The neurobiology of the psychopath tells us that the brain of these people works differently. In this blog we will collect some studies on the brains of psychopaths, we will discover what the brain of a psychopath looks like in difference to a brain of a normal individual.
Brain scans of psychopaths
Much has already been said in literature, cinema, series and documentaries and even in video games about murders. And, how could it be otherwise, also about the figure of the psychopath, who for many continues to be abstract, without understanding what this means.
In fact, according to studies by the University of British Columbia (Canada) carried out by Robert H. Dare between 1 and 2% of the world’s population is a psychopath. Furthermore, in various studies conducted among the male prison population, it is estimated that between 15 and 25% of them meet the criteria for this disorder.
Although the collective imagination always turns the mind towards delinquency and evil when it comes to psychopathy, this personality disorder is somewhat more complex than this association suggests. Not all criminals are psychopaths, and not all psychopaths are Hannibal Lecter, the cannibal villain from The Silence of the Lambs.
What is psychopathy?
Psychopathy is a personality disorder not recognized by the main diagnostic classifications. It is characterized by a lack of empathy and feelings of guilt, as well as by self-centeredness, impulsiveness, and a tendency to lie and manipulation. In contrast, sociopathy is associated to a greater extent with antisocial personality disorder.
In popular language this term is usually associated with criminal conduct, especially serial murders; However, the truth is that psychopaths do not always commit crimes and can be perfectly adapted to society. In fact, authors such as Kevin Dutton (2013) have claimed the virtues of the psychopathic personality in the current context.
The current conception of psychopathy draws heavily on the works of Hervey Cleckley and Robert Hare. In his book, The Mask of Sanity Cleckley made the most influential description of psychopathy to date, while Hare based on this work to create the well-known PCL scale, which assesses psychopathic traits.
According to the triarchic model, psychopathy is made up of three main features: daring, disinhibition and pettiness.
It is known that psychopaths feel less fear than other people, that they have more difficulty controlling their impulses and that their lack of empathy leads them to use others for their benefit.
For their part, other authors divide psychopathy into two dimensions: the emotional and interpersonal area and the lifestyle. In the first, it includes signs such as egocentricity, the tendency to manipulation and lack of guilt, while among the behavioral factors it includes the need for stimulation, impulsivity and criminal behavior.
This is the brain of a psychopath
Psychopaths are people with interpersonal relationship and emotion management problems. They are apparently cold, although it is not true that they have no emotions. They are very intense.
What they do not have are regrets, which is what gives a tendency towards delinquency, but not in all cases, of course. The doctor has led a scientific review of other published studies and has found that the brain of psychopaths is different.
Research indicates that emotional stress in childhood precipitates the overmaturity of some brain regions as a protection system against suffering, but it also ends up making it difficult to manage emotions.
The complexity of psychopathy transcends stereotypes. In fact, a study published in 2013 in the Journal of Forensic Science already warned that the psychopathic prototype of the iconic Lecter was not even very realistic.
They called him “an elite psychopath, exhibiting exaggerated levels of intelligence, sophisticated and cunning manners, sometimes to superhuman and supermediatized levels.”
The range of behaviors is wide, but all psychopaths agree on one thing: the brain alterations that differentiate them from other individuals without this disorder. A team of researchers reviewed more than 400 scientific articles in which the brains of people with psychopathy had been analyzed through MRIs.
The meta-analysis, published in the scientific journal Psychological Medicine, has concluded that the brain of psychopaths shows an accelerated maturation of several brain regions related to emotional and cognitive processing.
The brain of psychopaths is different from an anatomical and functional point of view. There are differences in the areas that process cognition and reasoning and in those that process emotional activity. The connection between these two areas fails.
The researchers found that, from the anatomical point of view, in the regions of the temporal lobe (where the amygdala is, related to emotions) and in the frontal (responsible for cognitive functions) there was apparent atrophy of the gray matter.
However, what we later postulate is that, in reality, what there was an increase in white matter, which implies an over-ripening of these areas.
Emotional stress at an early age
The study suggests that the origin of this accelerated maturation of some brain regions lies in having suffered situations of emotional stress at an early age. The brain develops this overmaturity to protect itself from circumstances that cause it to suffer.
In a context of emotional stress, the child unleashes an overmaturity that implies, on the one hand, a block to avoid suffering and, on the other hand, turns the person into someone unscrupulous and lacking in remorse.
By maturing quickly, the child expands the capacity to tolerate suffering and manages to escape from that emotional situation that hurts him.
However, this defense system causes collateral damage: they have no emotional restraint. The doctor clarifies that the trauma is not punctual, but must be persistent over time in order to modulate the anatomy of the brain.
In practice, this brain alteration causes that, faced with a moral dilemma, the activation of the two systems (the cognitive and the emotional) is blocked.
Neither your reasoning ability nor your feelings or emotions are overridden. What happens is that the association between emotion and cognition in decision-making is blocked, clarifies the doctor.
