New study reveals structural and functional differences in the brains of psychopaths

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*Disclaimer: This article briefly discusses sexual predators*

By Mili Jayadeep 


Ted Bundy, Jack the Ripper, The Boston Strangler, Charles Manson. What do all these names have in common? These are some of the most famous psychopaths in history.


Most people have heard these names closely linked with the word ‘psychopath’ and it has created a link between the condition and serial killers. Pop culture often portrays psychopaths as heartless killers who show no emotion towards their victims. An example of this is the popular BBC TV show, ‘Killing Eve’, Jodie Comer plays a psychopathic assassin who charms her way through life and kills anyone she is instructed to, without showing a shadow of remorse. 


While not all psychopaths are killers, many criminals, including serial killers, sex offenders and repeat offenders are psychopaths. This was confirmed in a study conducted in a UK prison which reported 30% of male inmates were found to be psychopaths.


According to an Oxford University psychologist, some of the top professions most likely to be occupied by psychopaths include businessmen, policemen, lawyers, surgeons and even journalists due to their increased logic, barrier to emotions and risk-taking.


Robert Hare, a Canadian psychologist, developed a diagnostic criteria in the late 1900s. This test is known as the (PCL-R) used by researchers and doctors to assess traits of an individual and diagnose psychopathy, with a maximum score of 40. 


Some of these recognised traits shared by psychopaths include superficial charm (which allows psychopaths to manipulate people) and natural self-confidence or a heightened sense of self-worth. This means they are more likely to get ahead by stepping on others, be pathological liars and risks-takers. This coupled with their lack of empathy or guilt explains their inability to care about other people, their feelings and how their own actions can affect others.


Psychopaths see the world around them in a completely different way to others. This can be explained by a study conducted on psychopathic killers. This study involved the comparison of brains of 20 psychopathic prisoners to 20 prisoners who were not classed as psychopaths. 


The study found a decreased connectivity between the ventromedial prefrontal cortex(vmPFC); a centre in the brain involved in the processing of emotions, senses, memory and social information. The vmPFC also has connections with the amygdala of the brain, the region responsible for emotional responses including fear and anxiety.


The brain images recorded from the brains of psychopaths showed lowered white matter connectivity between the vmPFC and the amygdala. This means that physical abnormalities are present in the brains of psychopaths. Micheal Koenigs from the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and public health said: “This is the first study to show both structural and functional differences in the brains of people diagnosed with psychopathy.”


The way information is processed in the brains of psychopaths are inherently different. The structure and functioning of psychopathic brains owes to the characteristics associated with their condition: “The combination of structural and functional abnormalities provides compelling evidence that the dysfunction observed in this crucial social-emotional circuitry is a stable characteristic of our psychopathic offenders,”, UW-Madison psychology professor Newman says. “I am optimistic that our ongoing collaborative work will shed more light on the source of this dysfunction and strategies for treating the problem.”


This may explain the reason psychopaths are successful manipulators and act in a manner disregarding the welfare of others in what often seems to be acts of bravery. To a psychopath, these behaviours may come naturally due to the fundamental difference in their experience of emotions and fear.


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