The Neuroscience of Narcissism (2023)

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

The Neuroscience of Narcissism (1)

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Arrogance. Narcissists have an over-inflated sense of greatness and importance. To maintain their self-view of importance, they diminish and degrade others.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.

(Video) Does Narcissism Appear In Neuro Imaging?

Emotional Awareness

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

The Neuroscience of Narcissism (2)

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.

(Video) Influence Of Neuroscience On Narcissism, Criminalism, & Sociopathy: Psychotherapy Crash Course

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

The Neuroscience of Narcissism (3)
(Video) How narcissists process information

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.

In Conclusion

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.

(Video) iGen: Narcissism and Neuroticism | Dr. Jean Twenge | #303

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

References

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.

(Video) Narcissism and Its Discontents | Ramani Durvasula | TEDxSedona

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.

Tags:fMRI, Narcissism, narcissistic abuse, neuroscience, www.learnaboutdid.com

FAQs

Can neuroscience help to understand narcissism? ›

Central questions of intra- and interpersonal functioning in narcissism are still a matter of debate. Neuroscience could help to understand the paradoxical patterns of experience and behavior beyond the limitations of self-reports.

What part of the brain causes narcissism? ›

The cerebral cortex forms the external nerve cell layer of the brain. The findings revealed that those subjects suffering from narcissistic personality disorder exhibited structural abnormalities in precisely that region of the brain, which is involved in the processing and generation of compassion.

What goes on in the brain of a narcissist? ›

NPD Brains Work Differently

According to research, people with narcissistic personality disorder have reduced gray matter volume in areas of the brain related to empathy and increased activity on baseline images in brain regions associated with self-directed and self-absorbed thinking.

Can you see narcissism on a brain scan? ›

We can now see narcissism in the brain. A brain scan of people with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) shows less brain matter in areas associated with emotional empathy. Actually, this is the first time anyone has seen the proof of narcissism in brain structures.

Is narcissism a chemical imbalance? ›

Is narcissism a chemical imbalance? The answer isn't so simple. Due to the complex interplay between brain development, neurotransmitters, mental health and narcissism, young people who are more narcissistic may also be at higher risk for certain psychological disorders.

Can narcissists be highly intelligent? ›

The researchers found that while many narcissists may perceive themselves as highly intelligent, critical thinkers, they are less likely to use important reflective thinking strategies when solving problems, Therefore, the high levels of confidence they have in their intellectual abilities are often misplaced.

What are the root causes of narcissism? ›

The cause is likely complex. Narcissistic personality disorder may be linked to: Environment — parent-child relationships with either too much adoration or too much criticism that don't match the child's actual experiences and achievements. Genetics — inherited characteristics, such as certain personality traits.

What is the root cause of covert narcissism? ›

Causes of Covert Narcissism

Genetics. Childhood abuse and trauma. Upbringing and relationships with caregivers. Personality and temperament2.

Do narcissists lack GREY matter in the brain? ›

Researchers have found that people with narcissistic personality disorder have less gray matter in the left anterior insula, a region of the brain linked to empathy. Narcissistic personality disorder is a mental disorder in which the sufferers have an inflated sense of their own importance and a lack of empathy.

What do narcissists think of themselves? ›

Narcissists believe they are unique or “special” and can only be understood by other special people. What's more, they are too good for anything average or ordinary. They only want to associate and be associated with other high-status people, places, and things.

How do narcissists treat their children? ›

A narcissistic parent will often abuse the normal parental role of guiding their children and being the primary decision maker in the child's life, becoming overly possessive and controlling. This possessiveness and excessive control disempowers the child; the parent sees the child simply as an extension of themselves.

Do narcissists suffer anxiety? ›

One of the main characteristics of individuals with increased levels of vulnerable narcissism is anxiety.

Is narcissism psychological or neurological? ›

Taken together, the experiential and behavioral findings related to pathological narcissism point to a pattern of psychological maladjustment characterized by opposing tendencies of grandiosity and vulnerability, significant personal distress, and maladaptive interpersonal behavior.

What happens to your brain after narcissistic abuse? ›

As a narcissistic abuse survivor, you will likely have symptoms of post-traumatic stress. Your brain will be on high alert, looking out for danger. This is because the traumatic events triggered a fight or flight response within you. As a result, anything associated with those memories can trigger an anxiety attack.

