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.


49 responses so far

49 thoughts on “Empathy”

  1. brive1987 says:

    Ok I’ll bite. Why should someone be “punished” for actions resulting from a demonstrably damaged brain? Should we slap down the blind man who bumps into us? Or are we actually taliking retribution?

  2. sa666u says:

    Great article as usual. In answers a question I was discussing with some friends. We were watching a video of the Boston Dynamics robot dog and we realized that we all felt compassion when they were kicking it to demonstrate its stability. Especially watching it struggle to keep its balance. It was curious why people experience such emotions towards an inanimate object.

  3. Are you saying you want us to have empathy for those that don’t? 😉

  4. daedalus2u says:

    I am pretty sure that the ability to detect agency is learned, but what I mean by “learning” may be idiosyncratic. I include development of sensory systems as “learning”. In other words the refinement of neural networks to instantiate pattern recognition is (as I consider it) “learning”.

    I think the “empathy” that you are talking about would be better considered to be projection of (your own) human attributes onto someone else.

    In my understanding a lack of this can occur in at least two ways, being unable to feel those attributes yourself, or (and the more serious problem), not feeling that the person is sufficiently “human-like” for it to be appropriate to attribute human-like characteristics to them.

    I discuss these two concepts in two blog posts about what I call the “theory of mind” and the “theory of reality”.



    People with autism tend to have the first type of difficulty in projecting feelings onto others, if your brain doesn’t have the neuroanatomy to instantiate those feelings, it is difficult to imagine someone else feeling them. People who harm others tend to have the second type, they are able to experience feelings themselves, and are capable of projecting the ability to feel onto others, they simply do not do so, usually because the person doesn’t register as a “human agent” to them, and so is incapable of experience human-type feelings so it would be an error to attribute human-type feelings to them.

  5. brive – because we all are products of our brains. Anyone who commits a crime does so because of the hardwiring of their brain. But we also make choices, and a civilized society depends upon people being held accountable for the choices they make.

    The legal definition is sanity is essentially that you were incapable of making a choice between right and wrong. If you can make that choice, you are responsible for it, although the court does allow for mitigating circumstances.

    This is, of course, the very debate about free will. I think the best we can conclude from this is that people need to be accountable for their choices, but we can have compassion for those who make bad choices because of biology or circumstances. This can mean emphasising rehabilitation over retribution.

  6. brive1987 says:

    I guess we have to conclude psychopaths are limited to working with a values system centred on an imposed legal system based deontology. Without empathy consequentialism is a bad choice(!) and it would be difficult (impossible) for them to identify with virtue ethics.

    So I agree they make decisions, however their ability to strictly identify right from wrong may be limited to what they would consider an arbitrary set of rules. They might understand something breaks the rule without understanding why it is truely “wrong”. Whereas we would tend to see a “decision” on right/wrong as coming from a more nuanced well.

    The legal definition of sanity seems simplistic to the point of wilful cop-out.

  7. The legal definition is deliberately simplistic – it’s an operational definition that can work in a courtroom. Can you imagine an endless free will debate breaking out in every court case?

    There are several neurological variants (probably reasonable to call them disorders) that are simply inconsistent with the majority view of the kind of civil society we desire. Pedophiles are another. It’s not their fault that they are attracted to young children. That’s a terrible card to be dealt in life. But they still have to make decisions with the hand they are dealt. And society should still protect children from predators.

  8. clgood says:

    This is right in line with what we say in animation: If the audience believes that a character’s actions are the result of a thought process, then that character is alive.

  9. Dr. Novella:

    I’m not at all sure why (ideally) retribution needs to play any role in justice. I agree that people who have become dangerous need to be isolated from the public, but not as a form of punishment. There are two-ish kinds of criminals: those that commit crimes because they feel they have to (because of poverty, or because of some perceived threat), and those that commit crimes because they want to (in that they derive pleasure from it). The solution to the first set of criminals is building society in such a way so that people don’t feel as if they have to commit crimes. It is quite an understatement to say that this is easier said than done.

