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A lengthy quote follows (https://www.quora.com/How-do-mirror-neurons-work-in-psychopaths). For the purposes of this blog, I moved the claimed debunking opinion to the end.
How do mirror neurons work in psychopaths?
Mirror neurons play a significant role in observational learning, and such neurons also play a central role in empathy (Lacoboni, 2009; Ramachandran, 2000). However, psychopaths are skillful in copying other people’s reactions or behaviour (i.e. seem to have more and/or more active mirror neurons).
As with all my answers on psychopathy and the dark triad (sociopathy, NDP and machiavellism, my answer begins by operationalizing the term psychopath from a previous answer I wrote:
V. S. Ramachandran is a neurologist and an author, who discusses the mysteries of the human brain and is a huge advocate for mirror neurons. Mirror neurons were first discovered in the 1990s by a team of Italian researchers studying macaque monkeys. Motor neurons fire in a monkey’s brain when the monkey reaches for a peanut. Interestingly, a subset of these neurons, called mirror neurons,also fire when the monkey watches another monkey reach for a peanut. They found that mirror neurons are a type of brain cell that respond equally when we perform an action and when we witness someone else perform the same action.
For example motor neurons fire when we poke a person with a needle, but a subset of these neurons, the mirror neurons, fire when we witness someone else being poked with a needle. These mirror neurons appear to be our way of empathizing with another. They are the mechanism by which we put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and are the basis of our empathy. As such, they may be the basis for human ethics.
Ramachandran notes that autistic children appear to suffer from mirror neuron dysfunction, resulting in a lack of empathy and an inability to relate to others. A separate article about mirror neurons notes that psychopaths and sociopaths have impaired functioning of the mirror neurons. Interestingly the MAOA-L gene, which I have previously written on is present in both psychopaths, people with ADHD and also those with autism.
“Recent advances in social neuroscience suggest a link between empathy and the mirror neuron system (MNS). Impaired empathy is one of the core diagnostic features of psychopathic personality disorder…. Consistent with previous data, observation of the painful stimulus was associated with a significant reduction in the amplitude of the TMS-induced MEP. Interestingly, the level of corticospinal excitability modulation was positively correlated with individual scores on the coldheartedness subscale of the PPI, such that individuals with the greatest MEP reduction were the ones scoring highest on the coldheartedness measure. These data suggest the existence of a functional link between ‘motor empathy’ and psychopathy.”
This research contradicts what a senior FBI profiler, tells Kevin Dutton (author of The Wisdom of Psychopaths): “Sadistic serial killers feel their victims’ pain in exactly the same way that you or I might feel it. They feel it cognitively and objectively, and emotionally and subjectively too. But the difference between them and us is that they commute that pain to their own subjective pleasure. Studies have also shown that some psychopaths have more ‘mirror neurons’ (empathy brain cells) than normal people. Further prosocial psychopaths can be more altruistic than the rest of us. Studies have shown that psychopaths are quicker to offer help to people in need than everyday folk.”
Thus the verdict is out. I suspect that born not raised psychopaths have more mirror neurons, as the MAOA-L gene research indicates, while sociopaths and others of the dark triad have less. Until, the terms are operationalized for research, the research will continue to be contradictory.
I read an interview with Ramachandran and he explains his hypothesis quite well. You can read the exchange here:
Ramachandran explains how, when we engage in physical activity, our brain fires off neurons which travel from our central nervous system to body parts. “Motor neurons” help our organs function and our muscles move. They are, in essence, responsible for our ability to breathe and interact with the world around us.
When we perform an action, our motor neurons activate our musculature in an appropriate way via synapses and a synaptic connection called the neuromuscular junction. Mirror neurons, which activate upon simply being shown a stimulus, provide a similar trace response. Your brain uses them to effectively “feel” an observation. That’s part of the reason why we cringe during violent movies and get nervous for flagging athletes – we can, in a very tiny and distant way, go through what they’re going through.
Ramachandran, being a professor at the University of California at San Diego, does a much better job explaining the implications:
A subset of these neurons also fire when I simply watch another person—watch you reach out and do exactly the same action. So these neurons are performing a virtual reality simulation of your mind, your brain. Therefore, they’re constructing a theory of your mind—of your intention—which is important for all kinds of social interaction.
His hypothesis is that the ability of “mirror neurons” to subtly simulate an observed action underlies our capacity to feel empathy and, figuratively, put ourselves in another person’s shoes.
It turns out these anterior cingulate neurons that respond to my thumb being poked will also fire when I watch you being poked—but only a subset of them. There are non-mirror neuron pain neurons and there are mirror neuron pain neurons.
So these [mirror] neurons are probably involved in empathy for pain. If I really and truly empathize with your pain, I need to experience it myself. That’s what the mirror neurons are doing, allowing me to empathize with your pain—saying, in effect, that person is experiencing the same agony and excruciating pain as you would if somebody were to poke you with a needle directly. That’s the basis of all empathy.
