Whose Mind is it Anyway? – Psychopaths and Empathy

It is interesting that this is the next post in the psychopathy arc.  I was trying to determine how best to write about the lack of empathy that psychopaths have.  Then a family emergency hit.  I will discuss my experiences firsthand in a moment, but first let’s examine what empathy is.  Empathy, specifically affective empathyis the automatic response that people have when witnessing another’s state of being firsthand – usually during times of great pain or elation.  The neurotypical tends to “feel” another’s pain or joy and reciprocate it to an extent.  When presented with tragedy, the NT shows concern.  When shown joy, the NT feels positive emotions themselves.  In a way, effective empathy is the automatic acknowledgement of others as human and reacting appropriately.

Cognitive empathy is a less automatic response that is driven by the intellect.  A person exhibiting cognitive empathy reacts appropriately via interaction with another by intellectually placing themselves in the other’s shoes and determining an appropriate course of action.  For instance, if an NT sees that one is struggling to cross the street, they may imagine the outcome that they’d desire if they were in the other’s position and, thus, help that person across the street.  The situation alone may not provoke an emotional state, but there is still a reactionary phase based on the information at hand.

Psychopaths nearly universally lack affective empathy.  Studies over the years have shown that there is simply less activity in the prefrontal cortex regions where empathy is drawn from.  We cannot feel others pain and we cannot feel their joy.  We are stoic.  Psychopaths can summon cognitive empathy if the incentive is right, although many choose not to draw on this capability.  I suspect that, in part of this unwillingness to display cognitive empathy, that many wish to lump ‘callousness’ as a trait directly related to our lack of affective empathy.  I believe this conclusion is flawed however and that anyone can be callous if the incentive (or rationale) is correct.  I am not saying that psychopaths cannot be callous; many are.  However, the logic that dictates that callousness must arise from a lack of empathy seems flawed.

I mentioned a family emergency in the opening paragraph.  This emergency was particularly interesting as I still struggle with accepting the diagnosis that was placed upon me.  I want to be 100% sure of everything in life; of course, such certainty is reserved to the realms of death.  That said, when my mother nearly died the other night, I was faced with the purest realization of my condition thus far.  As she seized and gasped for air, I felt no emotional state.  I was not concerned regarding her life or death, but merely the steps to take to create a ‘less bad’ outcome.  Yes, if I saved her life – as I was the one that found her – I would undoubtedly still owe her the money that I do.  I would still have to present as empathic with another person in my life.  However, if I let her die, the consequences would be much more severe.  As such, I stoically coordinated the rescue efforts to get her to a local hospital and continued with my life.  I’ve visited her several times in the hospital since, seeing her in various states, but at no point did concern or pain enter my being.   I merely wanted to see my efforts through.

No, we will never have affective empathy.   The benefits are that we can act when others are paralyzed and that we will never feel their pain – only our own.  However, we will never feel their joy either.  I’ve been asked numerous times if I feel that I am missing out on anything by not having a capacity for such empathy.  I do not feel that I am missing anything.  I would rather logic be my guide rather than the emotions of the neurotypical.  I will always be in control, and they may not.


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