What other disorders can be confused with narcissism? ›

Based on overlapping symptoms, Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) and Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) are often mistaken for one another. The two personality disorders even have a rate of co-occurrence of about 25 percent, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).

Is there a medication for narcissism? ›

Medicines. There are no medicines specifically used to treat narcissistic personality disorder. But if you have symptoms of depression, anxiety or other conditions, medicines such as antidepressants or anti-anxiety medicines may be helpful.

Is NPD a serious mental illness? ›

What many people don't know is that narcissism, or narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), is actually a serious condition. If you have a NPD diagnosis, others may see you as only concerned about your wants and needs or having a never-ending need for compliments. But inside, you may feel insecure, less-than and empty.

What makes a narcissist toxic? ›

Toxic People, for the Most Part, Are Narcissists

People with narcissistic tendencies are more than simply selfish every once in a while. Narcissists have absolutely no concerns outside of their own needs and desires. They don't care about the people around them as much as they care about themselves.

What kind of childhood creates a narcissist? ›

Social learning theory holds that children are likely to grow up to be narcissistic when their parents overvalue them: when their parents see them as more special and more entitled than other children (9).

What type of parenting creates a narcissist? ›

To summarize, overparenting, lack of warmth, leniency, overvaluation and childhood maltreatment have all been associated with higher levels of narcissism. However, these parenting behaviours have often been examined in isolation or in different combinations, with mixed findings.

Are narcissists deep thinkers? ›

The researchers found that while many narcissists may perceive themselves as highly intelligent, critical thinkers, they are less likely to use important reflective thinking strategies when solving problems, Therefore, the high levels of confidence they have in their intellectual abilities are often misplaced.

Who is most likely to be a narcissist? ›

Forthcoming in the journal Psychological Bulletin, the study compiled 31 years of narcissism research and found that men consistently scored higher in narcissism across multiple generations and regardless of age.

What is the core of narcissism? ›

Narcissism – From Healthy to Pathological

It is the core of self-esteem and emotions, which influence the way one perceives and relates to others. Normal narcissism involves a healthy, positive sense of self-worth and self-regard with self-acceptance, curiosity, and compassion, including pride and enjoyment.

What attachment style do narcissists have? ›

Narcissists have insecure attachment styles that are either avoidant or anxious, or some combination. People with insecure attachment styles feel a basic insecurity stemming from relationships with early caregivers.

What is reverse narcissism? ›

People who depend on other people for their emotional gratification and the performance of Ego or daily functions. They are needy, demanding, and submissive.

What does narcissistic rage look like? ›

This rage may take the form of screaming and yelling. Selective silence and passive-aggressive avoidance can also happen with narcissistic rage. Most episodes of narcissistic rage exist on a behavior continuum. On one end, a person may be aloof and withdrawn.

What is the weakness of a covert narcissist? ›

A very obvious weakness of the narcissist is their inability to self-reflect and self-analyze. In fact, they're incapable of looking within to understand themselves. They usually use a number of defense mechanisms when it comes to accepting their many insecurities.

What happens when you gray rock a covert narcissist? ›

They change the narrative

Even when you grey rock them, they may still carry on with the conversation, throwing in comments like, “it is because of you that I did what I did.” Like the covert narcissist, they shift the blame to you and act like the victim in the situation to put themselves in a better light.

What happens when you GREY rock a narcissist? ›

People with NPD may use others as a source of attention, manipulating them to get a specific reaction that bolsters their ego. The idea behind grey rocking is that it will, in theory, cut off a person's “narcissistic supply” and cause them to lose interest in their target.

Can you change the narcissist mind? ›

While therapy can help address issues related to narcissism, it works best when provided by a therapist with specialized training for dealing with narcissism and narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). Even with a qualified therapist, the process can take several years.

What are the 5 main habits of a narcissist? ›

Common Narcissist Characteristics
  • Inflated Ego.
  • Lack of Empathy.
  • Need for Attention.
  • Repressed Insecurities.
  • Few Boundaries.

How does a narcissist apologize? ›

In narcissists' efforts to avoid blame, they often combine several fake apologies at once, such as, “I am sorry if I said anything to offend you, but I have strong opinions. Maybe you're too sensitive,” or, “I guess I should tell you I am sorry. But you know I would never deliberately hurt you.

