By | December 17, 2007 7 Comments

Brain researcher puts his finger on the nature of psychopathy

The journal Nature has an article on neurological research being done in the Netherlands on psychopaths’ empathy or lack thereof. The researcher, Christian Keysers, is primarily interested in the neurology of empathy and so wants to compare regular folks with two groups characterised by problems with empathy: autistics and psychopaths.

Do psychopaths cut off the emotional component of empathy when mirroring the other person’s emotions begins, or fail to mirror the emotions of others completely? When identifying with the victim or the perpetrator, which areas of the brain are activated in those who are normally vs abnormally empathic? The article can be downloaded here.

What interests me are the the images which have been chosen to display to the subjects in order to measure their responses. Pictures of neutral, angry, fearful, etc. faces have been rejected by the reseracher on the grounds that only particular areas of the brain are activated by viewing faces.

Instead Keysers has the subject watch short videos of hands interacting. And this is the bit that seems ingenious to me – I wonder what readers think.

Pleasureable gesture – one hand strokes the other.
Emotionally neutral gesture – the hand shakes the other hand.
Painful gesture – one hand twists the finger of the other.
X gesture – one hand gently approaches the other only to be slapped aggressively away.

I called the last one ‘X’ because I’m not sure what to call it: a gesture of betrayal, deceit, luring and attacking, cunning, ambivalence/ambiguity…

Whatever we call it, the researcher has brilliantly captured the essence of the way the psychopath relates to others. What do you think?

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Hi Dr Steve.

Interesting piece on these new testing methods. The X gesture is the experience in a mild form and a pretty accurate indicator of the psychopathic encounter.

One of my observations and relating questions has always been this : Every person operates within a band of “normality” in terms of emotions with resulting behaviour and these emotions fluctuate according to:
– the physical status of the body & mind at any given time (e.g fluctuating estrogen and testosterone levels which affect moods)
– the immediate environmental influences (e.g is all well at home & work?)
– mental stress levels (e.g. is life ok at this time? are you coping?)

When a person continually operates outside of this band of what is generally considered normal and acceptable behaviour, the emotions observed by other people are more noticeable. In the Bi Polar patient moodswings are made obvious according to dopamine levels in the brain and this takes them way up or way down, outside of that ‘band’ of normality. In other words, Every persons moods do change according outside influences as well as biological and neurochemical changes.

When a person is told by a medical doctor that they have a mental disorder it has to be one of the most difficult things to come to terms with. When a Bi Polar patient does accept that they have a mental disorder they usually realise that treatment is necessary and they start down a long road of finding the correct mix of meds as well as psychotherapy, etc. There is a desire to heal, for themselves and for the people they love. (BP is tough on the families too). Before diagnosis is reached the lifestlye and character is perceived, by the Bi Polar patient, as “normal” … then they are told that their “normal” is not normal and everything has to change. This is quite a thing because we all believe we are all pretty much ‘on track’.

How does a tested and proven psychopath usually respond to being told “You have a mental disorder. You are characteristically a psychopath” ? Bearing in mind too that there are extreme psychopaths and mild psychopaths. If you were to use a sliding scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the extreme end and likened a character such as Hannibal Lector, most psychopaths are probably operating between 5 and 8 and these are the ones who are not the serial killers but the ones who creep in to the minds and hearts of people with the devistating effects we have read and reported on this site.

While we know the current prognosis for adult psychopaths is very poor, the disorder is being now explored with more depth and a deeper understanding is being achieved. Are psycho’s so arrogant to dispute a medical diagnosis that they have a mental disorder? Do they display any desire to learn more about the disorder and at any point admit to it?

