Colloquium: Shared circuits and empathy in patients with psychopathy

Psychopathy is a personality disorder with interpersonal, affective and behavioral characteristics. One trait specifically seen in psychopathy disorder is a lack of empathy. In this project we investigated whether this lack of empathy might be (partially) explained in terms of atypical shared circuits. Shared circuits are areas in the brain that becomemnot only active when we perform an action, sense a touch or feel an emotion, but also when we perceive someone else experiencing the same action, touch or feeling. According to Keysers and Gazzola (2006), simulating mental states of others onto our own mental mechanism brings about an intuitive understanding of what is going on inside that other person’s mind and activating these circuits in a different way might explain part of their lack of empathy. Patients from two forensic psychiatric institutions that were diagnosed with psychopathy according to the Psychopathy Checklist – Revised (Hare, 2001; Hare, 2003) and age and IQ matched controls performed an experiment in a Magnetic Resonance scanner. In the first part of the experiment subjects watched movies of hands interacting with each other in different emotional contexts. In the second part they were touched on their own hands in much the same way. During my presentation I will explain the theory behind shared circuits and how they might be related to the concept of empathy. After that I will present the first results of the study and discuss some of the limitations in interpreting these results.

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