The dark lesson of Bernie Madoff

The financier ripped off his lifelong friends and clients with callous precision. He should be a case study of human cruelty.

Published February 26, 2009 11:38AM (EST)

At age 90, after 30 years of retirement, Ian Thiermann is back at work for $10 an hour as a supermarket greeter, thanks to being bilked out of his life savings by broker Bernie Madoff, perpetrator of perhaps the biggest investment fraud ever by a single person. It is hard to watch a video clip of Thiermann talking about his shattered life without wincing.

And yet, as Thiermann was gamely trying to accept his diminished financial circumstances by handing out fliers for the weekly specials, Madoff, under house arrest and close scrutiny, was busy mailing $1 million worth of old watches to family and friends.

I suspect we all wonder what, if anything, Madoff feels when directly confronted by those he has utterly destroyed. He cooked the books and perpetually lied to his investors. He pulled off the ongoing deception with an utter insensitivity to others. If shown videos of interviews of his victims, would he wince, laugh or simply shrug dismissively and say, "There's a sucker born every minute." For me, a glimpse into Madoff's brain can shed light on the origins of how we treat each other, and perhaps most important, why we treat each other so poorly.

If there's any single attribute that separates Madoff from the average Wall Street thief, I'd suggest that it's his extraordinary ability to read what others think and desire, and especially to know what will give them the greatest satisfaction. (In technical jargon, this ability to read another's thoughts is referred to as Theory of Mind). 

From a neurological perspective, a prime candidate for how we learn how others think is the mirror neuron system. In turn, it's been proposed that this ability to read the mind of another makes it possible for us to experience empathy toward others. We know what they're thinking and feeling and this triggers a similar response in us.

Behavioral neurologist V.S Ramachandran has referred to mirror neurons as "empathy neurons" or "Dalai Lama neurons." He believes this system, by allowing us to understand the intentions and desires of others, is the principal driving force behind "the great leap forward" in human evolution. As a result of such claims, the mirror neuron system has risen to the level of accepted folk psychology. According to U.C. Berkeley psychologist Alison Gopnik, "Mirror neurons have become the 'left brain/right brain' of the 21st century."

But Madoff's behavior raises serious questions about the relationship between mirror neurons and empathy -- and represents a golden opportunity to study the as yet puzzling connection between them.

Over a decade ago, Italian neurophysiologist Giacomo Rizzolatti and his colleagues studied motor control in macaque monkeys by placing electrodes in the region of a monkey's pre-motor cortex responsible for hand movements. To their surprise, they noticed that these neurons fired both when a monkey reached for an object and when the monkey observed someone else (other monkeys and researchers) reach for an object such as a peanut or bit of banana.

The resulting interpretation has been that you recognize the intentions of others by equating their action with what you would do under the same circumstances. These neurons mirror the activity of others and allow you to see the world "from the other person's point of view." Marco Iacoboni, collaborator with Rizzolatti and author of "Mirroring Others," has written that this system is capable of automatically assigning intention to another.

(Although it's not possible to directly isolate and detect mirror neurons in humans, functional studies -- both fMRI and transcranial magnetic stimulation -- strongly suggest that we possess a similar brain system, primarily in the inferior frontal and inferior parietal regions).

To have played his investors as flawlessly as he did for several decades, I'm tempted to say that Madoff knew his investors' minds better than they did -- presumably good evidence for a well-functioning mirror neuron system. But contrary to Ramachandran's view that mirror neurons are synonymous with "empathy neurons," Madoff gets a zero in the empathy department. Just watch Madoff on the news, disdainfully and without any outward appearance of contrition, remorse, guilt or embarrassment, push his way through a crowd of angry onlookers and reporters. Contrast this contempt and disregard for his accusers with his savvy, sophisticated understanding of what his neighbors might expect from him, and we get a sense of the disconnect between understanding the thoughts of others and genuinely sharing their feelings.

Consider this letter that Madoff posted in his apartment building:

Dear neighbors,

Please accept my profound apologies for the terrible inconvenience that I have caused over the past weeks. Ruth and I appreciate the support we have received.

Best regards,

Bernard Madoff

If Madoff's mirror neuron system appears clinically intact, and mirror neurons are key to the development of empathy, what allowed him to muster the callous indifference to ruin so many friends and associates? The obvious candidate would be something awry in the emotional centers and empathy circuitry that allow each of us to feel another's pain and suffering.

In general, there appear to be two distinctly different, albeit overlapping, types of empathy: intellectual empathy, or knowing what someone is feeling; and affective empathy, or experiencing the same feeling as the other person. For example, a life insurance salesman and his wife can attend a funeral of her co-worker. The salesman might understand the mourners are grieving, and yet the sight of their weeping doesn't affect him emotionally; instead he might feel a bit giddy that the mourners would be easy marks for some term insurance policies. His wife, on the other hand, might become overwhelmed with real grief.

One of the best-studied examples of this disconnect between understanding the feelings of others and sharing their feelings is the patient "Elliott," described by neurologist Antonio Damasio in his book "Descartes' Error." Following the removal of a benign brain tumor, Elliot underwent a dramatic personality change. Although his imaging studies showed bilateral damage to his prefrontal cortex, he scored above average on standard intelligence tests, including some designed to detect frontal lobe damage. He responded normally to standard tests of personality, and retained his ability to speak and reason about topics such as politics and economics.

What was strikingly different was his affect. Although he was able to intellectually recognize emotional content, he now was unable to feel these emotions. When shown pictures of gory accidents such as a decapitated car accident victim, or a child drowning, Elliot reported having no emotional response at the same time as he remembered previously having had strong emotional responses to similar photos. His ability to intellectually experience empathy was disconnected from any affective response.

