Studies show the narcissistic people have deficits of empathic concern at the levels of affective sharing or arousal (that is, resonating with the feelings of others), understanding emotions, and emotion regulation.
So, what’s happening in the brain of a narcissist that’s different from the rest of us?
Empathy is a process that involves sharing, imagining, and understanding the emotions of others. Neuroscience tells us that the primary brain structures involved in mediating these components of empathy are the anterior insula, the anterior cingulate cortex, and specific regions of the medial prefrontal cortex. The anterior insula and anterior cingulate cortex are the main nodes in what’s called the salience network, which selects and coordinates the flow of information. Anterior insula acts as a dynamic switch between two separate networks of cognitive processing: the central executive network, which is concerned with effective task execution, and the default mode network, which is involved with self-reflective processes. In other words, our brains can switch between focusing on a task or focusing on ourselves, but it’s hard to do both at once. The right anterior insula is also an important brain structure in experiencing and anticipating emotions and is involved in thinking about ourselves. And, the right anterior insula and the anterior cingulate cortex are typically associated with empathizing with others.
Recent brain imaging studies suggest that narcissists’ deficit in empathy is due to a dysfunction in the anterior insula. There seems to be an imbalance in the functioning of the salience network in which the anterior insula can’t turn off the default mode network which centers one’s attention on the self. So in other words, the brains of narcissists show that they can’t stop thinking about themselves. This, of course, might hinder the ability to affectively share and understand the emotions of others.