    The solution to the second is to find a way so that people don’t get pleasure out of committing crimes. The problem with what they’re doing is that they are putting their happiness above the cumulative happiness of everyone else in society. If we change this attitude by some psychiatric or neurological means (also easier said than done), then these sorts of criminals can be productive members of society. If we punish them as a means of retribution, then we are placing the happiness of the victims above the cumulative happiness of everyone else in society, because we are denying society the potential productivity that criminal might have.

  10. Ori – perhaps you misread my comment. I am arguing against retribution also, in favor of rehabilitation. Incarceration also serves the purpose of protecting the public from dangerous people as you say. But also punishment serves as a disincentive to commit crime. This does not have a big effect for all crimes in all situations, but it certainly does enter the calculus for some crimes and is an important overall deterrent. People curb their speeding primarily because they don’t want to pay the fine for speeding.

  11. DOYLE says:


    I was wondering if neural systems or circuitry can be repaired or rehabilitated.Specifically if mirror neurons can be targeted as a region that can be improved or strengthened.

  12. ccbowers says:

    There is a component to empathy that requires an ability to take another’s persective as your own, and from that generate an emotion based upon those thoughts. My understanding is that psychopaths are not necessarily worse at taking another’s perspective, but for some reason they don’t really care about the other’s perspective.

    Are they just less able to generate those emotions that result in empathy or is it that they don’t really care because they don’t identify with the other person? My understanding is that it is often a combination- that psychopaths don’t experience fear in the same way and to the same extent, and they also care less about others because they don’t identify with the other person.

    Since there is a spectrum of empathic ability, do you know the distribution of this spectrum? Multimodal?

  13. petrossa says:

    Personally i see empathy as a anachronistic relic going back to the pre-hominoid times, part of the limbic system whose functions are totally incapable to deal with complex modern societies.

    In my view various personality disorders, autism and other related neurological disorders are variations on an evolutionary theme to get rid of the limbic systems primary controlling role.

    Hindering this evolution by whichever means is tantamount to self-extinction since by all current evidence that much cognitive power combined with such a lowlevel primary control system leads to misery on a gigantic scale.

    This is perhaps not readily obvious behind a desk in a nice office, but still 80% of humanity lives in conditions we wouldn’t let our animals live in.

    All due to rampant limbic driven emotional acts. Empathy is only necessary because we behave like animals. Once we manage to become real humans empathy is superfluous because no sane person would willingly harm another or let another suffer if they could help on pure moral grounds.

  14. daedalus2u says:

    Ori, The problem with that approach is that there are people who get pleasure from prosecuting people (and even executing them) for crimes, whether those people did them or not. There is a case in Texas where a man was executed for murdering his two young daughters by arson where the arson investigation was badly botched and the prosecution appealed to the jury to execute the man because he had lots of tattoos. Then the governor of Texas blocked the committee that was investigating the circumstances (after he had been executed) where fire investigators with greater expertise had determined that the fire was not arson.

    A serious problem is that there are so many laws that prosecutors can pick and choose and interpret/misinterpret laws so as to persecute an individual. The example of Aaron Swartz comes to mind. He was being charged with crimes that could amount to 25 years in prison for downloading too many articles from the library. The prosecutor knew he was suicidal, her response was to tell his lawyer he could be put into protective custody. The prosecutor knew what was going on, that was the whole point of the prosecution, to “other” him so that he could be destroyed. To the prosecutor, he wasn’t a human being, he was a non-human object, an object that had no capacity to experience human feelings so it was appropriate to do what ever it took to destroy that object.

    Unfortunately that is the point of much of the US Justice system, which is why there are more minorities in prison than in the general population. Minorities are made desperate by discrimination in society, then when they do desperate things they receive disproportional attention from the justice system. That is much of the point of the US Justice System.

    “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.” Anatole France

  15. daedalus2u says:

    One of the problems with how humans deal with behaviors that are considered to be “crimes”, is that there is a very great tendency to “other” and dehumanize the person doing the “crime” so as to provide a rationale why we would not do such a thing.

    For example when Andrea Yates killed her 5 children, many people wanted her to be executed. The State of Texas charged her with Capital Murder (which carries the death penalty), and one of the witnesses for the state made up a story about a tv show with a mother killing her children and then getting off with an insanity defense (there was no such tv show).

