things as if they were people. Existing research suggests that our brains use an algorithm to decide if something is an “agent” or not. This is not the same thing as being alive, but instead deals with whether or not an object is active as if it has volition and autonomy.

This is interesting, and makes evolutionary sense. It apparently was more important for us to feel whether or not something in our environment was acting as an autonomous agent rather than whether or not is was alive. There were probably mostly the same thing.

But now we can create animated cartoons, dolls, and even robots that act as if they have agency even though they are not alive and the agency is just a simulation. To our brains it does not seem to matter – if something acts as if it has agency we treat it as if it does, and this extends to empathy.

Take a look as this video of a big triangle, a small triangle, and a circle. We have no problem projecting emotions, personality, and agency to two-dimensional shapes if they are moving as if they have agency. We can even easily construct a narrative to explain their movements.

Or look at this video of Keepon – a minimalist robot with funky moves. It’s easy to feel as if this little guy has personality. You might even feel a little empathy if someone abused it – unless, of course, you are a psychopath.

If something moves in a non-inertial fashion our brain’s assume it has agency, it then processes information about that object in a different way. Visual information is actually divided into two streams, one for agents and one for non-agents. The visual stream processing information about objects acting as if they are agents links to the amygdala and other emotion processing centers in the brain, while information about non-agents does not. You can smash a rock and we won’t feel a thing, but don’t harm Keepon.

It’s fascinating to understand why we feel and react the way we do, down to the circuits in the brain and how they function. It is also an exciting time for neuroscience as we are rapidly exploring the wiring and function of the human brain.

Changing this wiring, however, is still a technology we lack. Understanding which circuit is missing in the psychopath’s brain is very informative, but it does not immediately translate into any intervention. It’s hard to imagine what such technology would even be, beyond speculating about fantastically advanced nanotechnology or something similar.

Probably the best I can extrapolate from current technology is the development of an artificial circuit that can be planted in the brain to provide the missing connections. I’m not sure this would even work, but it is at least plausible.

Once we couple detailed information about the brain with the technology to alter or recreate it, we will have powerful control over ourselves. Imagine having the ability to design your own personality. It’s scary and exciting at the same time.


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