Are Psychopaths Just Brain Damaged?
Like most people, when you think of a psychopath, you probably have a picture in your head of a purely evil monster who set to inflict pain and suffering on his victims. However, recent studies have shown that there may be more to such disturbing psychotic behavior than just an evil person with the clear intent of causing harm.
A study that was carried out at the University of Wisconsin-Madison showed that psychopaths actually have deformities in their brains, which may cause them to lack the normal emotions and conscience that ordinary people have.
The study carried out brain scans on a group of prisoners who were diagnosed as being psychopaths. The scans showed significant differences between the psychopath’s brains and the brains of those in the control group.
Those who were diagnosed with psychopathy appeared to have reduced connections between the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and the amygdala. In plain English, the part of the brain that is responsible for emotions like guilt and sympathy is not properly connected to the part that is responsible for feelings of anxiety or fear.
These results explain a lot about why psychopaths often act like robots, displaying impulsive, unfeeling and antisocial behavior.
Another similar study was carried out by Dr. Kent Kiel of the University of New Mexico. He used a high tech brain scan to study the brain of Brian Dugan, a convicted rapist and serial killer. With the help of the brain scanner, Kiel studied two things, the function of Dugan’s brain and its density.
The scan showed low levels of density in the para-limbic system, which regulates a person’s behavior. This indicates that the brain of a psychopath is underdeveloped. Another brain scan was carried out while Dugan was shown disturbing images such as people suffering.
His brain showed little to no activity in the area where emotion should have been generated.
Kiel believes that psychopaths simply lack the ability to feel emotion, in much the same way that someone might be intellectually challenged and have difficulty understanding a simple math problem. He commented in an interview with the BBC saying, “I tend to see psychopaths as someone suffering from a disorder, so I wouldn’t use the word evil to describe them.”
The psychopath Brian Dugan showed no emotion when talking about his crimes and, reportedly, has difficulty understanding that what he did was wrong or even why people would care.
A 2009 study carried out by a group of researchers from the Institute of Psychiatry at Kings College in London found similar results when using imaging techniques known as DT-MRI. Their results showed that psychopaths have a number of significant psychological differences in their brains.
Although neurologists have always suspected that there may be some differences between the brain of an ordinary person and that of a psychopath, it has only been recently that technology has been advanced enough to identify the exact differences.
Those who suffer from such a disorder are emotionally stunted. Psychopaths tend to be fixated on one goal, which leads them to ignore all normal social cues. They are simply unable to receive the cue from their brain that would normally tell them that it is wrong to take something that doesn’t belong to them or hurt someone to get what they want.
These findings are expected to change the way that psychopaths are dealt with by the law, specifically in regards to the death penalty. Some are concerned that psychopaths will not be sent to jail if the law is changed to allow them to plead insanity.
Up until now, however, no changes have been made in regards to the way psychopaths are sentenced, and it is likely that further studies will be required before action is taken.
Dr. Kent Kiehl hopes that treatments for psychopaths can be further developed, although he does not believe that science should focus on those who have already committed terrible crimes, but rather develop a treatment to intervene with those who display signs and symptoms of psychopathy.
Kiehl believes that children with these brain disorders already display signs of psychopathy at a young age, when they do things such as hurting animals, starting fires, showing overly aggressive behavior or seriously injuring friends or family without reason.
Unfortunately, parents and teachers are not equipped to deal with such behavior and they attempt to help a child understand that what they have done is wrong. However, because of their emotionally underdeveloped brains, they are unable to see why they are being punished, which may only serve to make them angry or confused and thus more likely to do another person harm.
Kiehl hopes that by identifying such behavior at an early age, proper treatments can be developed and psychotic behavior can be prevented from escalating. Experts have estimated that around one percent of the population can be identified as psychopaths; while up to 25 percent of those in correctional facilities are thought suffer from this disorder.
Perhaps even more unnerving is the fact that a recent study that was carried out by Paul Babiak, a psychologist from New York, suggests that one in every 25 business leaders is psychopathic. These business professionals appear to lead fairly normal lives, and are quite capable of displaying normal behavior and fitting in with their surroundings.
This is not to say that everyone who has committed a terrible crime is a psychopath and has an underdeveloped brain.
There are undoubtedly also evil people out there who commit crimes simply because they are damaged or angry and not necessarily because of any deformities in their brains. However, this new research is enlightening and could go a long way to treating those with psychopathic tendencies before their behavior has a chance to worsen.
Professors Joseph Newman and Michael Koenigs who led the study at the University of Wisconsin-Madison are also optimistic that by carrying out further research the scientific community will be able to uncover more aspects of the disorder as well as develop better, more efficient treatments both for preventing and curing psychopathic individuals.
Image by laverrue