Inside the brains of psychopaths: VCU research aims to understand antisocial empathy

Inside the brains of psychopaths: VCU research aims to understand antisocial empathy

A researcher recently received a $25,000 grant from the VCU C. Kenneth and Dianne Wright Center for Clinical and Translational Research to investigate the brain systems that allow psychopaths to use empathy for harmful ends.

Photo: Kevin Morley

By Anne Dreyfuss

Imagine this: You’re walking down the street in the middle of the day when you encounter a stranger crouched and crying on the sidewalk. Is your instinct to comfort the person or to use their emotional vulnerability to hurt them?

“Most people can sense when others are in pain,” said David Chester, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University. “Whereas non-psychopathic people use that information to console the person, a psychopath might use it to hurt them.”

This conduct — something Chester refers to as “antisocial empathy” — is a trademark behavior of psychopaths. “Psychopaths use antisocial empathy all the time in the real world,” he said. “They possess the ability to feel empathy. They just use it to hurt, whereas everyone else uses it to help.”

Chester runs the Social Psychology and Neuroscience Laboratory in the College of Humanities and Sciences, where he leads a research team that investigates the dark sides of human behavior, trying to discern the underpinnings of traits like violence, aggression, and revenge. A leading scholar of aggression research, Chester has committed his career to understanding why people inflict pain.

“I spend most of my time studying what is going on in the brain when people are hurting one another,” he said.

Chester recently received a $25,000 grant from the VCU C. Kenneth and Dianne Wright Center for Clinical and Translational Research to investigate the brain systems that allow psychopaths to use empathy for harmful ends. Supported by funds from the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, the Pilot Imaging Fund supports innovative imaging projects that use the Wright Center’s research-dedicated magnetic resonance imaging facility. The one-year award is intended to provide researchers with the time and money they need to collect preliminary data that will support future external grant applications.

“For this study, I’m shifting my focus from studying the act of violence to look at what is going on in the brains of psychopaths before they cause harm,” Chester said. “The idea is that once they’re in the act of hurting someone, you’re already too late. If we want to prevent violence, we need to understand what happens beforehand.”

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