    Maternal infanticide is perhaps the quintessential example of murder during a period of temporary insanity. It is trivially easy for someone not experiencing postpartum psychosis to imagine themselves to be incapable of killing their infant (because they are incapable). Mothers not experiencing postpartum psychosis essentially never kill their infants, and only a fraction of mothers experiencing postpartum psychosis do.

    To have empathy for someone like Andrea Yates, you have to understand how someone could feel that killing their children was necessary and to also feel that it was the “right” thing to do, under some idiosyncratic understanding of what “right” means at that moment.

    I think a reason that many people can’t feel empathy for someone like Andrea Yates relates to the quote by Aristotle.

    “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”

    If you can’t entertain a thought without accepting it, what happens if you try to think about the motivations of Andra Yates? It is like what Nietzsche warns about when you stare into the abyss, the abyss starts to stare back into you. Your pattern recognition neuroanatomy self-modifies to achieve better identification of abyss-like elements. You now have a piece of the abyss in you, and you can better perceive what is in the abyss, but you can also have more false positives and see (project) the abyss even where it is not.

    This is how I understand karma to happen. If you are a mean and cruel person, then you have to recognize pain in your victims; you have to feel it, but also you have to want to impose it. Feeling pain like that, even vicariously, triggers fight-or-flight stress compensatory pathways. This results in “stress” and over a lifetime chronic “stress” does shorten lifespan, increase and exacerbate degenerative disorders.

  16. wellerpond says:

    Fascinating article, as always.

    Is there such a thing as the opposite of psychotic? People who are hardwired to be so empathetic they do wonderful things for people because they really care to do so, out of proportion to the value of the deed?

    Why do many human differences from the norm have negative consequences?

  17. HHC says:

    Imagine, if you have two people in a fight, the emotionally and physically stronger one will win. An example of this would be a character like “American Badass”. Now imagine that one of the persons has a psychopathic disorder, and every time they see the other persons fear in a situation, they experience an intense intra-abdominal sensation. Does the sensation feel like a kick to the abdomen, when the human insula is stimulated? Is this why a psychopath must subdue and terminate all movement in his victim?

  18. Woody says:

    Although I agree that there is clearly an element of “hard wiring” that underlies empathic behavior, I think there are examples of environmental factors that can have equal if not greater influences.

    The “second type” of individual mentioned by daedalus that inflicts harm upon others due to an inability to recognize the humanity of the victim shows up often in history. I will avoid the over-used example of the Nazi regime and instead mention the Mongol conquests initiated by Genghis Khan. The wholesale slaughter of populations under his regime occurred on a scale that remains unrivalled to this day. One should also keep in mind that this was before the time of mechanized warfare, so such slaughter was usually under the edge of a blade – “up close and personal”, so to speak. One theory as to how the Mongols were able to perpetrate such atrocities was that they simply viewed non-Mongols as less than human – cattle to be slaughtered or used as they saw fit.

    My point is that it is unlikely that the majority of Mongols were psychopaths, but rather they had cultural beliefs and practices that condoned such behaviors that we find unfathomable.

  19. gr8googlymoogly says:

    The most interesting part of this (and most of current brain research) is the apparent damage it is doing to the (mostly Christian) concept of ‘free will’.

  20. daedalus2u says:

    There is some thought that the opposite end of the psychosis spectrum is autism and that people who are neurologically typically developing are in the middle.

    In other words, with psychosis you have a very weak theory of reality and such a strong theory of mind that you hear voices that are not there and can project that theory of mind onto others. The neurologically typical have a pretty strong theory of mind, but one that is susceptible to being overwhelmed by those with a stronger one. People with autism have such a weak theory of mind that they are resistant to it being overwhelmed by a stronger one and sometimes have a very strong theory of reality such that they can listen to that and ignore people telling them that they are wrong (the most important trait an innovator needs to have).

  21. daedalus2u says:

    An example of inhumanity that is closer to home is slavery in the US and homophobic bigotry that is going on right now.

  22. pross says:

    What is the biological imperative to develop empathy at all? Wouldn’t a psychopath have the greatest biological success since they are concerned only with their own survival? I think there may be an answer to this question, but most of the reductionist models I have seen try to explain this seem awfully convoluted.

