The Science of Good and Evil

There’s an important article with this title in the January 2018 issue of National Geographic – by Yudhijit Bhattacharjee.

Scientists studied the brains of psychopaths, including convicted and incarcerated criminals, to see if they could find any evidence that their physical brains are different from those dubbed “extreme altruists”.

The results are illuminating. In the psychopaths, the areas of the brain that seem to dictate whether or not we will empathize with others, and thus feel compassion for them, are markedly smaller. This is especially true of the amygdala, the area of our brains that largely governs our emotions. In the extreme altruists, these areas are larger and “light up” more easily than those of the psychopaths.

So, part of the conclusion is that a predisposition to either (a) be less sensitive to the suffering of others, and (b) harm others to get what we want is largely genetic.

So, clearly, nature plays a huge part. But, the good news from the research described in the article is that nurture can also play a big part in either reinforcing a predisposition in either direction, or helping a person with an empathy deficit feel more aware of others’ pain.

Particularly encouraging to me was an experiment which showed that a loving-kindness meditation from the Buddhist tradition could help subjects feel more compassion for other s in just a few days. There’s also a juvenile treatment center – The Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center in Wisconsin that is having excellent results training the most “hardened” and antagonistic teens to be more compassionate. They do it largely by treating the inmates humanely and compassionately, and not punishing them – even for actions like flinging feces at staff members. Instead, use a behavior rating system to measure how well the teens are doing at relating to each other and the staff, and they reward them with privileges when they do well. Eventually, even though the inmates may change their behavior in the beginning purely to gain privileges, they develop the “muscles” of empathy and compassion simply by taking “better” actions.

This is just more evidence in the growing body of research showing that our brains are less rigid and predetermined than previously thought, and that, with the right support and training, those among us who were previously thought to be incurably psychopathic can become more empathic and compassionate.

I strongly recommend the article.