Do narcissists change as they get older? ›

Most of the participants showed a decline in narcissism as they aged. Only 3% had an increase and a few had the same level of narcissism at ages 18 and 41, the findings showed.

Can a narcissist be a good mother? ›

A mother with narcissistic personality disorder cannot give their children adequate attention and nurturing. Their entitlement often results in them mistreating their children. Additionally, a narcissistic mother will tend to use her children as a prop or device to meet her own needs.

Are narcissist obsessed with their children? ›

The obsession or focus a narcissistic parent has on a child often has to do with the parent's own emotional needs. Narcissistic parents support children's “greatness” and encourage their talents, with the excuse that they love their child and are sacrificing themselves for the child's future.

How can you tell if someone is raised by a narcissist? ›

  1. What are the signs you were raised by a narcissist? ...
  2. You feel like you're never good enough. ...
  3. You might self-sabotage. ...
  4. You have relationship problems. ...
  5. You struggle with your own emotions. ...
  6. You tie your self-worth to your achievements. ...
  7. You're obsessed with perfection. ...
  8. You struggle to set boundaries.
27 Sept 2022

Are narcissists emotionally intelligent? ›

Some narcissists have supreme confidence in themselves, and also have the emotional intelligence — the ability to read people and to act accordingly — to nurture lasting allies. At the extreme of both, such a person could be a presidential candidate or a manipulative sociopath — or both.

What happens when a narcissist gets stressed? ›

Rage will tend to show up when the narcissist is stressed by circumstances, so it's best to avoid them during these times as a form of self-protection. If you feel as though the person is a threat to themselves or anyone else (including you), call 911 or the emergency number in your area.

Do narcissists dissociate? ›

DISSOCIATIVE GAPS AND CONFABULATION

Narcissists and psychopaths dissociate (erase memories) a lot (are amnesiac) because their contact with the world and with others is via a fictitious construct: The False Self. Narcissists never experience reality directly but through a distorting lens darkly.

Can a narcissist be cured? ›

Narcissistic Personality Disorder Treatment

There is no cure, but therapy can help. The goal is to build up the person's poor self-esteem and have more realistic expectations of others. Treatment usually centers on talk therapy. Sometimes people call this psychotherapy.

How do you fix narcissism? ›

Narcissism Essential Reads
  1. Identify potentially triggering situations. ...
  2. Identify the behaviors you want to change. ...
  3. Imagine your ideal reaction. ...
  4. Inhibit or delay unwanted behaviors. ...
  5. Substitute a new response. ...
  6. Review your successes and areas to improve.
17 Feb 2018

What part of the brain is damaged in a narcissist? ›

Narcissistic traits have been linked to structural and functional brain networks, including the insular cortex, however, with inconsistent findings. In this study, we tested the hypothesis that subclinical narcissism is associated with variations in regional brain volumes in insular and prefrontal areas.

Do I have PTSD from narcissistic abuse? ›

Signs and Symptoms of PTSD

If you or a loved one has just gone through a breakup with a narcissist, watch out for these signs of PTSD: Episodes of panic and fear that come out of nowhere. Extreme reactions—physical or emotional—to traumatic reminders. Difficulty sleeping or concentrating.

What are the red flags of a narcissist? ›

Here are some narcissism red flags to look out for: Lacking empathy. They seem unable or unwilling to have empathy for others, and they appear to have no desire for emotional intimacy. Unrealistic sense of entitlement.

What are signs that you are being devalued by a narcissist? ›

Narcissists will make you question everything about yourself, including the people around you and your sanity. It includes statements like, “There's something wrong with you,” “Everybody's worried about your state of mind,” “That's not what happened,” and “You're crazy”.

What is a cluster B narcissist? ›

Cluster B personality disorders are characterized by dramatic, overly emotional or unpredictable thinking or behavior. They include antisocial personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, histrionic personality disorder and narcissistic personality disorder.

Can a person have narcissistic traits and not be a narcissist? ›

Not every narcissist has Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), as narcissism is a spectrum. People who are at the highest end of the spectrum are those that are classified as NPD, but others, still with narcissistic traits, may fall on the lower end of the narcissistic spectrum.