  23. brive1987 says:

    At the risk of derailing I’ll concur. The Christian version of free will is really interesting as it relies on dualism with all the baggage that goes with that. I always wonder how the impossibly immaterial actually interacts with the physical body. And for behaviour altering brain injuries, I always imagine the soul and it’s free will locked in a padded room screaming Nooooo! as the body/brain combination goes its own way. Bizarre.

    Of course it’s all morally pernicious as it separates free will decision making from real world physical determinate inputs. Ie your soul should be able to rise above ( insert causal factor)

  24. SARA says:

    The ability to project agency to inanimate objects reminded me of this xkcd comic (http://xkcd.com/695/), which haunted me. Despite consciously reminding myself that Spirit has no thoughts, emotions or expectations, I felt and still catch myself feeling all the same compassion for it as if it did.

  25. madmidgitz says:

    psychopathy is defined by the legal system and the main checklist (PCL-R or “hare’s checklist”) is very heavily influenced by criminal background and bad choices(inabilty to learn from mistakes) and seems to be made to diagnose criminals, im seeing that most of the tests would be failed by a fairly smart psychopath(such as myself), the “Cleckley checklist”(http://www.angelfire.com/zine2/narcissism/psychopathy_checklist.html) covers more psychopathic traits and doesn’t exclude psychopaths with no criminal background and who might have all the traits and a little more self control or intelligence.
    (i pass almost all the “Cleckly checklist” criteria but not the PCL-R ones)

  26. madmidgitz says:

    but here is a point of confusion for me that my (albeit not very extensive) google search hasn’t been able to clear up, psychopaths and the difference in sympathy vs empathy and how they apply to the psychopath label.
    psycho paths are not supposed to have empathy for people but what about sympathy?
    for instance i have been deemed by most of the psychiatrists/psychologists(i know they are not the same thing) i have seen over the the years to be a psychopath, or at least have psychopathic traits.
    eg. i do not have any empathy for people i could sit and watch babies and bunnies die and not care at all , or someone in my family could have a horrifyingly painful disease that i could save them from if i donated an organ i didn’t use but would have to go through the minor inconvenience of surgery, i could just sit there and watch them die.
    i can sympathize with them about how horrible it must be, i can see what i might feel if i was them with their atypical ideas and feelings, i cant empathize with them because i don’t think and feel like them but i can sympathize, but being able to sympathizing with someone doesn’t mean i give a shit i can still sit there and watch them die from that disease because i don’t want to go though surgery, i am not dehumanizing people to rationalize my callousness,the idea is that they are not me and/or don’t have any benefit to me therefore i don’t care(is that dehumanizing myself because the traits people think of as “human” i don’t think apply to me?)
    does having sympathy disqualify me from being a psychopath?

    and the PCL-R list is kind of stupid
    ( basing traits of “hares list” and PCL-R)does not having a criminal background and poor self control take me out of that category?
    or juvenile delinquency?

    sorry for long post but this is all ill be able to post till much later (internet access will be sparse)so i thought id get it all out of the way

    @ gr8g00gltm00gly
    does your name have anything to do with the FSM?

  27. Dick Steal says:

    Dr. Novella, you do know you are peddling pernicious woo here. Taureans are stubborn and psychopaths lack empathy? Psychopaths can be identified with fMRI scans? I do not think so. Dr Robert Hare’s checklist is quackery, a subjective tick list of dubious personality traits. Anyone who has read Without Conscience or even Snakes in Suits with a critical eye can see the joke. 20-30% of USA prison inmates are psychopaths? Really? Are poor blacks hardwired for prison? Or do economic circumstances result in this definition. Stanley Milgram, Philip Zimbardo have demonstrated what it takes to create a lack of empathy in human beings. Where is the science that backs up your claims?

    This is dangerous stuff you claim. A short while ago I was communicating with prisoners in the UK. On the basis of Hare’s checklist administered by trainee psychiatrists, they were refused rehabilitation programs and parole on the basis that their ‘psychopathy’ was not ‘treatable’. Brain scans can prove this? What claptrap you are promoting.

