Psychopathy and the Brain

Antonia J's picture

I’ve always wondered about people who can kill and feel no remorse. It just seems incomprehensible to me. Because I don’t understand this at all, I want to know more about the brain structure of someone that we may loosely term “a psychopath.” The DSM-IV does not use this term, so I will also be talking about “antisocial disorders” at times. The two are not synonymous, but it seems clear that a psychopath must suffer from some kind of an antisocial disorder. Therefore, the neurobiological studies of antisocial disorders may have some bearing on the brain structure of psychopaths as well.

First, it is important to provide a loose definition of a psychopath. Psychopaths tend to be cruel and manipulative, and may enjoy causing pain to others. They also tend to lie compulsively, believe themselves to be perfect, and feel no remorse. (1). Psychopaths are often violent criminals, but there is also evidence that many are able to control their violent tendencies, and simply find other outlets for cruelty. They may harm animals, or be psychologically manipulative of those around them, instead of being violent. The most common characteristic of psychopaths is a lack of conscience.

Several studies have been conducted to try and better understand psychopathy. One of the more common theories regarding psychopathy is that psychopaths are incapable of emotional learning, due to abnormalities in their amygdala, which is responsible for regulating emotion and aggression. (2).  Psychopaths do not learn from punishment, and so never gain a social conscience. This, in turn, is the reason they lack empathy for others and feel no remorse for their violence.

Research also indicates that it is probable that there are genetic influences on antisocial behaviors (1). Among twins, there is a concordance rate of almost 50%, although the gene, or genes, that are responsible for this personality disorder have yet to be identified. Genetic studies are still being shaped, and so drawing any definite conclusions about the role of genes in any behavior is very difficult. Nonetheless, it does seem likely that genes are influential in psychopathy.

Levels of serotonin are generally low in people with antisocial personality disorder. (1). This would explain the boredom and restlessness that is common in psychopaths, as serotonin regulates aggression and impulsivity. It has also been observed that, in some cases, the frontal lobe of psychopaths is abnormal. This may have something to do with their impulsivity, since the frontal lobe is responsible for judgment and impulse control (3). Also, MRI scans show that, although normal people display increased activity in the frontal lobe when they lie, psychopaths don’t (4). This seems to suggest that psychopaths process information differently, due to some abnormality in their brain structure. It is also important to not that many people who are psychopaths have displayed psychopathic tendencies since they were children, which suggests that the behavior may not be learned.

Now, this is not part of a normal research paper, but I just wanted to add some thoughts I had while researching this, and how learning a little more about psychopathy changed some of my views regarding some of our discussions about morality and how that played into biology, etc. In some of my earlier postings, I mentioned that I believe there is “something more” to us than just biology and the brain, although I hasten to add that I am NOT belittling the role the brain does play in who we are. I don’t have a definition of this “something more”, but I do believe that morality is part of it.

After reviewing some of this basic information, I feel that I understand psychopathy a little better, in terms of biology. Since I believe in good and evil (morality), and the common characterization of a psychopath is someone who is completely evil, I have always believed that psychopaths were evil incarnate. When I think of a psychopath, I think of a serial killer, and I cannot possibly see how a person can kill numerous times and have any good in them. Researching psychopathy has caused me to think about what it would mean to be completely evil. Previously, I did not really have a clear idea of what being evil would mean. I now have come to think that our conscience is that “something more” that I’ve been talking about in my previous postings. This is what is missing in a pscychopath, and this is why they are stereotyped as evil. Without a conscience, without a sense of right and wrong, a person cannot possibly be normal. This sense is regulated by certain structures in the brain, as evidenced by the fact that a psychopath’s brain is different from a regular person’s. Because of these findings, I have now come to think that biology and this “something more” (a.k.a., our conscience) are not mutually exclusive, but closely related.

 

Works Cited

1. Nolen-Hoeksema, Susan. Abnormal Psychology. 4th ed. New York: The McGraw-Hill

Companies, Inc., 2007.

2. Blair, James, Derek Mitchell, and Karina Blair. The Psychopath. 1st ed.

Massachusetts:Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2005.

3. “Frontal Lobe.” Wikipedia. 20 February 2007. 21 February 2007.

<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frontal_lobe>

4. Layton, Julia. “Do Criminals Enjoy Other People’s Fear?” HowStuffWorks. 7

December 2006. 21 February 2007. <http://people.howstuffworks.com/psychopath.htm>

  

