We can now see narcissism in the brain. Brain scans of people with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) showed they have less brain matter in areas associated with emotional empathy. This is the first time anyone has seen the evidence of narcissism in brain structures.
The inability to feel empathy is one of the hallmarks of NPD. Researchers have found that people with this disorder can take the perspective of another person in a purely intellectual way. However, when it comes to actually feeling what another person is going through, narcissists have difficulty.
A group of German researchers recently studied the source of this lack of emotional empathy in people with NPD. In their research, they collected MRI brain scans of 17 people with NPD along with 17 people from the community for comparison. The researchers first looked at brain volume overall and found that the people with NPD were similar to the healthy individuals. That is, both groups’ brains’ were similar overall.
The researchers then examined the areas of the brain that are now considered areas associated with empathy (i.e., bilateral anterior insula, anterior and median parts of the cingulate cortex, and the supplementary motor area). They found that the patients with NPD had less brain matter in areas that overlapped with the areas associated with empathy (i.e., left anterior insula, rostral and median cingulate cortex as well as dorsolateral and medial parts of the prefrontal cortex).
Put simply, the empathic areas of the brain were less developed in people with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD).
Narcissistic Personality Disorder affects about 1% of the general population and it has been shown to impair interpersonal functioning. This groundbreaking research will likely help legitimize the disorder and, ironically, help people to empathize with people who are suffering with this illness.
By Dr. Syras Derksen
Schulze, L., Dziobek, I., Vater, A., Heekeren, H. R., Bajbouj, M., Renneberg, B., Heuser, I., & Roepke, S. (2013). Gray matter abnormalities in patients with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 47, 1363-1369. (http://www.journalofpsychiatricresearch.com/article/S0022-3956%2813%2900157-X/abstract)