  28. pdeboer says:


    One thing to note is that perhaps the poor blacks are psychopaths that have been caught because of the crimes they commit based on their economic situation.

    What about corrupt businessmen and politicians or con men? They may have no empathy, but they simply don’t end up in jail as frequently. And they are more likely to be white(I think) in the USA.

    Whether this is fair, I’ll leave to you.

  29. cloudkap says:

    Psychopathy occurs on a spectrum, just as many other factors occur. It’s important to take into consideration other parts of one’s personality that lie on such spectrums, such as intelligence and impulsivity, and then adding to that how a person’s environment has shaped all of those predisposed factors.

    @wellerpond, Off the top of my head I’ve *heard* (and it makes sense to me) that one word to describe the opposite of psychopathy, loosely put, is anxiety. And it does not necessarily lead to someone doing *good* things, even if they wanted to do them. They could be paralyzed by anxiety, fearing unforseen outcomes and the judgements of others.

    I think it’s also important to note that:
    Empathy ≠ Good & Psychopathy ≠ Bad

    They may correlate, but they can both be good and/or bad for an individual.

  30. BillyJoe7 says:


    Are you sure you are not just a HFA, like petrossa?
    You sure sound like him, except that petrossa has apparently learnt to fake empathy.
    Maybe the two of you can get together.

    (I have had the unfortunate experience of having met face to face with a psychopath. It was the most frightening experience of my life and I didn’t even know his background at the time. I believe I was saved from a sudden and painful death by the chance appearance of two men who had the situation under control within seconds. I was later to discover that this person had killed both his parents and his homosexual partner. A prison guard where he was incarcerated told me that no psychiatrist would agree to see him without the presence of another psychiatrist and an armed law enforcement officer. I also later learned that this person was, from childhood, the victim of his father’s extreme physical and sexual abuse. You don’t sound like such a person)

  31. BillyJoe7 says:


    “What is the biological imperative to develop empathy at all? Wouldn’t a psychopath have the greatest biological success since they are concerned only with their own survival? ”

    Firstly, it is genes that increase their chances of survival, not specifically individuals. And genes increase their survival by joining together with other genes in a sort of cooperative. A band of brothers is more likely to survive than a rogue soldier. Similarly, genes within cooperatives that help the same genes within other cooperatives are likely to increase in number in the next generation. Part of the way genes in cooperatives help other genes in cooperatives is via empathy. So genes for empathy increases their numbers in the following generations. A society can tolerate a certain percentage of rogues, but if the number increases beyond that tolerable level, it begins to fall apart in contrast to societies that do not exceed this tolerable level. Therefore genes that single out and ostracise rogues and freeloaders are likely to increase their numbers in the following generations.

  32. petrossa says:

    I am not an HFA i have Aspergers. Big difference. I can indeed fake empathy to a level that an average NT won’t notice the difference. It’s all about a certain way of moving the facial muscles, especially around the eyes.

    But that’s not the issue. The issue is that empathy is something that’s theoretically unnecessary if one accepts the concept of the rational human, unaffected by base emotions.

    A rational human doesn’t need empathy because ratio will dictate that helping/caring for your fellowman in need is good for you and for society.

    For those who believe empathy is something special, here the empathic Rhino protecting a gazelle from a croc. And anyone who wants to make the case that the Rhino thinks the gazelle is one of her offspring/species needs his/her head examined.


  33. BillyJoe7 says:


    I’m sorry but psychiatry has cancelled you.

    Aspergers is no longer a recognised diagnosis, so HFA will just have to do!
    And, seeing you have no empathy, I suppose you don’t care that an exchange with you a couple of years ago was the kick that started another poster called Jeremiah on what ultimately turned out to be a wild goose chase to discover my identity. Incredibly he spent weeks poring through posts I’d made on various forums hoping to find some lead. And he hinted strongly about what he would do with this information.
    In that post I explained why empathy and emotion is not something I could ever live without. Unfortunately giving a real life example.

    Of course it is difficult to miss something you’ve never had and to realise how important it is for those who do.