Can neuroscience help to understand narcissism a systematic review of an emerging field? ›

Central questions of intra- and interpersonal functioning in narcissism are still a matter of debate. Neuroscience could help to understand the paradoxical patterns of experience and behavior beyond the limitations of self-reports.

What therapy works for narcissism? ›

Psychotherapy. Narcissistic personality disorder treatment is centered around psychotherapy. Psychotherapy can help you: Learn to relate better with others so your relationships are closer, more enjoyable and more rewarding.

Can narcissistic traits be learned? ›

Answer and Explanation: While some personality disorders are hard-wired into a person's genetic makeup, research indicates that narcissism is a learned behavior. It is not something a person is born with. A child's family environment play a major role in helping them become a healthy, empathetic adult.

Is narcissism innate or learned? ›

They added: "Like other personality traits, narcissism is moderately heritable and partly rooted in early-emerging temperamental traits. Some children, due to their temperamental traits, might be more likely than others to become narcissistic when exposed to parental overvaluation."

Is narcissism biological or psychological? ›

Narcissistic personality disorder may be linked to: Environment — parent-child relationships with either too much adoration or too much criticism that don't match the child's actual experiences and achievements. Genetics — inherited characteristics, such as certain personality traits.

What are the cognitive causes of narcissistic personality disorders? ›

Some early life experiences are thought to contribute to narcissistic personality disorder, including:
  • Abuse or trauma.
  • Excessive praise.
  • Lack of an authentically validating environment.
  • Parental overindulgence.
  • Unreliable parenting.
24 Aug 2022

What is the pathology of narcissism? ›

Pathological narcissism involves maladaptive efforts to regulate the self, and is conceptualized by two key features: narcissistic grandiosity and narcissistic vulnerability. Prior research has found that narcissism is associated with poorer functioning over the long term, especially interpersonal functioning.

What is the antidote to narcissism? ›

Neff lists the three elements of self-compassion as self-kindness, common humanity and mindfulness. These characteristics serve as natural antidotes to narcissism.

Can a narcissist be corrected? ›

Narcissistic Personality Disorder Treatment

There is no cure, but therapy can help. The goal is to build up the person's poor self-esteem and have more realistic expectations of others. Treatment usually centers on talk therapy. Sometimes people call this psychotherapy.

Can a therapist recognize a narcissist? ›

Although some therapists understand NPD and its impact, most do not. Whether counselors, therapists, psychologists, or psychiatrists, most clinicians do not receive adequate education and training to effectively recognize and treat people with personality disorders and those caught within their traumatizing orbit.

What kind of parenting creates a narcissist? ›

To summarize, overparenting, lack of warmth, leniency, overvaluation and childhood maltreatment have all been associated with higher levels of narcissism. However, these parenting behaviours have often been examined in isolation or in different combinations, with mixed findings.

What kind of childhood does a narcissist have? ›

The development of narcissistic traits is in many cases, a consequence of neglect or excessive appraisal. In some cases, this pathological self-structure arises under childhood conditions of inadequate warmth, approval and excessive idealization, where parents do not see or accept the child as they are.

Are narcissist emotionally intelligent? ›

Some narcissists have supreme confidence in themselves, and also have the emotional intelligence — the ability to read people and to act accordingly — to nurture lasting allies. At the extreme of both, such a person could be a presidential candidate or a manipulative sociopath — or both.

Are narcissists self aware of their narcissism? ›

Abstract. With severe emotional deficits, the narcissist may be self-aware and knowledgeable about Narcissistic Personality Disorder, but these do not lead to healing, merely to behaviour modification. Narcissists balance a sadistic superego and a demanding and fantastic False Self.

Are narcissists pathological liars? ›

With narcissists, as we've seen, there is usually a reason for the lies – and sometimes even a deliberate manipulative strategy. So while narcissists lie frequently, the narcissistic liar is not a pathological liar, in the strictest sense.

Videos

1. Studying the Neurobiology of Personality Disorders: Neuroimaging and Psychophysiological Approaches
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2. Narcissism, Lies & Delusion | Dr Frank Yeomans
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3. Narcissists Brains Are Different Than Yours (Here's How and What It Means)
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4. The Psychology Of Narcissism - Professor W Keith Campbell | Modern Wisdom Podcast 278
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5. An Epidemic of Narcissism with Richard Grannon
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