Story At A Glance
Abigail Marsh, an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology and the Interdisciplinary Program in Neuroscience at Georgetown7 started studying the amygdala’s of psychopaths but not for the reasons you might expect. It wasn’t to understand psychopaths; it was to understand something quite different.
What she was really interested in was the way the brains of altruistic people are wired. Altruism of course is the exact opposite of psychopathy. Psychopaths are callus and unemotional, they show now signs of guilt, or empathy and they are antisocial. Altruistic people on the other hand are prepared to extend compassion to others to the degree that they would sacrifice themselves in service to help another human being.
Or as Marsh puts it, “Altruism is a voluntary, costly behaviour motivated by the desire to help another individual. So it’s a selfless act intended to benefit only the other.”
Her suspicion was that if psychopathic people are self serving and incapable of feeling empathy, then the architecture of the amygdala would be quite different between altruistic people and psychopaths.
And she was right.
As per our previous article, she also found that psychopaths were unable to elicit an emotional response to facial expressions; facial expressions that for a normal person would activate feelings of empathy.
“The part of the brain that’s the most important for recognising fearful expressions is called the amygdala. There are very rare cases of people who lack amygdalas completely, and they’re profoundly impaired in recognising fearful expressions. And whereas healthy adults and children usually show big spikes in amygdala activity when they look at fearful expressions, psychopaths’ amygdalas are underreactive to these expressions. Sometimes they don’t react at all, which may be why they have trouble detecting these cues. Finally, psychopaths’ amygdalas are smaller than average by about 18 or 20 percent.”
This was also the findings in the study published in The Archives of General Psychiatry Journal5
“The findings in this study provide the first evidence, to our knowledge, showing significant volume reductions and regional morphological alterations in bilateral amygdala in psychopathic individuals.”
Marsh then scanned the brains of altruistic people. Specifically those that had donated a kidney to a stranger, someone they had never met before or were ever likely to meet. Not only did they have a greater capacity to register an empathetic response to facial expressions, their brain scans showed amygdalas around eight per cent larger.
“They are better at recognising other people’s fear. They’re literally better at detecting when somebody else is in distress. This may be in part because their amygdala is more reactive to these expressions. And remember, this is the same part of the brain that we found was underreactive in people who are psychopathic. And finally, their amygdalas are larger than average as well, by about eight percent,” says Marsh.
So where does this leave you and I?
Is our capacity for compassion or altruism fixed by the very nature of the architecture of our brain?
That’s a tricky one.
We know that the neurology of our brain is malleable, that neuroplasticity shows us we can rewire it. But like any new cognitive approach to changing our thoughts and behaviours, it takes effort. Studies8 show meditation rewires our brain. Practicing empathy rewires our brains too. It is entirely possible therefore to increase your ability to have empathy for other people.
Mostly having empathy is about choosing to be empathic.
“Even among people who have the capacity for empathy, they don’t always use it.” Understanding why people who do have empathy “turn it on and turn it off” is “where the real action is,” says Marsh.
Researchers have found that the way you are parented has a real impact on how empathetic you grow up to be. The way we talk to our children about other peoples’ distress, how we frame it for them, how we explain what it must be like to be in their shoes, all influences how your child grows up and interacts with the world around them.
Stephanie Preston, Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Michigan says, “It’s a matter of how much time you spend explaining “other people’s feelings and needs during early development.”
If we start explaining empathy to our children, teach them about compassion and show them how to relate to people in distress, we’re off to a mighty good start.
And then all we need to do is make sure we practice what we preach.
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 Fear and the human amygdala. Adolphs R, Tranel D, Damasio H, Damasio AR J Neurosci. 1995 Sep; 15(9):5879-91.
 The amygdala and reward. Baxter MG, Murray EA Nat Rev Neurosci. 2002 Jul; 3(7):563-73.
 Impaired recognition of emotion in facial expressions following bilateral damage to the human amygdala. Adolphs R, Tranel D, Damasio H, Damasio A Nature. 1994 Dec 15; 372(6507):669-72.
 Neural foundations to moral reasoning and antisocial behavior. Raine A, Yang Y Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2006 Dec; 1(3):203-13.
 Localization of Deformations Within the Amygdala in Individuals With Psychopathy. Dr Yaling Yang, Dr Adrian Raine, Dr Katherine L. Narr, Dr Patrick Colletti, Dr Arthur W. Toga Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2009 Sep; 66(9): 986–994. doi: 10.1001/archgenpsychiatry.2009.110 PMCID: PMC3192811
 Responses to others’ fear as predictors of empathic behaviours. Abigail A. Marsh Georgetown University
 Alterations in Resting-State Functional Connectivity Link Mindfulness Meditation With Reduced Interleukin-6: A Randomized Controlled Trial. David Creswell, Adrienne A. Taren, Emily K. Lindsay, Carol M. Greco, Peter J. Gianaros, April Fairgrieve, Anna L. Marsland, Kirk Warren Brown, Baldwin M. Way, Rhonda K. Rosen, Jennifer L. Ferris Biological Psychiatry Journal July 1, 2016 Volume 80, Issue 1, Pages 53–61