Psychopathy and the Brain
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.
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.
4. Layton, Julia. “Do Criminals Enjoy Other People’s Fear?” HowStuffWorks. 7
December 2006. 21 February 2007. <http://people.howstuffworks.com/psychopath.htm>