The New Yorker has an engaging article about psychopaths and what psychologists are starting to learn about the psychology and neuroscience of people who are thought to lack empathy.
Psychopathy doesn’t necessarily imply violence. The most commonly used modern definition, based on the work of psychologist Robert Hare, suggests that psychopathy includes things like a lack of conscience, manipulative behaviour, impulsiveness and an anti-social lifestyle.
The condition was first described clinically in 1801, by the French surgeon Philippe Pinel. He called it ‘mania without delirium.’ In the early nineteenth century, the American surgeon Benjamin Rush wrote about a type of ‘moral derangement’ in which the sufferer was neither delusional nor psychotic but nevertheless engaged in profoundly antisocial behavior, including horrifying acts of violence. Rush noted that the condition appeared early in life. The term ‘moral insanity‘ became popular in the mid-nineteenth century, and was widely used in the U.S. and in England to describe incorrigible criminals. The word ‘psychopath’ (literally, ‘suffering soul’) was coined in Germany in the eighteen-eighties. By the nineteen-twenties, ‘constitutional psychopathic inferiority,’ had become the catchall phrase psychiatrists used for a general mixture of violent and antisocial characteristics found in irredeemable criminals, who appeared to lack a conscience.
In the late nineteen-thirties, an American psychiatrist named Hervey Cleckley began collecting data on a certain kind of patient he encountered in the course of his work in a psychiatric hospital in Augusta, Georgia. These people were from varied social and family backgrounds. Some were poor, but others were sons of Augusta‚Äôs most prosperous and respected families. Cleckley set about sharpening the vague construct of constitutional psychopathic inferiority, and distinguishing it from other forms of mental illness. He eventually isolated sixteen traits exhibited by patients he called ‘primary’ psychopaths; these included being charming and intelligent, unreliable, dishonest, irresponsible, self-centered, emotionally shallow, and lacking in empathy and insight.
However, the article focuses on the work of psychologist Kent Kiehl who has completed a great deal of recent brain imaging research on criminal psychopaths, and argues that the core problem is a dysfunction of the paralimbic system.
This includes areas such as the orbital frontal cortex, anterior cingulate and amygdala, that are known to be involved in emotional reactions and often thought to be involved particularly in social interaction and empathy.
However, as the article recounts, getting inmates at maximum security prisons involved in cognitive science research has its own special challenges. Although this seem to have been somewhat mitigated by Kiehl’s use of a portable fMRI machine.
To be honest, the article focuses a little too much on the personalities, particularly when the science is so interesting, but it does cover the bases well and does make for an engaging read.
Link to New Yorker article ‘Suffering Souls’.