What is a Psychopath?
The term “psychopathy” originated in 1891 in Germany. Psychopathy referred to antisocial behaviour. In 1959, “psychopathic disorder” became a legal category in the UK. It meant: a persistent disorder or disability of mind which results in abnormally aggressive or seriously irresponsible conduct.”
Then in the 1980’s, the American term “Sociopath” came into wide usage as it emphasised the predominantly social nature of psychopathic behaviour and may have been less stigmatising than the term “psychopath”.
In 1992, the World Health Organisation (WHO) described a sociopath as characterised by at least three of the following:
Callous concern for others , lack of empathy
persistent attitudes of irresponsibility and disregard for social norms and rules
incapacity to maintain enduring relationships but without having difficulty in establishing them
low tolerance for frustration Leading to aggression or violence
incapacity to experience guilt
tendency to blame others
Sociopaths or psychopaths are people with a personality disorder . They are not suffering from mental illness yet their conduct is so abnormal but they are considered to be psychiatrically disordered . They seem unable to confirm to societal norms and their interpersonal relationships tend to be erratic
the common characteristics of a psychopath
disregard for the feelings of others
unwarranted mistrust of others resulting in jealousy envy and guardedness
hypersensitivity feeling misjudged by others
limited emotional expression
Acting aggressively when frustrated
the inability to learn from experiences including the effects of punishment
superficial charm with manipulative tendencies
inability to maintain close relationships . Their relationships are often characterised by instability
poor identity with uncertainty in areas such as self image and personal values
a tendency to blame others for their own behaviour
Psychopaths lack empathy
Narcissists, psychopaths, and sociopaths do not have a sense of empathy. They do not and will not develop a sense of empathy, so they can never really love anyone. This doesn’t change when they have children. There is a large overlap between narcissists and sociopaths/psychopaths – the lack of empathy, their selfishness and their desire to please themselves at the expense of others. People are merely objects, a means to an end.
Personality disordered individuals can easily fool others. They can cry when they need to and feign empathy. Their lack of empathy eventually shows through though. The fact that they lack true empathy means they have to act, and they don’t have the typical responses that health empathetic individuals possess.
They will rarely go out of their way to help you problem-solve. They will generally leave you to sort your own problems out by yourself, unless your problems directly impact upon them.
If something upsets you, they won’t be able to really understand what you are going through. They are unable to put themselves ‘in other people’s shoes’.
They will quite happily engage in selfish and self-serving behaviour and not consider the impact of their behaviour on those around them. If you do something similar though, be prepared for a backlash. They are the ultimate hypocrites.
A mentally healthy individual will feel a certain amount of guilt if they let someone down. A narcissist or psychopath won’t feel any guilt. They won’t give it another thought. Beware if you let them down though!
To investigate how psychopathic brains differ from normal ones, Tillem had 172 participants first undergo a psychopathy evaluation to determine their degree of factor one and factor two traits.
Factor one traits:
Superficial charm, difficulty forming relationships, and lack of empathy
Factor two traits:
Each participant then underwent an electroencephalogram (EEG) brain scan. Electrodes are placed around a participant’s head to record electrical activity in different areas of the brain. The EEG data showed the efficiency and connectivity of the participants’ brains.
Tillem found that participants with high levels of factor one psychopathic traits had less efficient neural communication, and that their neural connectivity is more line-like. This inefficiency could explain why individuals with factor one traits might only process the personal benefits of an action and not the social or moral consequences of it, such as breaking the law or damaging a relationship.
However, what surprised Tillem was participants with high levels of factor two psychopathic traits had hyper efficient neural communication, meaning that their neural connectivity was even more star-like than the brains of non-psychopathic individuals. A possible reason for this, Tillem guesses, is that super high efficiency comes at a price of lower reliability. That could explain why individuals with factor two traits typically act normal, but during times of high stress, tend to make reckless and impulsive decisions.
Psychopaths possibly process information more slowly
Tillem’s research shines light on the neural underpinnings of psychopathy, but also has major implications on how the criminal justice system treats psychopaths. “Because psychopaths might fundamentally process information more slowly, are they equally responsible for crimes committed in a time pressure situation if they’re physically unable to process all the relevant information?” said Tillem. He also believes that his findings can inform police officers, lawyers, and corrections officers how to better interact with psychopaths. “Instead of demanding a response right away, giving psychopaths more time to process questions and advice might allow them to adequately respond to questions and take advice better.”
Further research by Buckholtz
Scientists found that in psychopaths, the connection between the ventral striatum and another brain region known as the ventral medial prefrontal cortex were much weaker than normal. Prior work suggested that the ventral medial prefrontal cortex “is important for ‘mental time travel’ — that is, thinking about the future consequences of actions,” Buckholtz said.
The effect identified in the study was so pronounced that the researchers could accurately predict how often an individual inmate had been convicted of crimes relative to the strength of the connection between the striatum and prefrontal cortex. So the stronger the connection, the more the reward signals were dominating all aspects of a decision.
Buckholtz sees this as a “particular kind of brain wiring dysfunction” that results in bad decision making, regardless of psychopathy.
A study from King’s College in 2012 found that violent male offenders who met the diagnosis for psychopathy displayed significantly reduced gray matter volumes in the anterior rostral prefrontal cortex and temporal poles. This striking, and specific, structural abnormality in the part of the brain associated with empathy and feelings of guilt, points to a clear neurological difference between regular violent offenders and genuine psychopaths.
A straightforward lack of empathy isn’t enough to make someone a full-blown psychopath though. Several MRI studies have shown a more complex combination of neurological activities is occurring inside the brain of a psychopath.
The future of Neurolaw
These scientific conclusions leave us in a strange and conflicted position. Psychopathic tendencies clearly don’t necessarily lead to criminal or anti-social behavior, rather it seems that a more complicated set of neurological conditions lead to the actual expression of psychopathy in negative, antisocial or criminal action. A lack of empathy, over-acting reward centers, and an inability to evaluate future consequences all line up and lead one to make a decision that normal people would classify as psychopathic.
The legal and social implications of this research are unsettling for many. If we can classify criminal or abhorrent behavior as mere neurological dysfunction, then our entire basis for asserting legal responsibility falls apart. Intent is currently a vital aspect in asserting judgement across our legal system. If someone can defer a degree of conscious responsibility regarding their actions to simply the way their brain is wired, then where does that leave us?
The emerging field of neurolaw is grappling with that very question as neuroscientific defenses are becoming increasingly prominent in courtrooms. One fascinating study from 2012 found that judges tended to deliver more lenient sentences when a biomechanical cause of psychopathy is presented. The implication is that an individual is somewhat less personally culpable in these instances. We could call it the “My brain made me do it” defense.
We may have conscious control over our choices, but it is becoming increasingly clear that there is a variety of neurological mechanisms that influence how we evaluate the information that guides our decisions. Psychopathy is currently not officially classified as a mental illness, but some scientists are arguing that is should be, as a neural dysfunction behind the disorder has clearly been identified. But at what point are we simply regulating ways of thinking?
This increasing research into the neurology of psychopathy is not only helping us understand why some people do terrible things, but shedding light on why we all do what we do. The most confronting idea raised is that if we can identify how certain brain wiring can result in a person undertaking criminal or antisocial behavior, then the flip side is we must also associate altruistic or selfless actions to similar neurological functions.
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