The Neuroscience of Narcissism
Posted On June 13, 2020
This series has focused on narcissism and narcissistic abuse of children and how their past inhibits their present. However, some questions need answering, including the most common, “Why did she/he act that way?”
This article is purely scientific and does not, in any way, excuse the behaviors of narcissistic parents and the abuse they perpetrate against their children. All adults are entirely responsible for their actions, no matter the extent of their illness. This article will attempt to answer the question above. Also, we shall talk about the scope of the damages done to the brains of children of narcissists.
First, A Recap on Narcissistic Personality Disorder
Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is a condition where people have an inflated sense of self-importance and a deep-seated need for attention and admiration. Those living with NPD show a distinct lack of empathy for the feelings and needs of others
Narcissists love to exert power over those they can easily control and rarely, if ever, admit to their faults. Dr. Sandy Masterson, in her book What Is It About You: The Seven Deadly Sins of Narcissism, relates seven descriptions that identify a narcissist.
- Shamelessness. Narcissists harbor a great deal of shame but are unable to connect with it and process it in a healthy fashion. As a result, narcissists act without shame.
- Magical Thinking. Narcissists think of themselves as perfect, i.e., the ideal wife, husband, and parent. They employ magical thinking to rationalize away any harm they do by placing the blame on their victims.
- Arrogance. Narcissists have an over-inflated sense of greatness and importance. To maintain their self-view of importance, they diminish and degrade others.
- Envy. Narcissists imagine themselves as great people, yet they envy what others have or have accomplished. They may, for example, envy their daughter for her relationship with a boyfriend and try to interject themselves into the relationship.
- Entitlement. Narcissists feel and expect favorable treatment and will practice two-faced standards, even going so far as to break the law because they think the law does not pertain to them.
- Exploitation. Narcissists exploit others without regard to the rules or the feelings of others. Deep down, they believe that people are expendable and that they deserve to have all their needs, no matter how harmful, met.
- Lack of Boundaries. Narcissists do not respect other’s space and see themselves as part of others. They might be “hooked at the hip” with a daughter or son living vicariously through them.
It is evident that narcissists are very harmful to those around them and have few redeeming qualities.
Emotional awareness is the aptitude to recognize and understand the emotions inside a person and those around them. Emotional awareness is a huge part of emotional intelligence, which simply put means that one can learn from and make decisions based upon the emotional needs of others (Gu et al., 2013).
If one has a high emotional intelligence level, they can learn rapidly and ponder upon emotions that are felt by others and react accordingly. However, narcissists live lives devoid of empathy, respect, and caring for others. Their emotional intelligence level is near zero as they dominate over others, significantly harming them.
Narcissists have something missing in their ability to empathize and care about the needs of others. They walk all over the people they should love and have no respect for the feelings of others.
The Anterior Insula’s Part in Feeling Empathy
Before going forward, it is vital to understand that while brain changes influence the behavior of narcissists, damages done during their upbringing also play a role.
There is a region in the human brain that is considered the seat of compassion and empathy, known as the insular cortex. The insular cortex is deep in the cerebral cortex, a region made of folded gray matter (the wiring of the brain) that plays an enormous role in conscious awareness (Hagman et al., 2008).
The insular cortex is divided into two spheres, the larger anterior insula, and the smaller posterior insula (Udin et al., 2017). For our purposes, we shall examine the role of the anterior insula.
It is through the activity in the anterior insula that emotions are recognized, not only of one’s own but of others as well (Lerner et al., 2015). While this may all seem very technical, it is vital to understanding why narcissists are so into themselves and have no empathy for others.
fMRI Studies and the Brains of Narcissists
The anterior insula is not the only region of narcissist’s brains that are not normal as gray matter, in general, is affected. Gray matter consists of connective tissue that is covered with an insulator known as myelin and acts as the wiring connecting the brain so its structures can communicate.
In a study conducted by Universitätsmedizin Berlin, researchers utilized a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) device to test their theory that the gray matter of narcissists is not correct. To experiment, the scientists analyzed the brains of 34 subjects, 17 people known to have the diagnosis of NPD and 17 who were not.
Their findings were fascinating. Not only was their anterior insula and white matter abnormal, but also their cerebral cortex (the thinking and reasoning part of the brain) had abnormalities as well. They noted in their research that all these structures are involved in the processing and generation of compassion for others.
The reason we examined the brain changes in narcissists isn’t to allow them off the hook, but rather to further negate any thoughts one might have that the abuse they suffered at the hands of these people was their fault.
It absolutely was not.
The Brains Narcissistically Abused Children
Narcissistic abuse is the psychological, sexual, financial, and physical abuse of others by a narcissist. Children of narcissists also, like their parent(s), form brain damage from maltreatment.
When children suffer at the hands of a narcissistic abuser, some crucial brain regions are affected, including damage to the hippocampus and amygdala. These changes lead to devastating effects on the lives of these children.
The hippocampus is essential for learning, and the development of memories and the amygdala is where emotions like fear, guilt, envy, and shame are born. Overstimulation by an abusive parent(s) of these vital areas in the brain leaves the child with a shrunken hippocampus and amygdala. Because these regions are smaller than average, the child will grow into adulthood with a sincere lack of the ability to handle their own emotions, especially those of shame and guilt.
The damage to the amygdala of the victims of narcissistic abuse become trapped in a permanent state of fear and anxiety and react badly to environmental triggers that remind them of the violation by the narcissist. This means that victims of narcissistic abuse are constantly alert to danger that does not exist now.
This hypervigilance leads children of narcissists leads to panic attacks, phobias, and other panic disorders that significantly inhibit them from living full and productive lives.
This article has been very technical, and for some, perhaps unsettling. Again, just because narcissists have damaged brains does not alleviate them from the consequences of their actions. Narcissistic parents damage their children’s brains and cause enormous amounts of sorrow, grief, and fear.
We hope that we have begun to answer the question, “Why does she/he act that way?” While being a narcissist may not be a chosen way of life, it is worth noting that most narcissists never enter treatment because they cannot concede that their bad behavior is their fault.
Narcissistic abuse is never, ever the fault of those who are its victims. This is especially true when those being harmed are kids. Remember that, please, remember that.
“The big lesson here is this: deal with life as it is. Do not get stuck in protesting reality for what it “ought to be.” If you give up the demand that life and the people in it be something other than what they are, you will find creative solutions to every difficult situation.” ~ Henry Cloud
Gu, X., Hof, P. R., Friston, K. J., & Fan, J. (2013). Anterior insular cortex and emotional awareness. Journal of Comparative Neurology, 521(15), 3371-3388.
Hagmann, P., Cammoun, L., Gigandet, X., Meuli, R., Honey, C. J., Wedeen, V. J., & Sporns, O. (2008). Mapping the structural core of human cerebral cortex. PLoS biology, 6(7).
Hotchkiss, S. (2008). Why is it always about you?: the seven deadly sins of narcissism. Simon and Schuster.
Lerner JS, Li Y, Valdesolo P, Kassam KS. Emotion and decision making. Annu Rev Psychol. 2015; 66:799–823.
Uddin, L. Q., Nomi, J. S., Hebert-Seropian, B., Ghaziri, J., & Boucher, O. (2017). Structure and function of the human insula. Journal of clinical neurophysiology: official publication of the American Electroencephalographic Society, 34(4), 300.