  34. daedalus2u says:

    An altenative explanation of the hippo/crocodile interaction is that the hippo is trying to deny the crocodile food.

    BJ, there is not and never was a diagnostic entity of HFA. If you want to get hypertechnical and say there is no such thing as Asperger’s, you demonstrate that being precise is not your goal if you substitute HFA.

  35. ccbowers says:

    “A rational human doesn’t need empathy because ratio will dictate that helping/caring for your fellowman in need is good for you and for society.”

    I disagree, because caring at all about anything is not simply a question of reason or rationality. Only once you establish that you care or have feelings about yourselves and others can you then apply reason to future behavior reagarding yourself and others.

    Of course there is another problem: what if you conclude (through the best facts available) that certain terrible things done to others are in fact better for you. You cannot reason yourself to be kind in every senario, because being kind is not a question of rationality in every senario. Sometimes it comes down to what you value/care about, and for this you need some emotional feedback for which to apply your rationality.

  36. stereoblue says:

    I’m curious to know if the only way to ‘cure’ a psychopath’s lack of empathy is through some sort of medical procedure (surgery, medication, nano-thingamajigs, etc.). Is there no psychology based solution?

    Also, what about the idea of people ‘finding Jesus/God’. I’m not religious, and my inherited religious affiliation is not Jesus-based, so I’m not making a point here about really meeting with a supernatural entity. But is it not possible that when people do ‘find Jesus/God’ that it might have something to do with making that connection in the brain, or something similar? Food for thought, anyway.

  37. ccbowers says:

    Re: Apserger’s and HFA:

    Its not so much that they exist or don’t exist as much as if the distinction is meaningful versus arbitrary. My understanding is that the use of very specific terms is being deempasized because they indicate a level of precision in diagnosis that isn’t warranted given variability within each category and the level of understanding of these conditions.

  38. Hannah says:

    I didn’t read all the comments, so I’m not sure if this idea has already been suggested, but it seems plausible that we could try to identify psychopaths at a very young age and engage them in education and therapy designed to build empathy (similar to what we currently do with autistic children). I wonder if empathy is entirely innate or if it might actually be a skill that can be learned – at least to some degree. I wonder whether therapies could be developed that would help psychopaths develop more normally if we started when they were very young (given the plasticity of the brain at a young age). We know that therapy does not work on adult psychopaths, but it’s possible that it could work on children (assuming we could find a reliable way of identifying psychopathic children).

  39. madmidgitz says:

    HFA’s have problems with empathy and SYMPATHY , i have been diagnosed with HFA by some psychologists in my childhood(and i dont know how much to trust their diagnoses because i was being taken to very qauckademic doctors) and then that diagnoses was overturned later by more recent psychologists,
    HFA and aspergers were pretty different things which is why i suspect they took aspergers off the autism spectrum and then they got rid of it altogether, the people wich were previously aspergers are now either HFA or just antisocial disorder mixed with cocktails of other mental things(me possibly but i still think psychopathy fits better)

    but back to Hare’s list and the PCL-R. they are both clearly used to diagnose inmates as psychopaths, but excludes succesfull businessmen and lawyers, wich we know are rife with psychopaths 🙂

    seriously though Hare’s list is clearly bullshit and there needs to be a decent list made up by some list of symptoms or functional problems not how many times you got into trouble as a kid and how many sexual partners you’ve had(disqualifies me right there)

  40. petrossa says:

    # daedalus2u, ccbowers A bunch of juvenile remarks totally off topic. Why bother commenting if you can’t discuss the subject? No one in the entire world is interested in your snarky remarks.

    Empathy was the topic. No one has entered into discussion on that, so that’s another potentially interesting discussion down the drain.

  41. ccbowers says:


    Are you serious here? Either you are confusing me with someone else or you are reading into my comments something that isn’t there. I have made only 3 comments here, 2 related to empathy and 1 having to due with autism spectrum disorders as previously discussed by you and other. Nothing even close to juvenile or snarky in any of them. Actually I pointed out the flaw in your logic that “a rational human doesn’t need empathy.”

    Perhaps instead of rational argument you feign offense.

