Violence and Empathy: Brain Bedfellows?

In a recent article published in Barcelona-based journal Revista de Neurología, lead author Luis Moya Albiol purports to have shown that the neurological correlates of empathy and violence are, at least in part, remarkably similar. The study supposedly finds that the prefrontal and temporal cortex, the amygdala and other features of the limbic system (such as insulin and the cingulated cortex) are involved in both markedly different human activities. There appears to be some suggestion that both are part of related higher-order processes, and thus are correlated with similar areas of the brain.

First of all – this much may go without saying – without replication of these results both by a different team of researchers, and in a language which permits our scrutiny, we cannot say much either way as to the validity of these these findings. There are several potential problems with these results that are indiscernible in the mere press releases that have been released in English on the matter, not least of which is the significant question of how exactly empathy and aggression are to be defined experimentally. However, in the event that such findings should be replicated and hold up to broad scrutiny, however, there may be several interesting ramifications for law, neuroethics and, potentially, the practice of psychiatry.

For instance, if it is the case that neurologically, empathy and violence are not that different, then tests which are intended to discover neurological markers criminal behavior must be treated with even more suspicion than they are presently.  Unless these tests are able to systematically and consistently distinguish empathic correlates from violent correlates, and whether this much is possible is not yet clear, some truly ironic and unfortunate results can be imagined. Secondly, lines of psychiatric treatment for disorders associated with violent behavior such as antisocial personality disorder or oppositional defiant disorder, are often very different from treatment for disorders associated in some respect with empathy, which would largely fall within the mood disorders spectrum.  If the Moya Albiol team’s finding proves replicable, what other social, legal, and ethical ramifications might ensue?

CJ Murdoch