The science behind psychopaths and extreme altruists

Researchers have found that the way our brains are wired can affect how much empathy we feel toward others—a key measuring stick of good and evil.

From the kitchen window of her mobile home in Auburn, Illinois, Ashley Aldridge had a clear view of the railroad crossing about a hundred yards away.

When the 19-year-old mother first saw the man in the wheelchair, she had just finished feeding lunch to her two children, ages one and three, and had moved on to washing dishes—one more in an endless string of chores. Looking up, Aldridge noticed that the wheelchair wasn’t moving. It was stuck between the tracks. The man was yelling for help as a motorcycle and two cars went by without stopping.

Aldridge hurried out to ask a neighbor to watch her kids so she could go help. Then she heard the train horn and the clanging of the crossing gate as it came down, signaling that a train was on its way. She ran, barefoot, over a gravel path along the tracks. When she got to the man, the train was less than half a mile away, bearing down at about 80 miles an hour. Failing to dislodge the wheelchair, she wrapped her arms around the man’s chest from behind and tried to lift him, but couldn’t. As the train barreled toward them, she pulled with a mighty heave. She fell backward, yanking him out of the chair. Within seconds, the train smashed the wheelchair, carrying fragments of steel and plastic half a mile up the track.

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