  42. Ricardo says:

    Dr. Novella,

    The Neuroskeptic blog makes a very good point about the expression “brain’s hardwiring” and our tendency to confuse functional with structural differences in brain activation (or even congenital with acquired/developed differences):


    I find the analogy with a fMRI of an English-speaking person reading French texts particularly amusing and illustrative of the thinking traps we may fall in when interpreting this kind of study. 🙂

  43. daedalus2u says:

    petrossa, I am sorry if you felt any of my snark was directed at you. My intention was to only direct it at BJ for substituting a diagnostic entity that never existed (HFA) for one that did exist and which the DSM-V is doing away with (Asperger’s). My perception was that he was doing this to bully you and to dismiss what you are saying. I happen to agree with you that reason is sufficient to determine how to treat people, that feelings of empathy are not necessary. However most NTs do not have sufficient rationality to do that. They need feelings of empathy.

    I have Asperger’s, and I understand exactly where you are coming from and can do the reasoning to derive treating people well from essentially first principles in the absence of feelings. If you look at the links to my blog upthread, I discuss the different thinking styles of NTs and ASDs.

    I am pretty sure that people who are neurologically typical cannot derive treating other people well from first principals in the absence of feelings. They need those feelings to guide their actions because they are unable to keep what they want from interfering with the calculation of what is good for someone else or from what someone else wants.

    This is why people who are NT have such a hard time appreciating that people with ASDs can have empathy and sympathy. People who are NT need to emulate the thinking process of someone in order to feel a connection with them and in order to impute feelings in that other person. The NT needs to “feel” that someone else has feelings, and then imputes what those feelings are based on what the NT projects that person “should” feel. The ASD person takes as implicit fact that other entities have internal states (feelings) and tries to figure out analytically or as best they can what those internal states are.

    To the NT, if they cannot emulate another person’s feelings, then it is as if those feelings do not exist and the non-NT is felt to be non-human on some level and non-human feelings of the non-NT, even if they did exist, they don’t matter.

    The ASD can’t emulate the NT’s feelings, so he doesn’t try but instead treats them as something that is unknown, but which obviously matter because NTs are human beings.

    This shows up in the confusion that some NTs have in the topic of the OP.

    The analysis that Dr Novella wrote is pretty standard. He was not making an is/ought confusion.

    The mistake that many NTs make, is that if ASDs don’t have feelings, what keeps them from murdering everyone else? This line of reasoning is exactly the same as the reasoning of theists who believe that because atheists don’t believe in God and in punishment from God if they commit sins, there is nothing that keeps atheists from murdering everyone else.

    The problem of HFA vs Asperger’s vs autism is one of classification where the people making up the categories do not understand what they are trying to categorize.

    Not being able to impute agency to the moving triangles in the video Dr Novella linked to is considered to be a “deficit in mentalizing”. But in actual fact, triangles do not have agency. It is human hyperactive agency detection that allows/compels humans to impute agency to triangles. That everyone who is NT does impute agency to triangles doesn’t make it “correct”, it just means that NTs have a greater degree of hyperactive agency that people who are ASDs. Calling that difference in imputation of agency a “deficit” is to impute a value judgment on a degree of hyperactive agency detection that is closer to the level exhibited by NTs, rather than on a degree which is more precise (closer to the reality that triangles do not have agency). The NTs writing the DSM-V have difficulty in not privileging their degree of hyperactive agency detection over the different degree that someone else might have.

    There are very serious problems in using fMRIs to determine criminal liability and risks. The fundamental problem is that the US criminal justice system is not set up to determine criminal liability and risk, it is set up to “other” minorities, to put them in prison so as to enrich the owners of prisons and to get votes for politicians for being “tough”.

  44. petrossa says:

    Tnx for the clarification daedalus2u. Well written and exactly my thoughts. Can’t add much to that, except noting that the theory of mind is equally lacking in understanding the working of the ASD mind as is the triangle/agency example you so accurately disassemble.

    It’s the same principle, just applied to a more complex idea.

    fMRI is a dead duck. That system is going the way of the dodo due to its capacity to generate whichever pattern you want to see without having any realistic relation to what actually goes on in the brain.

