Can a Psychopath Learn to Feel Your Pain?

Neuroscientist James Fallon discusses the psychopathic brain, prospects for detection and treatment, and his own struggles to feel empathy and compassion for others.

JS: In your book you talk a lot about empathy and the differences between cognitive empathy—or perceptually recognizing what another person is thinking and feeling—versus emotional empathy—or feeling what another person is feeling.  What does research say about the relationship between these two kinds of empathy and psychopathy?

JF: Emotional empathy is what most people think about and care about, because it has to do with bonding to another person—a mate, a mother, father, really close relationships. People who have great cognitive empathy, on the other hand, are the people we think of who do great works—who save the world: perhaps Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela.

A psychopath can have a very high form of cognitive empathy, too. In fact, they are very good at reading other people. They seem like they can read minds sometimes. But even though they can understand people’s emotions, it doesn’t register emotionally with them—they have no emotional empathy.