Similarities to steroid use
Researchers have also found similarities between the brains of psychopaths and people who use androgenic steroids for more than 10 years (often used to improve athletic performance or increase muscle mass). The cerebral affectations detected in psychopaths and in people who consume these anabolics for long periods of time are the same.
However, this similarity does not imply that steroid users end up developing a psychopathic disorder in the long term. There is an anatomical similarity of the two pathologies. While it is true that impulse control and behavior can change after taking steroids for long periods of time, this is far from thinking that it can lead to psychopathy.
Enjoy the pain of others, but not their own
We have pointed out throughout the article that the psychopathic personality is characterized above all by one factor: the lack of empathy. Now, within the neurobiology of the psychopath there is a small nuance: people with this profile do have empathy, but only about their own person.
This is something that the experts could see in a study from the University of Cambridge and published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience in 2013.
For this work, 121 MRI scans were performed on inmates diagnosed with this personality disorder. When they were shown pictures showing different people experiencing pain, their brains did not react.
They only did so at the time the experimenter asked them to imagine themselves in the same situation.
Now, most striking came later. The researchers perceived that when these people saw others suffer and experience pain, a high activity arose in the striatum. This is a very interesting part of the human brain, because it is related to reward processing, motivation, pleasure, and decision making.
Thus, this unusual activity in this area came to demonstrate something very forceful: psychopaths enjoy seeing the pain of others.
Is there a gene for evil?
More than a gene for “evil”, what exists are some genetic variants that define the greater tendency to violence, such as the CDH13 and MAOA genes. Neuroscientists from the Karolinska Institute revealed that we can all inherit these types of variants from our parents (if this is the case); however, not everyone gets to manifest them.
Thus, and taking as a reference to the neuroscientist James Fallon, he himself had this marker in addition to the other brain alterations detailed above. However, beyond certain risk behaviors and certain impulse control problems, Dr. Fallon has never evidenced more psychopathic traits. Perhaps this was the case for one factor: upbringing and education.
He always had a loving family and an environment that knew how to direct him correctly. He never lacked affection, clear guidelines for behavior and an empathic setting where he never experienced any lack or trauma.
The neurobiology of the psychopath tells us that this condition often arises as a specific developmental disorder. Sometimes a lack of attachment, a trauma in that early childhood or any situation of stress and anguish in the child generates a series of biochemical alterations that determine a progressive change in the brain and in behavior.
The environment, upbringing and education is everything. Genetics affect us, there is no doubt, but it does not determine us 100%. Also, it is worth noting something that anthropologists and psychologists tell us: violence and psychopathic behavior is decreasing.
Three centuries ago, violent and aggressive behavior defined much of our society. To this day, this behavior is in decline, although it refuses to disappear: 1% of our population continues to present this trait, that of psychopathy.
FAQS: Brain scans of a psychopath
What part of the brain is damaged in psychopaths?
The study showed that psychopaths have reduced connections between the prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain responsible for feelings such as empathy and guilt, and the amygdala, which is responsible for recognizing fear and anxiety.
Are psychopaths left brained?
The hypofunction of the right hemisphere is characterized by psychopaths with dominant diminished emotional and affective capacity, whereas the hyperfunction of the left hemisphere is characterized by psychopaths with dominant impulsivity and antisocial conduct.
Is there a psychopath gene?
No, there’s no psychopath gene.
What are psychopaths diagnosed with?
Psychopathy is a personality disorder characterized by narcissism, impulsivity, and controlling and manipulative behaviors. They’re diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder (ASPD)
What triggers psychopathic behavior?
The causes that originate psychopathy are still not clear, there is a genetic factor that can be expressed in this or another disorder, depending on the environment where the person develops, but what does seem decisive is the lack of affection received from parents during the individual’s childhood.
In this blog we collected some studies on the brains of psychopaths, we discovered what the brain of a psychopath looks like in difference to a brain of a normal individual.
If you have any questions or comments please let us know!
Hare, R. D. (1991). The Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (Hare PCL-R). Toronto: Multi-Health Systems.
Hare, R. D. (2011). Without conscience: The disturbing world of the psychopaths among us. New York: Guilford Press.
Patrick, C., Fowles, D. & Krueger, R. (2009). Triarchic conceptualization of psychopathy: Developmental origins of disinhibition, boldness, and meanness. Development and Psychopathology, 21(3): 913–938.
S. Leistedt, & P. Linkowski. (2014). Psychopathy and the Cinema: Fact or Fiction? Retrieved February 6, 2021, from undefined website: https://www.semanticscholar.org/paper/Psychopathy-and-the-Cinema%3A-Fact-or-Fiction-Leistedt-Linkowski/e3aace47030d04bcf9a4576cebc705001bb90700?p2df
Vernon, P. A., Villani, V. C., Vickers, L. C. & Harris, J.A. (2008). A behavioral genetic investigation of the Dark Triad and the Big 5. Personality and Individual Differences, 44(2): 445–452.