Scanning psychopaths

Today’s Nature has a great article [pdf] on the neuroscience of psychopaths, as investigated by an ingenious study being run by a group of Dutch researchers.

Although there is a higher number of psychopaths among violent criminals, a psychopath is not necessarily someone who is violent.

The term describes someone who is considered to lack empathy or conscience, is superficially charming, manipulative, has ‘shallow affect’ (doesn’t have a big emotional range) and has poor impulse control.

More recently, psychopathy has become synonymous with the use of the PCL-R, the diagnostic tool also known as the Hare Psychopathy Checklist after it’s creator and psychopathy researcher Robert Hare.

The Dutch team, however, are working with psychopaths who are in prison for presumably quite serious crimes, precisely because they lack empathy.

They are comparing the brain activation between psychopaths and non-psychopaths when they view material that communicates emotions and normally evokes an empathy-driven reaction.

By looking at which areas are less active in the presumably empathy-less psychopaths, they hope to find out the crucial empathy-related brain circuits.

There are more details about the study in the article, but one bit is particularly interesting, where one of the participants, from a high security prison, comments on the study:

When he entered the prison five years ago, Boerema says, ‘borderline personality’ was the fashionable term, and his designated pigeonhole. “The psychopathy label is more damaging though ‚Äî it prompts everyone to see you as a potential serial killer, which I could never be.” (Note, in reporting this article it was agreed that inmates’ crimes would be neither asked about nor reported on.) But Boerema also wears the score as a badge of honour: “I think my high psychopath score is a talent, not a sickness ‚Äî I can make good strong decisions, and it’s good to have some distance with people.”

Interestingly, Boerema (not his real name) makes a couple of points that have also been made in the psychological literature.

Ian Pitchford proposed in a 2001 article that psychopathy could be an evolutionary advantage for a minority of individuals, as it allows them act violently or antisocially without any emotional cost to themselves.

Furthermore, discussion in both the psychological and legal literature has focused on whether labelling someone a ‘psychopath’ is unjustly stigmatising.

One article even goes as far as to suggest that ‘psychopathy’ is just a modern term we’ve invented to replace the world ‘evil’.

pdf of Nature article ‘Scanning Psychopaths’.

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