Sorry, that headline was more fun than “Neuroscience Points to Empathy Deficit among Narcissists.”
You know how I’ve been saying here at Chump Lady that these people are wired wrong? They don’t have empathy synapses? Well, turns out more science is emerging every day that narcissists are quite literally wrong in the head. You weren’t imagining it.
According to the Journal for Psychiatric Research, people with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) have less gray matter in their brains in a region that regulates compassionate emotions. (So when Anthony Weiner was singing “If I Only Had a Brain” he was closer to the truth than he ever knew.)
The left anterior insula region of the brain, generally thought to be involved with cognitive functioning and the regulation of emotion, has also been tied to compassion and empathy.
“This was already a region of interest for empathy, but for the first time, we were able to show that it is structurally correlated in the brain,” sid Röpke.
The researchers discovered that the degree to which a person was able to exhibit empathy was tied to the amount of gray matter in the brain, both in the healthy individuals as well as in those with narcissistic personality disorder.
The findings suggest that regardless of personality disorders, the left anterior insula plays an important role in feeling and expressing compassion, Röpke said.
This raises some interesting questions for the Reconciliation Industrial Complex. Like if you’re married to a narcissist — how can you reconcile with someone congenitally incapable of empathy? All that dialoguing you’re supposed to do, all that Joseph’s Letter crap where you implore them to feel your pain — it’s like asking a goldfish to knit a sweater. They can’t know how you feel. They don’t care. And your feelings clearly do not inform their actions.
Perhaps it’s not fair to say they don’t care. They cannot care. They’re limited. The gray fluff in their brain required to make them care is missing. Doesn’t mean they don’t know right from wrong, it means that if they do wrong, there’s no ding, ding, ding going off in their heads making them feel bad about it. Sort of like those rare cases of people who don’t have nerve endings — they burn their hands on stoves, break bones, all without realizing they shouldn’t, because they don’t get the pain signal to their brain.
I’m fascinated by the neuroscience behind personality disorders. On the one hand, it’s frightening, because we want to believe we have control of our character, that life is a matter of choices, and we come to the table as fully rational beings. On the other hand, have a stroke or a brain injury and poof! you can be quite a different person. Read the works of neuroscientist and essayist Oliver Sacks (The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat) — he catalogs numerous examples of brain injury and how it informs behavior.
It’s an interesting age. I think we’re beginning to understand that not everyone is neurologically “normal.” We don’t all run the same operating system. Some people have empathy deficits and you can do an MRI and apparently see an actual lack of gray matter where empathy should be. Just wow! But it makes sense to me that there is a biological component to this phenomenon. I don’t think every cheater is a personality disorder, but I do think a lot of them (especially serial cheaters) have these empathy deficits. If you didn’t, you couldn’t conduct a double life of any duration. There is a danger for chumps to assume that everyone has the same mental make up and cares about the same set of rules. To know that these deficits are real is useful information. If nothing else, you can stop blaming yourself.
It used to be schizophrenia was blamed on frigid mothers, until quite recently it was recognized as an illness of the brain. No more attributable to frigid mothers than cancer or diabetes.
As I’ve mentioned here before, I was once married to man who descended into mental illness — hoarding, OCD, anxiety. (Yeah, I know how to pick ’em.) Did a lot of counseling around it, this was over 20 years ago now — back when there was far more stigma about mental illness and next to no knowledge about hoarding. I used to get told things in counseling like “Oh you know how men are messy. You need to communicate, work out the division of chores.” Like this was possible and if we just had a rational discussion it would sort itself out. I look back and liken all that nonsense to the sort of therapy I experienced trying to reconcile with a serial cheater. “You need to dialogue.” Or to my then cheater husband: “You need to learn to be vulnerable and open yourself to love.”
Might as well ask a shark to tap dance. He wasn’t capable. I remember the good shrink, Janet asking him “How do you think that makes Tracy feel?” and he got this utterly blank look — like she asked the question in Swahili. You could see the gears didn’t shift. He couldn’t imagine. He was incapable of imagining.
Oh, he could pretend at remorse, but if you scratched very deeply, asked him to explain the emotion to you, what triggered it, what he thought of when he felt sorry — he couldn’t do it. He’d get angry or change the subject.
Similarly, my first husband couldn’t throw things away. He could not organize papers. He could write perfect strands of computer code, but he could not clean his desk. He could’ve spent years in therapy or with personal organizers all telling him how to throw junk mail away, or what about his mother made him want to hang on to moldy tennis balls — fact is — we now know that hoarders have neurological damage. You can do an MRI and see exactly what part of their brain is misfiring when they hoard. It wasn’t a matter of choice for him really, he was wired to hoard.
After years of that merry-go-round, I felt in my gut that asking that man to organize his mess was like asking a quadriplegic to get out of his wheelchair and walk across the room. It was almost cruel to expect these things he could not do. And yet I expected them. I felt angry and disappointed and robbed that he would not Make An Effort. Sometimes I accepted his blameshifting that it was me, and my terrible expectations of him. I wish someone would have told me — this is just who he IS. It’s not your fault. He cannot be the person you need him to be — walk away.
I hope this science gives similar comfort to chumps. The cheater in your life may be exceptionally limited — and that limitation is who they ARE. It’s not your fault. You didn’t make them this way, and as yet, there is no cure for a lack of empathy. So stop trying to fix it. They cannot be the person you need them to be — walk away.
This column ran previously, but the cartoon is new!