Tuesday, November 19, 2019
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Empathy and Morality and the Brain

Note: I originally wrote this years ago when I read the original studies and have updated the links in November 2009.

Are the roots of morality found in empathy? Martin Hoffman thinks so. I think so too.

It is empathizing with someone in pain or deprivation that moves us to help them. On the contrary, research has shown that the criminal mind seems to lack empathy.

Now before you go “duh” to me, think about this…

When studying crime, I’ve often thought, “how can someone do this?”. Thinking from the perspective of my own mind and knowing that I could not live with such an action if it were me.

Well…In one study, brain waves were measured as they tried to decipher words that had been scrambled. Most people react differently to words such as kill and murder. Brains show an electrical response.

Not so the brain of the psychopath. This shows a disruption in circuits between the verbal cortex and the limbic brain.

Additionally, and this is significant, another study (Robert Hare) shows that psychopaths do not fear the way normal people do. Tests were done where subjects were to receive an electrical shock. The knowledge that they were about to experience pain did not trigger anxiety as it does in people who are not psychopaths. This suggests that these people are unable to comprehend (and are not concerned) with future punishments.

When people themselves do not feel fear, they will likely not feel empathy for the fear and pain of others.

So…will research such as this give credence to the insanity plea? Will criminals and their attorneys be able to truthfully say that the criminal did not know what he was doing was wrong? And use this research to back this up?



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