Empathy is a crucial human ability, because of its importance to prosocial behavior, and for moral development. A deficit in empathic abilities, especially affective empathy, is thought to play an important role in psychopathic personality. Empathic abilities have traditionally been studied within the social and behavioral sciences using behavioral methods, but recent work in neuroscience has begun to elucidate the neural underpinnings of empathic processing in relation to psychopathy. In this review, current knowledge in the social neuroscience of empathy is discussed and a comprehensive view of the neuronal mechanisms that underlie empathy in psychopathic personality is provided. Furthermore, it will be argued that using classification based on overt behavior, we risk failing to identify important mechanisms involved in the psychopathology of psychopathy. In the last decade, there is a growing attention in combining knowledge from (neuro)biological research areas with psychology and psychiatry, to form a new basis for categorizing individuals. Recently, a converging framework has been put forward that applies such approach to antisocial individuals, including psychopathy. In this bio-cognitive approach, it is suggested to use information from different levels, to form latent categories on which individuals are grouped, that may better reflect underlying (neurobiological) dysfunctions. Subsequently, these newly defined latent categories may be more effective in guiding interventions and treatment. In conclusion, in my view, the future understanding of the social brain of psychopaths lies in studying the complex networks in the brain in combination with the use of other levels of information (e.g., genetics and cognition). Based on that, profiles of individuals can be formed that can be used to guide neurophysiological informed personalized treatment interventions that ultimately reduce violent transgressions in individuals with psychopathic traits.

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Frontiers in Psychology
Department of Psychology

van Dongen, J.D.M. (2020). The empathic brain of psychopaths: From social science to neuroscience in empathy. Frontiers in Psychology. Retrieved from http://hdl.handle.net/1765/130866