While Ramachandran talks at some length about a link he speculates exists between mirror neurons and autism, he doesn’t touch upon the subject of psychopathy in his easily-understandable interview. However, it doesn’t take much imagination to draw the conclusion that a person who either lacks sufficient mirror neurons or who has defective mirror neurons might be less than empathetic.
Other studies () have contributed to the idea that a lack of emotionality can be correlated to a lack of reponsiveness from mirror neurons. The cited paper, linked to in the parentheses, describes how persons who scored high on the Psychopathic Personality Inventory had certain reactions to images of hands being poked with needles or knives. Specifically, individuals who had higher-than-average “coldheartedness” marks on the Inventory were observed to have experienced a stronger reduction in “TMS motor evoked potentials” versus those who had scored normally or lower than average.
That doesn’t prove that there’s a link between mirror neurons and psychopathy, but it does suggest that mirror neurons can either affect or be affected by traits associated with the label.
(apparently the study had a small sample size and a weak correlation between coldheartedness and strength of reduction in TMS-MEPs:)
Mirror neurons are not well-understood and would not likely adequately explain psychopathy. Deformations and abnormalities in the amygdala also correlate with high scores on the PPI. Since the amygdala is at least partially responsible for our ability to deduce the meaning of facial expressions and read social cues, it makes sense that an un-empathic person might have structural deficiencies.
That link seems to have more evidence underlying it. Research suggests that a “global volume reduction” in the amygdala would positively correlate to the exhibition of psychopathic features in relation to the amount of shrinkage. Checking out () also shows that test subjects with larger amygdalae also had larger and more complex social networks than those with smaller amygdalae.
The conclusion ofwas that the posited link between amygdala volumes and psychopathic traits was valid. However, NCBI isn’t a perfect resource for peer-reviewed articles, and I didn’t do a validation check.
Psychopathy is a condition about which much remains to be explained. Speculation about the role of mirror neurons is exciting, but should be taken with a grain of salt.
If you have any interest in how the theory of psychopathy came into existence, I’d recommend checking out Hervey Cleckley’s book “Mask of Sanity” and Robert Hare’s “Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of Psychopaths.” Both are quite easy and interesting to read and provide a sold informational foundation about the condition and its psychological components.
Recent advances in social neuroscience suggest a link between empathy and the mirror neuron system (MNS). Impaired empathy is one of the core diagnostic features of psychopathic personality disorder.
A study investigated whether psychopathic personality traits in a non-psychiatric sample were related to MNS function.
Healthy participants viewed short videos known to activate the sensorimotor MNS for pain (a needle penetrating a human hand) while transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS)-induced motor evoked potentials (MEP) were recorded as a measure of motor cortex excitability. Individual psychopathic personality traits were assessed using the Psychopathic Personality Inventory (PPI) and correlated with the MEP findings. Consistent with previous data, observation of the painful stimulus was associated with a significant reduction in the amplitude of the TMS-induced MEP. Interestingly, the level of corticospinal excitability modulation was positively correlated with individual scores on the coldheartedness subscale of the PPI, such that individuals with the greatest MEP reduction were the ones scoring highest on the coldheartedness measure. These data suggest the existence of a functional link between ‘motor empathy’ and psychopathy.
I think a lot of nonsense has been spread in the media about mirror neurons.
There is very little evidence that mirror neurons have anything whatsoever to do with empathy. They are found, and seem to have something to do with the ability to recognize or categorize actions. There is a huge gulf between recognition/categorization and the concept of empathy. Even imitation is not an indicator of empathy. You can, for example, imitate a person you are mercilessly making fun of. So mirror neurons can easily be considered a basis for imitation without empathy.
Why should the mere fact of a neuron firing when you do something and when I do the same thing have anything to do with empathy? We’d need a fully fleshed-out neural theory of emotion and motivation in order to make such a leap. No such theory exists.
“In fact we do not yet have the research to show that mirror neurons are vital for human empathy, and there are reasons to believe that empathy is possible without them.”
In fact mirror neurons haven’t even been directly observed in humans: all the evidence comes from monkeys. This is because we are very rarely able to stick electrodes into people’s brains: this only happens for a small group of epileptic patients.
So we can’t even make any inferences about mirror neurons’ function in humans, let alone in the specific sub-group that is psychopaths. You can speculate away, but the actual neuroscientific evidence is extremely slim.
For more on the concept of mirror neurons, see this essay I wrote, in which I break down some key misconceptions and confusions.
Also see the following:
- Mirror Neurons — The unfalsifiable theory —
- What’s So Special About Mirror Neurons? —
- Mirror Neurons: The Most Hyped Concept in Neuroscience? —
In fact a neuroscientist named Greg Hickok recently wrote a book debunking much of the mirror neuron hype: