Psychopathy, is a widely misunderstood and demonized condition due to many factors. The average person’s notion toward the concept is not far off, however, psychopathy is not to be synonymous with criminality. While quite a few psychopaths find their way into the criminal justice system, and some spending significant portions of their lives confined, not all psychopaths are violent or serious criminals. It is extremely difficult to distinguish most of them from ordinary humans who walk among us. They outwardly appear normal and many do not find it difficult to blend into common society. They can interact with others, hold successful jobs, and effectively keep themselves out of trouble. The word is tossed around too lightly, although it’s not easily detectable.
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Psychopathy is a frightening however interesting disorder, plaguing a small percentage of people. Sufferers often develop antisocial behavior, marked by maladaptive personality traits. For centuries, many causes behind this disorder have been speculated, but the etiology remains inconclusive. There are three mainstream etiologies presented that consist of: biological, environmental, and social factors which may be equal in contribution. There is substantial and varied literature which attempts to explain this perplexing disorder. Using information collected from verifiable sources, this paper will explore the neurobiological basis of psychopathy, analyzing the accumulated information.
What is Psychopathy?
A psychopath is one who is born with a lack of mirror neurons in the brain. According to Hare & Neumann (2008), Psychopathy is a developmental disorder characterized by antisocial and bold disinhibited behaviors, lack of empathy and remorse, and low anxiety and an increased risk for antisocial behavior. Even if born in a loving family, they will not be able to feel empathy. It is a condition marked by a variety of traits, and unique formation of the brain that results in a different experience of emotions. Psychopathy is not commonly predicated on abuse, neglect, or trauma, though these things can influence the manifestation of traits within the person that has a psychopathic brain. It is a serious condition comprising affective and interpersonal deficits, as well as potentially harmful behaviors.
Psychopathy presents a unique problem with the different approaches to it in the scientific fields. Traditionally, psychopathy is thought of as a personality disorder. It is only recently that this belief is beginning to be called into question and a different manner of viewing the condition is emerging. Today, Psychopathy is not a diagnosis that is offered per the DSM-5, its more like a trait that is assess for (generally with the Psychopathy Checklist Reviewed or PCL-R) and varying degrees in individuals.
Previous studies demonstrated that adults with psychopathy all display persistent antisocial behavior across the lifespan with first signs of psychopathy, such as behavioral disturbances and emotional deficits, being evident as early as childhood (Blair, 2013). Children with these tendencies exhibit antisocial behavior and core psychopathic traits similar to ASPD, such as low empathy, lack of guilt, and callous use of others but it is important not to assume, the assessment of psychopathic traits and antisocial behavior in youth provides considerable evidence of their persistence over time. One method, by a well-known psychological researcher Robert Hare, whose 20-item Hare Psychopathy Checklist (PCL-R) is widely accepted diagnostic instrument used to diagnose psychopathy, estimates that only approximately 1% of the U.S. population are psychopaths.
Neuroscientists (scientists such as neurochemists and experimental psychologists who focus on the brain and its impact on behavior and cognitive functions) have one view of the condition, while psychiatrists and psychologists hold a very different view. The opposing sides are at odds due to the original thought regarding psychopaths and the research that has gone into it as a personality disorder. This is understandable, as psychology/psychiatry has had decades of behavioural manifestations that have been determined t formulate a menu of antisocial traits that are then applied to the condition of psychopathy in a blanket method. Both are needed to evaluate the genes and changes in brain pattern to result in psychopathy. By themselves neither will result in psychopathy. With the emerging abilities of brain scans the neurological differences in the brain structure of psychopaths can be seen, it is now in need of being re-examined.
Throughout this essay, conviction is placed in discovering the very nature of antisocial behavior and its causes through the neurologists’ lens by examining brain function structural models of psychopathy.
Neurobiology of Psychopathy
The research on the neurological led to two noteworthy Blair and Kiehl proposed models on the biological correlations of psychopathy. Both researchers hypothesized that there are changes in the function and structure in specific emotional processing areas of the psychopathic brain, specifically dysfunction of the amygdala and orbital frontal cortex, however, Khiel’s model took it a step further looking into paralympic region alterations, such as the anterior superior temporal gyrus and the anterior and posterior cingulate cortex.
The key points of the Blair model are that the amygdala and ventromedial prefrontal cortex alterations are indicative to be disrupted of psychopathy. They do not integrate feelings appropriately. They know the steps but not the dance, and conclusions are supported by behavioral and imaging data. Blair’s model indicates that while both participants recognize danger, it’s just only the neurotypical brain will relate negative emotion to that, thus experience fear. Additional research has extended previous findings (Cleckley, 1976), extrapolating “verbal patterns are seen, together with interpersonal behaviour patterns and linguistic properties, as valid indicators of psychopathy; that psychopaths are capable of formulating and using verbal and written language according to phonological, syntactic, morphological, and semantic rules, and recognizing the internal structure of words and their principles (Brites, 2016).” In his systematic review, Brites analyzed the language functions between psychopaths and non-psychopaths with the intent that by closely examining their language much can be learn about psychopathy. He deduced that psychopaths were unable to grasp its nuance and subtleness. That for a psychopathy, language is often used without real understanding, expressing “hallow language”. These findings afford a unique glimpse into the language, enhancing our understanding, of psychopathic speech.
