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Front Hum Neurosci. 2013 May 10;7:181. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2013.00181. eCollection 2013.

What can we learn about emotion by studying psychopathy?

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  • 1Department of Psychology, Georgetown University Washington, DC, USA.


Psychopathy is a developmental disorder associated with core affective traits, such as low empathy, guilt, and remorse, and with antisocial and aggressive behaviors. Recent neurocognitive and neuroimaging studies of psychopathy in both institutionalized and community samples have begun to illuminate the basis of this condition, in particular the ways that psychopathy affects the experience and recognition of fear. In this review, I will consider how understanding emotional processes in psychopathy can shed light on the three questions central to the study of emotion: (1) Are emotions discrete, qualitatively distinct phenomena, or quantitatively varying phenomena best described in terms of dimensions like arousal and valence? (2) What are the brain structures involved in generating specific emotions like fear, if any? And (3) how do our own experiences of emotion pertain to our perceptions of and responses to others' emotion? I conclude that insights afforded by the study of psychopathy may provide better understanding of not only fundamental social phenomena like empathy and aggression, but of the basic emotional processes that motivate these behaviors.


amygdala; emotion; empathy; fear; psychopathy

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