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Heartful or Heartless? Empathy and Brain Wiring

Have you ever wondered why a significant other, family member, work associate, or even political leader, seems to lack empathy and compassion?

Your brain goes around and around the multitude of painful conversations you have had trying to figure out why on earth they said and did “XYZ”! To make matters worse, they don’t seem to recognize the degree to which they have hurt you and they have difficulty accounting for their behaviors. They have a hard time understanding and seeing things from your perspective. You tear your hair out in disbelief! You may be saying to yourself, “If they loved me, they wouldn’t treat me like this… They are mean spirited… After all, I would NEVER treat someone like that!” Their words and actions seem incomprehensible to you. 

When we are in the midst of a difficult relationship, it can be hard to see the forest for the trees. But what if someone’s compromised ability to empathize is not intentional? What if their behaviors have nothing to do with you or anyone else? What if what you considered mean spirited, or even evil, was due wiring in the brain?

Are some people born with brains wired for greater or lesser empathy? What parts of the brain control empathy? How does stress affect empathy? How do personality disorders, such as narcissism and psychopathy, affect one’s ability to empathize? Groundbreaking findings in the neuroscience of empathy are stated to be some of the greatest discoveries of our time.

What Is Empathy? Empathy is the action of understanding, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another-even if you haven’t had the same experience. Put simply, it’s the ability to put oneself into the shoes of another person. Empathy is the ability to sense other people’s emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling. Empathetic people are more socially, emotionally and intuitively intelligent.

Research suggests that empathic people also tend to be more generous and concerned with others’ welfare. They tend to have happier relationships, greater personal well-being and have greater communication and relational skills.

What Part of the Brain Controls Empathy?

Mirror Neurons

Neuroscientists have discovered specialized cells in the brain, called mirror neurons. Mirror neurons are a type of brain cell that fires when you (or an animal) do an action, and also when you simply watch someone else doing the same action. For example, when you are picking up a tennis ball, Motor Neuron A (which also happens to be a Mirror Neuron) fires to tell your hand to reach out and grab the ball. When you watch your friend pick up his ball, Motor Neuron A also fires as if you were also picking up the ball, even if your hand is not moving at all. Thus, the neuron “mirrors” the behavior of the other, as though the observer were itself acting.

In humans, brain activity consistent with that of mirror neurons has been found in the premotor cortex, the supplementary motor area, the primary somatosensory cortex and the inferior parietal cortex. The supramarginal gyrus is part of the somatosensory association cortex, which interprets tactile sensory data and is involved in perception of space and limbs location. It is also involved in identifying postures and gestures of other people, and is thus a part of the mirror neuron system.

Stated more simply, mirror neurons spontaneously create brain-to-brain links between people. This means that our brain waves, chemistry, actions, thoughts and feelings can literally mirror those of the people who we are communicating with, watching on television, or those who we simply have in our thoughts.

Mirror Neurons and Intuition

Reading thoughts is one of the ways I do  intuitive work with clients, as you may know. I feel love and empathy for my clients, both as an empath and intuitive  and can pick up thoughts, feelings, behaviors, pictures, and body chemistry without gaining any physical information from them (for example, when I am taking calls from listeners on radio and am able to provide valid insights although I don’t know anything about them prior and can’t see them). Most of us can develop our empathic and psychic skills.

When Does The Brain Inhibit Empathy?

Empathy brain 2 Supramarginal_gyrus_-_superior_view2
Supramarginal Gyrus

The right portion of the supramarginal gyrus appears to play a central role in controlling our empathy towards other people. When this structure isn’t working properly, our empathy becomes severely limited. Research has shown that disrupting the neurons in the right supramarginal gyrus causes humans to project their emotions on others, inhibiting empathic ability and causing people to be more egocentric and have difficulty perceiving the emotions of others.

How Does Stress Affect Empathy?

A flood of stress hormones, over time, is neurotoxic to the brain and literally shrinks higher brain function, in particular, the prefrontal cortex, leaving the primitive brain which is in charge of a flight, fight or freeze response. Under enduring stress, we can become paranoid, short-sighted, and self-centered. All of the intelligences decline, including social, emotional, and intuitive intelligence – the intelligences required for empathy and compassion.

Having empathy isn’t as easy when we are in a distraught emotional state. It can be hard to give when we are afraid, insecure or needy. To be truly empathetic, we must be able to distinguish between self and others, and in times of stress, the distinction between the two can be blurred.

Interestingly, a recent research study by McGill University found that a drug that blocks stress hormones can increase the ability of humans and mice to “feel” others’ pain. Another test found that when the mice were put under stress, they showed less empathy for their cage mates.

Personality Disorders and Empathy

I often hear individuals carelessly throw out the label “narcissist” without a clear understanding of the disorder. Individuals with narcissistic personality disorder suffer from low self-esteem and feelings of inferiority, while also projecting displays of arrogance and vanity, according to the American Psychiatric Association. Self-centeredness is also a typical characteristic.

According to the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, one of the key behavioral indicators of narcissism is “Impaired ability to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others; excessively attuned to reactions of others, but only if perceived as relevant to self; over- or underestimate of own effects on others.”

One of the key traits of pathological narcissists is their lack of compassion, deficit capacity for emotional empathy and dysfunctional capacity for cognitive empathy. A new study finds that people with narcissistic personality disorder have structural abnormalities in a region of the brain that has been linked to empathy. In particular, pathological narcissists have less gray matter in a part of the cerebral cortex called the left anterior insula. Gray matter is primarily composed of neuron cell bodies and non-neuron brain cells that provide nutrients and energy to neurons, rather than sending and receiving information. The left anterior insula region of the brain, which is thought to be involved with cognitive functioning and the regulation of emotion, has also been tied to the generation of compassion and empathy.