It is important to understand the multiple levels for psychopathic conditions, that research shows not only structural changes, but also diminished activity in areas of the brain, including diminished connectivity between areas of the brain. It is a combination of these factors that result in the personality that is unique to psychopathy.
Kiehl, Newman and colleagues (2011), via imaging, demonstrated that psychopathy is associated with reduced functionality in the right uncinate fasciculus, the primary white matter connection between the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC), and anterior temporal lobe. Further results share that impairments in the link between the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and the amygdala in psychopathy was associated with “reduced functional connectivity between the vmPFC and the amygdala as well as between the vmPFC and the medial parietal cortex.” Diminished vmPFC connectivity is a distinct neurobiological feature of psychopathy.
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Another neurobiological study also came to definitive conclusions that psychopathic traits are related to impeded connections between brain regions. In one case study, it was reported a deficit in the amygdala (Moul et al., 2013), that when participants with psychopathy are shown visual scenarios illustrating physical pain their brains did not behave as expected. It was only when imagining the scenario happening to their person did the typical neural response occur (because og their smaller than average amygdalae).
Sonne and Gash’s high-resolution PET and fMRI scans found that adjustments in dopamine genes leading to mutation in an increased amount of dopamine released in comparison with non-psychopathic brains is associated with psychopathy. Their finding results indicate psychopathic tendencies are rich with dopamine, which release four times more dopamine than neurotypicals (Sonne et al., 2018). Crockett, Siegel & colleagues (2015), analysis of the gene 5-HIAA, a metabolite of serotonin, also indicates lower levels of serotonin occur in psychopathy. It might explain the common traits of boredom and restlessness; as well as aggression and impulsive actions.
Oxytocin affects primarily the nucleus accumbens, and the hippocampus (since the amygdala is responsible for feeling and its primary focus is influencing memories and memory formation) (Dabbs, Mark, et al. 2013). The nucleus accumbens, however, is known as the pleasure center in your brain. Everyone exhibits some aspects of pleasure but for psychopaths it’s warped. Meaning, their pleasure lies more so in the pleasure that their prefrontal cortex and frontal lobe get when their impulses are fulfilled. In other words, there was a lack empathy for other people, but they could still have understood that pain was unpleasant to experience.
This doesn’t even begin to cover the genetics, nor the processing of chemistry that is different in psychopaths. The big question of whether there is a neurological perspective of psychopathy is still very much in its infancy but what we derive from research until then could very well aim in the right step of answering that big question. Psychopathy has many twits and turns in their brain’s functionality and the brain is said to be heavily influenced by behavior, but also influential on behavior. The many physiology and neurobiochemical abnormalities of psychopathy is still something to be discovered. Investigating whether and how these impairments undermine on moral responsibility is to be left for another occasion.
- de Almeida Brites, J. (2016). The language of psychopaths: A systematic review. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 27, 50–54. DOI: 10.1016/j.avb.2016.02.009
- Blair, Robert. (2013). Blair RJ. The neurobiology of psychopathic traits in youths. Nat Rev Neurosci 14: 786-799. Nature reviews. Neuroscience. 14. 10.1038/nrn3577.
- Blakey, R., Askelund, A. D., Boccanera, M., Immonen, J., Plohl, N., Popham, C., … Stuhlreyer, J. (2017). Communicating the neuroscience of psychopathy and its influence on moral behavior: Protocol of two experimental studies. Frontiers in Psychology, 8.
- Dadds, Mark & Moul, Caroline & Cauchi, Avril & Dobson-Stone, Carol & Hawes, David & Brennan, John & Ebstein, Richard. (2013). Methylation of the oxytocin receptor gene and oxytocin blood levels in the development of psychopathy. Development and psychopathology. 26. 1-8. 10.1017/S0954579413000497.
- Glenn, A. L., Raine, A., Schug, R. A., Gao, Y., & Granger, D. A. (2011). Increased testosterone-to-cortisol ratio in psychopathy. Journal of abnormal psychology, 120(2), 389-99.
- Motzkin, J. C., Newman, J. P., Kiehl, K. A., & Koenigs, M. (2011). Reduced prefrontal connectivity in psychopathy. The Journal of neuroscience: the official journal of the Society for Neuroscience, 31(48), 17348-57.
- Moul, Caroline & Killcross, Simon & Dadds, Mark. (2013). A Model of Differential Amygdala Activation in Psychopathy. Psychological review. 119. 789-806. 10.1037/a0029342.
- Sonne, J., & Gash, D. M. (2018). Psychopathy to Altruism: Neurobiology of the Selfish-Selfless Spectrum. Frontiers in psychology, 9, 575. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00575
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