Ox Drover

For what it is worth, my son, who is a psychopath (ASPD) and has had a lifestyle of this since adolescence, including murder for which he is incarcerated, actually GLORIES in his visciousness. In prison he spends his time “plotting” to violate the rules and not get caught, though he does eventually get caught. He is exceptionally intellectually bright (99th percentile on IQ tests) and has many skills, including the ability to hide a cell phone inside an electric razor in such a way that the razor still worked if turned on, but the charger was actually charging the cell phone too. When he finally (after 3 years) got caught with the cell phone (not until after someone ratted him out) the Major commented to me that “he’s an electronic genius, isn’t he?” Yep, he is! But even then, the authorities only got part of the cell phone (no sim chip) so they could not give him a felony charge for having a cell phone, only Part of one.

His criminal career, though he is quite bright, is more like “keystone cops” and his plans and crimes were usually quickly caught and he was incarcerated for them. His murder conviction was at age 20 sort of like the guy who robbed the bankk and wrote the note on the back of his deposit slip–he announced before hand that he intended to kill this woman and why, then killed her, then told her friends that he HAD killed her, and gave them her purse and jewelry to prove it. Needless to say, he was arrested that day. DUH!? (he also put the gun under his mattress)

Why would someone who is obviously so BRIGHT act in such a STUPID manner? The only word I can come up with is that he is SO ARROGANT that he underestimates the rest of humanity by a factor that is unbelievable. He intermimttently gets “away with” some of his scheems, scams and crimes, so never learns from the consequences of getting caught. He actually glories in the times he does NOT get caught, and blames every episode where he is caught on something or someone else, never ever seeing that his own STUPID behavior brought on his getting caught.

Except for one episode of theft when he was age 11, which I can see in retrospect was ASPD behavior (he denied responsibility even in the face of witnesses, evidence, etc. and became very sullen and showed no remorse only anger) until he became and adolsecent, his success in life seemed predestined, he was bright, capable, charming, and seemed to work at school work and life in a positive manner. But when he hit adolsescene about age 16, he did a 180 degree turn and became totally defiant to all authority of any kind, and seemed to lose his ability to even try to conform to anything except criminal behavior. He dropped his “good” friends and immediately took up with “low lifes.” He also as far as I know never did drugs outside of smoking marijuana a time or two. He never drank alcohol or smoked cigarettes.

Life in prison (over 50% of his life now at age 37) has honed his skills in manipulation and in appearing to have “repented” of his way of life…but it is still very superfiscial and when he is frustrated he almost involuntarily drops the “Charming” Ted Bundy manipulation, and shows the “Charlie Manson” affect he displayed as an adolescent.

For many years he had me “snowed” and I truly believed that he had “seen the light” and embraced a moral code. However, recently I learned that he had done nothing of the sort. Falling into a hoard of letters he had written to one of his “buddies” the letters let me see into his mind and soul, and all I saw there were ASPD thoughts and desires.

My mother, upon reading the letters he wrote to his friend, vs the “pious” and loving letters he wrote to her said “It is almost like two different people wrote them.” Which is a pretty good analogy. He could discuss philosophy, religion and morality in such a manner that he could appear to be a very moral person. Reading the other letters, however, let me see that the entire manipulation was just that. He might unemotionally discuss and appear superfiscially to believe these philosophies, but it was only part of the manipulation.

It saddens me that the son I gave birth to, with all the other advantages and blessings that he had, became such a monster witout the least bit of human empathy. My biological father, (I was not raised by him) was also a psychopathic man, and I strongly believe that my son’s behavior is the result of at least in great part, his genetic make up.

The arrogance, the belief that other people are “beneath contempt” and that he is entitled to whatever he wants, that all problems in his life are caused by others. My biological father though, was street smart enough to “get away” with his crimes which overshadowed even my son’s crimes, and never went to prison.

I sincerely hope that there is found a way to overcome the genetic predisoposition that seems to be passed on in some cases. I hope that there is “hope” out there somewhere, but for immediate hope for my son and those like him, prison is the only option. It cost me a great deal of pain and anguish to come to the conclusion that for my son there is no hope, and until I finally came to that conclusion and cut off communication with him it continued to cause me anguish. Now that I have realized, finally, that there is NO hope, I can heal and go on with the rest of my life. Hanging on to unrealistic “hope” is as malignant as a cancer of the soul.

