Skip to content

    Brain & Nervous System Health Center

    Font Size
    A
    A
    A

    Brain Scans Show Why Psychopaths Don't Feel Your Pain

    Images revealed much different reaction to thoughts of their own pain versus that of others

    WebMD News from HealthDay

    By Robert Preidt

    HealthDay Reporter

    WEDNESDAY, Sept. 25 (HealthDay News) -- Among other traits, psychopaths feel a lack of empathy when other people are in pain, and brain scans now reveal why that is.

    Psychopathy is a personality disorder marked by callousness, manipulation, sensation seeking and antisocial behaviors. About 23 percent of people in prison are psychopaths, compared with about 1 percent of people in the general population.

    In this study, researchers used functional MRI to observe brain activity in 121 inmates at a medium-security prison in the United States who were divided into three groups based on the levels of their psychopathy: high, moderate or low.

    The participants were shown pictures of physical pain, such as a finger caught in a door or a toe trapped under a heavy object. They were first asked to imagine that these accidents happened to themselves and then to imagine that they happened to others.

    When highly psychopathic inmates imagined themselves in these painful situations, they showed higher-than-normal activity in certain brain regions involved in empathy for pain. But these regions failed to become active when they imagined others in pain.

    Moreover, when imagining other people in pain, highly psychopathic inmates showed increased activity in a brain area known to be involved in pleasure, according to the study, which was published Sept. 24 in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

    The findings may help lead to new treatment approaches for psychopaths, the researchers said in a journal news release.

    Today on WebMD

    nerve damage
    Learn how this disease affects the nervous system.
    senior woman with lost expression
    Know the early warning signs.
     
    woman in art gallery
    Tips to stay smart, sharp, and focused.
    medical marijuana plant
    What is it used for?
     
    senior man
    Article
    boy hits soccer ball with head
    Slideshow
     
    red and white swirl
    Article
    marijuana plant
    ARTICLE
     
    brain illustration stroke
    Slideshow
    nerve damage
    Slideshow
     
    Alzheimers Overview
    Slideshow
    Graphic of number filled head and dna double helix
    Quiz