Psychopathic Brains

I think this article in the Daily Mail is interesting. According to researchers there really is a difference in the brains of people with a psychopathic personality, that is people apparently unable to feel empathy or guilt, and normal people.

Psychopaths such as Hannibal Lecter – Anthony Hopkins’ character in the film The Silence of the Lambs – are callous, anti-social and sometimes violent. They are incapable of feeling empathy or guilt.

Many lead ‘normal’ – even successful – lives. In fact, a recent study suggested that up to one in 25 business leaders may be psychopaths.

One per cent of the population at large is generally reckoned to be psychopathic – but up to 20 per cent of the prison population is reckoned to be psychopathic.

The disorder prevents people feeling ’empathy’ towards other people, or guilt for offences.

Psychopaths don’t suffer from delusions, though, so serve their jail terms in ordinary prisons, rather than mental facilities – and many are highly adept at ‘pretending’ to think in the same way as normal people.


Ameriocan researchers took a magnetic-resonance imaging scanner to a medium security prison in Wisconsin, and scanned the brains of 40 prisoners in a doing time for similar offences, half of whom had been diagnosed with psychopathy.

Results of the study revealed both structural and functional abnormalities in the brains of the psychopaths, with scientists finding there was less communication between two key areas of their brains than the other prisoners.

The first of these structures, known as the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, is responsible for emotions including empathy and guilt.

The second, called the amygdala, controls levels of fear and anxiety.

It is thought the lack of communication between these two areas makes it difficult for psychopaths to regulate their social and emotional behaviour.

Study author Professor Michael Koenigs, from the University of Wisconsin-Madison said the two structures ‘seemed not to be communicating as they should.’

I can see two scenarios which could come from this sort of research and I am not sure which is more disturbing. One is that defense attorneys will use this to argue that their clients with this sort of abnormality are not responsible for their actions and should not be punished. The other is that someone will argue that everyone should be screened and those which have the brain type that is associated with psychopathy should be watched or locked up.

I do question the idea that certain behaviors are “hard-wired” from birth.

New research has uncovered that manipulative, callous and sometimes violent behaviour could actually be hard-wired into psychopaths from birth.

The disorder is untreatable – and this discovery could unlock new ways to understand, and perhaps even treat the disorder.

Is it not also possible that engaging in anti-social behavior could alter the brain’s structure in this manner? The brain is affected by the environment. Whatever the cause of certain mental disorders, it is important not to dismiss the concept of free will and responsibility for our actions.

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