OxDrover … as I read your post my heart goes out to you. I have three sons, the eldest, almost 20, has been my problem child. He’s been a highschool dropout, has been using and dealing drugs, alchohol, suicide attempts, and now, the girlfriend is not only twice his age but is also a convicted felon after serving five years for fraud.

As much as we adore that baby and hold such high hopes for the child we gave birth to, nursed and nurtured, encouraged and taught, to deal with such extremes of high hopes and let downs is any mothers worst nightmare. I understand you.

My son has been arrested once but not incarcerated (yet). I still have hope that he will find a reasonable path in life … but like you, and by devistating choice, I have also cut most contact with him because the disappointments are just so great… and their actions become a danger. I’ve had threats from the whacko girlfriend wanting to send the drug lords to my house … it just wasn’t safe for me or my two other sons to have him around anymore. Sad.


Studies of mirroring behaviors have for years been at least suggestive that empathy is hard-wired. For example, half a century ago developmental research indicated infants a few months old imitated tongue-thrust, lip-pursing, etc., which was surely not learned behavior. However, mirroring may not be the most important empathic behavior. We also need affect and behavior that is reciprocal to our own affect and behavior to make sense in our relationship transactions. For example, the empathic response to someone’s hurt and trouble is not really feeling their pain. When’s the last time you felt someone’s pain? Rather the appropriate affect and behavior for someone hurt or troubled is the reciprocal affect of sympathy and comforting behavior.

I’m upset at something you’ve done. I’m angry, I need you to be apologetic and to feel apologetic to make sense of my feeling and behavior. In a universe of two, if one says “A” and acts and feels appropriately for A, but the other says “Not-A” and acts and feels appropriately for Not-A, neither is functional in the relationship. The one with the larger emotional investment in the relationship is the more likely to accept a reciprocal role to the other, and make the other’s information work. Reciprocity is a move toward symmetry, which may be either functional or dysfunctional, mutuality or co-dependence, depending upon the persons. Reciprocal behavior, such as moving out of the way of a swinging tree branch is probably also an innate ability and may manifest later than mirroring. But given the innate ability, social forms of reciprocal empathy obviously depend upon social learning. The behaviors expresssing sympathy, pain, sorrow, discomfort are somewhat similar, but may be differently directed in interpersonal relationships. If we are at a funeral, our expression of sorrow is symmetrical in being directed toward generally toward the same event or object. In that case, we need same affect and behavior. But if I’m sorry that you’re sorry, I’m not mirroring your sorrow, but expressing my own for your sorrow. That’s a reciprocal rather than a symmetrical relationship. If we’re going to understand the psychopath’s deficiencies in relationships, it’s probably best to think of his behaviors in terms of how they do or do not relate to the needs of relationship. Perhaps the psychopath is more deficient in reciprocal empathy than that expressed by symmetrical or mirroring behavior.


My husband had a heart attack and one year later had a stroke. (right brain…deep stroke)
When he filed for divorce (30 years married), I
made astounding discoveries of double life, secret life and
that he was lying, deceptive and misleading me for 15 years. The kids and I thought his odd behavior was due to the stroke, although somewhat familiar, his behaviors were exaggerated. During his stay in assisted living, he became
romatically involved with one of the other patient’s daughter.
He filed for divorce and basically deserted 7 children and me.
I’ve often wondered if there is any way to show distorted thinking due to the stroke. Obviously, the divorce has
been devastating financially as well as a raw heart. Is it
possible that a stroke would amplify sociopathy? If so,
would it show up on a cat scan? In additon, it almost
appears like he’s had some form of brain wash. I’m
told that a stroke could cause patient to be easily manipulated
or swayed to one side or the other.

I think we are always trying to find a way of excusing
the sociopath or make some sense of how and why
so we can in someway not feel rejected or blamed but
I sincerely would like to have some insight/answers to
my questions.

Thank you.

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