The Brains of Psychopaths are Simply Wired Differently, Study Finds

Fagjun | Published 2017-07-08 09:14

Psychopathy is in the brain.

Many of us consider psychopaths to be cold-blooded, evil, amoral, and devoid of any true human emotion. However, this kind of demonization won't be able to help us understand how psychopathy works

There's been a prevalent misconception that a psychopath acts the way he or she does because of a lack of empathy. This is part of what makes a psychopath terrifying, since empathy plays a huge role in how well we treat others. However, researchers have found that empathy—or the lack of it—may play a smaller role in psychopathy than we previously thought.

Let's therefore ignore this lack of empathy for now. We should shift our focus to the desire for immediate gratification if we want to understand how psychopathy works. Researchers say that we should look more at the choices that a psychopath makes. Whatever emotion may be lacking isn't actually that important.

Testing the Brains of Psychopaths

Weighing two choices based on how immediate the rewards are is different for people with psychopathy.
[Photo by Elizabeth Lies]

Psychopathy is a condition that's somewhat difficult to define. It covers a large range of behaviors, and a single characteristic can't define the condition itself. Traits like lack of empathy, emotional detachment, aversion to authority figures, narcissism, and fearlessness can appear in a psychopath. However, these traits, even taken all together, don't necessarily make a psychopath evil. In fact, psychopaths can even be incredibly useful to society and social organizations. This may not be surprising, but some of the higher-ups in your company may be psychopathic themselves. However, they're not hiding corpses in their refrigerators—probably.

A new study now shows that the brain of a psychopath is simply somewhat different than the brain of a non-psychopath. Researchers designed an experiment that will allow them to measure how impulsive a subject is, as well as determine which parts of the brain have a role in assessing the value of immediate gratification.

The researchers scanned the brains of 49 inmates as the subjects took a delayed gratification test. This test consisted of two options: receiving a small but significant amount of money right away, or a larger amount at a later time.

Bad Decisions and Immediate Rewards

Demonizing psychopathy isn't the best way to deal with a psychopath.
[Photo by Mallory Johndrow]

Results revealed that participants with high psychopathic tendencies had more activity in a part of the brain called the ventral striatum. They also exhibited a weak connection between the ventral striatum and the ventral medial prefrontal cortex. The ventral striatum plays a role in evaluating rewards. Meanwhile, the ventral medial prefrontal cortex is important in evaluating the future consequences of present actions.

Thus, some “faulty wiring” is to blame for the poor decisions that psychopaths make. Because of the weak connection between the two aforementioned parts of the brain, the person in question may overestimate the value of an immediate reward.

Psychopathy therefore has had an unfair rap for quite a long time. While there have been truly violent and evil people with psychopathy, psychopathy itself doesn't turn people into subhuman monsters. Many psychopaths have been able to live their lives without causing significantly more harm than the rest of us do. They're simply more likely to make bad decisions and value immediate gratification over long-term rewards.

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