Even the neural substrates of affective empathy aren't neatly organized; they vary according to what emotion is being experienced. If you see a woman in danger and feel fearful for her, your amygdala -- a limbic system structure critical to experiencing fear and trembling -- will light up on fMRI. If you witness quarterback Joe Thiesmann's leg being broken on Monday Night Football, the anterior mid-cingulate cortex and the anterior insula -- two regions that process pain perception -- will go into overdrive.

But do we really need to have prior similar experiences to empathize with others? This is the fundamental argument underlying the theory that the mirror neuron system, by providing the ability to read the thoughts and feelings of others, is essential for empathy.

In a January 2009 study, French neuroscientist Nicolas Danziger wanted to see whether a person could empathize with an unfamiliar emotional state. He studied a group of patients with congenital insensitivity to pain -- a rare condition present at birth and related to genetic changes in sensory nerves. Such patients have never felt physical pain sensations and have no idea what pain feels like. Interested in seeing how these patients would respond to seeing others in pain, Danziger showed them photos of a person getting her finger caught in gardening shears and a video clip of Theismann's leg being broken.

Surprisingly, some of the pain-insensitive patients responded on fMRI similarly to normal controls -- their pain perception regions lit up. Others had the anticipated lack of response. The difference between the two groups correlated with the degree of empathy that was elicited on a standard empathy assessment questionnaire. The authors concluded that those patients who responded had the "empathy trait."

If this study pans out and can be duplicated under a variety of similar circumstances, the inference is profound: Each of us is wired differently for feeling the pain and suffering of others, irrespective of our past personal experience.

So is empathy an inborn trait?

One piece of evidence comes from observations on the Autism Spectrum Disorder. Thought to have a strong genetic predisposition, patients with autism and Asperger's syndrome commonly are unable to grasp what others are thinking and feeling. Listen to this mother of a toddler with Asperger's syndrome describe his reactions to his 8-month old brother crying whenever he fell down, bumped his head or pinched a finger. "My son asked me the most puzzling questions such as 'Why is that baby crying?' 'Why is he doing that?' and, my favorite, 'Can't we take that noisy baby back to the store and get a new one?'" If genes play a significant role in the Autistic Spectrum patient's lack of empathy, it stands to reason that there might be a similar genetic contribution to the experience of empathy in all of us.

Further support comes from studies on antisocial behavior, both in young children and in adult "psychopaths." (I'm using the unfortunately biased term "psychopath" to denote folks with chronic antisocial behavior who lack remorse for their actions, as opposed to antisocial behavior in which remorse and guilt are present.)

Looking at 3,600 pairs of 7-year-old twins, the British Twins Early Development Study found antisocial behavior in 7-year-olds generally fell into two categories: those with normal degrees of empathy and those described as callous and lacking in empathy. The former group was felt to be primarily environmentally mediated (learned behavior), whereas those lacking in empathy demonstrated that their antisocial behavior (primarily bullying and conduct disorders) strongly ran in families. In a subsequent fMRI study, this non-empathic group was shown to have decreased activation of the amygdala in response to looking at fearful faces. In other words, those who lack proper emotional responses to negative stimuli are more likely to have genetic underpinnings to their disorder.

Perhaps the most compelling predictive data supporting the "bad seed" hypothesis is a 25-year study showing that, as early as the age of 3, there are temperamental and physiological difference between those who show psychopathic tendencies as adults and those who don't. In the early '70s, 1,800 3-year-olds were observed and rated on several psychological scales, including their degree of fearfulness and inhibition. Twenty-five years later they were reexamined. Those with the higher psychopathy rating scores were found to be significantly less fearful and inhibited and more glib, charming and manipulative.

The authors concluded that children with a low level of fearfulness may be more likely to develop antisocial personality as adults. I'm always leery about accepting purely questionnaire-based studies at face value, but being able to predict the bad seeds at age 3 is hard to entirely ignore.

Although it's painfully obvious that we don't know what makes Madoff tick, it is hard not to speculate. If there is such a thing as empathy deficiency, Madoff would be its poster child. Perhaps this was a trait that he shares with his mother, Sylvia Madoff, who was registered as a broker, but in the 1960s was forced to close shop as part of an agreement with the Securities and Exchange Commission not to further investigate her brokerage. (I know it's impossible with our present state of knowledge to sort out nature from nurture, but the above studies on empathy certainly suggest the possibility of there being a primary biological contribution.)

Even if true, a genetic predisposition for lack of empathy cannot possibly excuse Madoff's behavior. We all have genetic predispositions for various personality traits -- it is our struggle against baser biologic urges that distinguishes us from the rest of the animal kingdom. Deferring to biology as explanation or excuse for a behavior is to abandon all notions of what it means to be human.

Madoff can't repay his victims, but we can learn from him. That's why he should be forced to participate in medical studies as part of his sentence. The best cognitive scientists, philosophers, geneticists and sociologists should be allowed to administer to him whatever non-invasive and ethically appropriate clinical studies they can dream up. See if any pattern emerges that is sufficiently reliable to qualify as predictive. Even if our present knowledge is insufficient to draw conclusions, Madoff would make a great set of data points. Perhaps one day he can give something back to society by teaching us about human empathy, and its limitations.

By Robert Burton

Robert Burton M.D. is the former chief of neurology at Mount Zion-UCSF Hospital and the author of "On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You're Not" and "A Skeptic's Guide to the Mind." A former columnist for Salon, he has also been published in the New York Times, Aeon and Nautilus, and currently writes a column at the Cambridge Quarterly for Healthcare Ethics.

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