Comments

A friendly psychopath's picture

I feel as though your

I feel as though your generalizations stem from fear of such humans that are indeed purely evil. It is easy to find a word, term, a set of characteristics and label them as the harbingers of evil and suffering. Not true. More people are psychopaths than you realize and I would bet that more people capable of evil and inducing suffering upon others are not psychopaths. There is evolutionary value for the traits that define 'psychopathy' but there is something the general media and even much of the field of psychology has trouble accepting; neurological wiring is a spectrum. Nothing is black and white. Being a psychopath does not condemn you to exuding cruelty, just as being autistic does not always condemn you to be severely handicapped. Also, think of depression, a more readily accessible example of a 'mental disorder' falling upon a spectrum.
Psychopaths, sociopaths and 'antisocial people' don't always realize that they are what they are (society says) so they operate within their normal means which would typically be extreme selfishness via above average cunning.
There are those, however, that realize what they are and what they have and utilize their unique intellect to not do evil-but do good.
Statistically 1 in every 25 or 1 in 100 (depending on your source) is a psychopath. These people are much more common than you think. There are stupid psychos, good ones, clever ones and evil ones just as there are the same variety of non-psychopathic people.
Quit the nonsensical fearing and scapegoating. Not all psychopaths are evil and it is not a 'condition' that the person 'suffers' from.

-Friendly psychopath

jason's picture

enjoy

You know, when I see comments about someone being labeled a psychopath because he thinks differently, I cant help but begin to wonder if it is all the same as earlier times. When people hung others for being witches. I believe after a certain amount of time, certain people set out to constrain humanity and brainwash them into believing in good and bad, or evil. Not having a conscious does not necessarily mean you are not human. The only reason people feel most of the feelings they do, is because of the fear that has been instilled and branded in their minds since birth. Now, I may be a "psycho", but I do believe people in your field of study can also appreciate the fact of the human brain being completely manipulated. All it takes is a seed to plant a tree. With a little watering to feed that tree, over the course of time more trees of the same exact kind are created....I'm no psychologist, doctor nor therapist, but I am an individual who recently started to look on the outside to work my way in. Thank you for your time and post. Reading always enlightens. Regardless of direction.

Mr. Holmes, PI's picture

This math professor, does he

This math professor, does he go by the name of Dr. Moriarty? Seriously though, the best course of action is move far away from the miscreant. Experience has taught me that distance is the best cure. Be sure you get an unlisted phone number, and make sure you keep anonymous online.

Anonymous's picture

Psychopathy and Higher Intelligence

Dear Antonia J,
I expressed my appreciation of your insight on psychopathy and the brain. I have learned in one of my psychology courses that the psychopaths have higher than average intelligence. Additionally, I have had recent experience of being stalked by a previous math professor whom I beleived to be a psychopath. And, upon this professor stalking me, he has recruited periodically of having his friends stalk my residence to assist his cruel behaviors. One of the circumstance had been a goon friend of the professor had came into my apartment around in the evening, and had used a listening device and an attachment that was pressed against my door to record my personal life! And, then the math professor would used the information and cyber-stalk me, sending me emails with fictious addresses and state some comments about what I had been saying. Additionally, he had used a human resource manager to assist him in stalking me with my personal ID (social security number). I had turned the math professor in for sexual harassment and a quid pro quo, in 2002! The math professor has held a grudge against me since! Because I had difficulty getting evidence of the math professor's harassments, I had gone to the human resource manager and taped-recorded several conversations, and I had been given a document where the human resource manager was to be investigating my complaint, but had received a complicit behaviors of a campus police officer assisting in the harassments! I have this material in a safe place! However, I had decided to cut my losses and move on with my life! But, I continually receive stalking on some occassions by this math professor! And, he likes to use cruel and aggressive violence to either taunt me, or threatened me with death. I have many of those emails in a safe place. I had spoken with a self-defense expert who is planning to teach me self defense, and he has considered the math professor extremely dangerous because of his inability to let go, compulsive behaviors, impulsive behaviors, and obssession with me! And, the self-defense expert stated it would be interesting to do a profile on this math professor. The math professor is not married, and he is most of a loner. However, he has the ability to create a chamelon personality. After he and his human resource manager partner had broken into my campus locker, (obtain the combination through security system), items of mine were stolen, and the math professor had used a flash drive with homework assignments regarding teaching math,(i'm a math major), and women's studies assignments, the math professor has now used this material to re-create his personality, and steal my work by using it to make him appear the author of these ideas on teaching math tools. And, yet I have gone to the police and nothing was done! I was told nothing could be done unless he does something to me! Well, I'm not going to put myself in harm's way! I think this math professor would lose it if he is backed into a corner. For example, if there was an investigation into the behaviors of the math professor and the human resource manager. Oh, by the way the human resource manager assists the math professor in cyber spamming! They sell identities for profit!

Any ideas would be helpful, I like especially when you stated, "psychopaths are often violent criminals, but their is evidence that they may often use a different outlet for their violent tendencies through cruelty." Three years ago, this math professor had came into my apartment building with the purpose to assault me, he had used a blunt object and banged on the stairwell railing adjacent to my floor." Upon my going to see what was going on, I quickly not revealed myself, watched the predator leave and exit down the stairs." I think he was on something too, alcohol and or drugs...he enjoyed sending me emails about sex enhancement drugs. I kept a file for these emails too!

Sincerely,

Overwhelmed but not defeated!

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