Antisocial personality disorder, often referred to as psychopathy or sociopathy, is a disorder that is characterized by lack of empathy and remorse, shallow affect, glibness, manipulation and callousness. Other descriptors include a long-standing pattern of disregard for other people’s rights, often crossing the line and violating those rights. A person with this disorder has compromised impulse control and difficulty with emotional regulation.  Addictive behaviors, risky behaviors, inappropriate sexual promiscuity/infidelity, pathological lying,  anger/rage/violence, and lack of responsibility/accountability are some of the symptoms.  A person with antisocial personality disorder (APD) often feels little or no empathy toward other people, and doesn’t see the problem in bending or breaking the law for their own needs or wants. They also have difficulty learning from past mistakes which is why they continually repeat dysfunctional and destructive patterns.  Criminals with this disorder are often repeat offenders.  The disorder usually begins in childhood or as a teen and continues into a person’s adult life.

Many people believe psychopaths are evil and immoral by decision. What most don’t realize is that empathy can be left behind at birth in those genetically predisposed to psychopathic behavior. Antisocial personalities tend to narcissistic, highly manipulative, self-centered, compulsive liars, and overly preoccupied with how others perceive them.

Sociopaths differ slightly from psychopaths in that they may not have been born with a gene wired for this disorder, but their environment may have been so traumatic that, over time, their brains wired to lack empathy or became severely compromised.

A September 2013 study from the Department of Psychology at the University of Chicago published in the open access journal, Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, found the neurobiological roots of psychopathic behavior. As part of the study, researchers found that when individuals with psychopathy imagine others in pain, brain areas necessary for feeling empathy and concern for others fail to become active and be connected to other important regions involved in affective processing and decision-making.

When highly psychopathic participants imagined pain to themselves, they showed a typical neural response within the brain regions involved in empathy for pain, including the anterior insula, the anterior midcingulate cortex, somatosensory cortex, and the right amygdala. The increase in brain activity in these regions was unusually pronounced, suggesting that psychopathic people are sensitive to the thought of pain. When participants imagined pain to others, however, these regions failed to become active in psychopaths. Moreover, psychopaths showed an increased response in the ventral striatum, an area known to be involved in pleasure, when imagining others in pain. Mirror neurons can allow antisocial personalities to read faces, calculate others, and even imitate acceptable social behavior for the sake of manipulation, but a person with this disorder doesn’t feel for another and care about hurting another’s feelings. Those who are charmed, devalued and discarded  by people with this disorder are typically left feeling that their lives, bank accounts, psyche and spirit have been destroyed.  Depending on the severity of the betrayal and abuse, they may be left with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Can those with narcissistic and antisocial personality disorder become more empathetic? The researchers at the Department of Psychology at the University of Chicago believe that “finding the neurobiological roots of empathy vs. psychopathy may lead to intervention programs in a domain where therapeutic pessimism is running rampant. Honing in on neural networks needed to make people more empathetic may be the key to targeting psychopathic behavior and lower violent crime. Imagining oneself in pain or in distress may trigger a stronger affective reaction than imagining what another person would feel, and this could be used with some psychopaths in cognitive-behavior therapies as a kick-starting technique,” the authors conclude.

Neuroscience has a relatively new understanding of how the brain works through neuroplasticity. Only in roughly the last fifteen years have we learned that the brain has the ability to expand, reorganize and integrate higher brain function.

Can we help people who lack empathy gain it? It depends.  It depends on the person, their capabilities and motivation.  Research on brain science is rapidly progressing.

With respect to anti-social personality disorder, currently treatment is limited and the prognosis poor.  One of the problems is that those who lack empathy may not see it as a problem and instead will project their issues (and how they subconsciously feel about themselves) onto others.   They typically won’t seek treatment unless forced to by the legal system.

My hope in writing this article is to bring a new, and perhaps enlightening perspective toward those who lack empathy. You know you are an empath when you empathize with those who lack it!  Your own healing can occur when you realize you are neither the source of this problem, nor the cure, for that matter.

Karen Storsteen, M.S., M.A., in an intuitive therapist.  She has worked in the fields of human and organizational development for over twenty-five years and educated and counseled thousands to self-actualize and reach their greatest potential.  Karen is known for her “supersensory and uncanny intuitive gifts”, and blends this talent with proven psychological methods to help people gain instant insight and awareness in love, work and life.  

She helps people let go of limiting thoughts and behaviors so they may experience the miraculous  and catapult their lives forward.

Karen is revolutionizing the way people think and feel to achieve results they never thought possible. She provides counseling and consulting services, as well as intuitive sessions, globally and by phone.

Storsteen has been featured on ABC, NBC, CBC, and has been a regular on morning radio and several FM/AM and internet radio stations. Her work is well recognized by Fortune 500 leaders, professional organizations (such as the Mensa The High IQ Society), higher education, the media and general public.

Karen graduated with Honors with a Master of Arts in Psychology from Regis University, holds a Master of Science in Management and Organization, and Master’s Minor in Finance, from the University of Colorado, and Bachelor of Science in Business Management.  She holds numerous certifications in psychological, behavioral and organizational assessment and human performance improvement technologies.

To learn more, you can go to karensinsight.com and karenstorsteen.com.