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Empathy under arrest? Functional and structural neural correlates of empathy in psychopathy

21 May 2012

PhD ceremony: Ms. H. Meffert, 16.15 uur, Academiegebouw, Broerstraat 5, Groningen

Dissertation: Empathy under arrest? Functional and structural neural correlates of empathy in psychopathy

Promotor(s): prof. C.M. Keysers, prof. J.A. den Boer

Faculty: Medical Sciences

Emotions of other people are contagious. Imagine you are a scientist, giving a lecture about the results of your work. While walking up and down the stage, enthusiastically explaining your findings, you forget to pay attention to your feet, stumble, and disappear behind the table. A case-study, completed by the author of this thesis, revealed that gasps will immediately emerge from the audience and when you get up and peer out over the table, many of those that were sitting in the front row will by now have walked a few steps towards you to check whether you are ok (data not published).

This example illustrates that emotions and feelings of others can touch us in a very real way: when someone you see is hurting, there is a big chance that some of this hurt spills over to you. In the neuroscientific literature, this phenomenon has been demonstrated at the neural level: When you observe other people performing actions, experience emotions or sensations, brain regions are activated that you would normally only use when your perform these actions or experience these emotions and sensations yourself.

In this thesis, we examined the mechanism behind this sharing at the neural level, using functional and structural Magnetic Resonance Imaging. More specifically, we were interested in a group of people with a documented lack of responses to emotions of others, i.e., individuals diagnosed with psychopathy. Results from this thesis suggest that psychopathy is not so much an inability to empathize with other people, but a reduced propensity to do so. These findings may lead to alternative therapeutic strategies, provided they can be replicated and extended in future research.

Last modified:13 March 2020 12.59 a.m.
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