    Luckily there are no small amount of neuroscientists already on the case, but till finally the mainstream accepts that their toy is useless many absurd papers will still be published. To make a point in case:

    Sex on the brain: Orgasms unlock altered consciousness

  45. ccbowers says:

    d2u, I do not disagree with the basic points you make, except I think you are overstating, or perhaps oversimplifying things. FOr example:

    “The mistake that many NTs make, is that if ASDs don’t have feelings, what keeps them from murdering everyone else? This line of reasoning is exactly the same as the reasoning of theists who believe that because atheists don’t believe in God and in punishment from God if they commit sins, there is nothing that keeps atheists from murdering everyone else.”

    The lines of reasoning in your example are not analogous, because neither atheists nor theists really base their sense of right and wrong based upon potential punishments from above (despite what a given theist may think), and that is the flaw in the second part of your quote… for the theists the conclusion doesn’t follow the premise.

    However in the first part of your quote, the mistake that your NTs are making have to do with the orginal assumptions, not just the conclusion. What I mean is that ASDs are not devoid of emotions, therefore the conclusion that they have nothing to prevent them from commiting murder is false from that misunderstanding alone.

    I agree that reason must guide our morality, but I am arguing that it is insufficient. We need to first establish certain values as first principles, and I don’t believe these can be done well without input from emotions.

  46. daedalus2u says:

    I agree that there are a lot of misunderstandings about ASDs by NTs. Just like there are a lot of misunderstandings of atheists by theists. That lack of understanding is what triggers reflexive hatred by some NTs and by some theists (not all in either case). I explain my hypothesis of how that happens in my blog post on xenophobia that I linked to above. There really is reflexive hatred of ASDs by some NTs. The literature documents this. Children with ASDs are abused more than children with other disabilities.

    Many theists have a visceral hatred of atheists. Some attribute this hatred to “worshiping Satan”. Atheists know that cannot be correct because atheists do not worship Satan. The hatred came first, the explanation (worshiping Satan) came second and was made-up to justify the degree of hatred that they feel. Theists who hate atheists don’t understand why they hate atheists. That is true of most feelings, you don’t understand why you have a certain feeling. This especially goes for NTs.

    The problem that NTs have is that they can only conceive of there being a single theory of mind, the one that NTs have. Every other theory of mind must be wrong as far as NTs are concerned because if they can’t understand it, it must be wrong.

    Actually, everyone has a different theory of mind. NTs have automatic correction so that once they know someone, they seamlessly account for those differences, provided that the person has theory of mind that is compatible enough. NTs are not aware of those differences (for the most part). This is because NTs don’t have access to those parts of thinking that instantiate their “theory of mind”.

    Some ASDs do have access to that part of thinking that instantiates “theory of mind”. That lets them do things like emulate the communication protocols that NTs use. NTs can’t do that. What NTs get from NT-type communication is data, but also feelings. Those communicated feelings are not data that can be manipulated algorithmically. What some ASDs get is data, data they can manipulate algorithmically (but it is clunky and slow to do so) by which they can emulate NT-type thinking.

  47. BillyJoe7 says:

    I just got back to this thread….

    It seems some were upset by my last post here.
    Let me reassure you all that there was no intent on my part to upset anyone.
    I thought my introductory line “Psychiatry has cancelled you” to be sufficient without having to add smilies. It seems I touched a nerve that I didn’t know existed. Sorry about that.

  48. ccbowers says:

    ‘NTs are not aware of those differences (for the most part). This is because NTs don’t have access to those parts of thinking that instantiate their “theory of mind”. ‘

    Perhaps the main difference is that ASDs grow up in a world full of NTs so they are forced to realize that there are different perspectives from their own, and NTs grow up in a NT world. That alone is enough to explain why ASDs are often not understood or misunderstood

  49. evhantheinfidel says:

    Ultimately, I think punishment should serve as a disincentive for committing a crime or a lesson for someone who already has. If technology advances to the point that someone who commits even a serious crime can be changed to an extent that they no longer pose a threat and can be a productive member of society, I see no good reason that they should be limited from doing so. We are not there currently, however, and I have no ethical qualms with even a psychopath being killed to prevent the death of an innocent ONLY if that is the best way to prevent the death.

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