A few months ago I wrote a two-part post about how fMRI and PET scan technology were able to detect differences in the brains of psychopaths compared to non-psychopathic individuals. This area of research has identified that psychopathy has a genetic component, and has even been used in court cases to determine sentencing.
Recently, I came across a story on NPR about a neuroscientist who studies these scans, and decided to analyze his own brain scans and those of his family to determine if psychopathy was present. What he found was more than a little disturbing to him…
My last post drew some comments about the use of the word psychopath when describing Joran van der Sloot, the lead suspect in the Natalie Holloway disappearance, so I wanted to clarify what I am referring to when I use the terms psychopathy or psychopath.
The age old debate of psychopathy versus sociopathy is not one that can be answered easily. This is mainly because the words are often used interchangeably, and even when the terms are clearly defined by one scholar, another may disagree and choose to use the term in an entirely different fashion. Looking up these terms in dictionaries can lead to more confusion as the definition for psychopathy may include the word sociopathy in its description and vice versa!
The media has been abuzz in the last two weeks about the capture of Joran van der Sloot, a Dutch national charged in the murder of 21-year-old Stephany Flores of Peru. van der Sloot was also a suspect in the 2005 disappearance of Natalee Holloway, an 18-year-old Alabama resident who disappeared on a high school graduation trip in Aruba.
Stephany Flores was killed in a Lima hotel on May 30th, 2010; five years to the day after Natalee Holloway disappeared. van der Sloot was arrested twice in the Holloway case but was freed for lack of evidence.
Another forensic psychology blog featured an article written by Arthur Grahame in 1935. The article was published in the May 1935 edition of Popular Science magazine and discusses psychopathy. It’s an interesting read, and while some of the information has been disproved, a good portion of the article describes psychopathy within similar constructs of today’s standards.
Interestingly, the article also discusses the dilemma of housing mentally ill persons in prison settings while occasionally treating psychopathic individuals in mental institutions. This is still a common occurrence today; as state psychiatric hospitals continue to close down, the mentally ill are redirected into the correctional system. As a result, there are more mentally ill people in the correctional system than in hospitals.
Researchers at MIT have recently discovered more details about the “moral center” of the brain. They’ve identified the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VmPC)–the same part of the brain that deals with emotions–as the morality area of the brain.
Individuals who have damage to this part of their brain are more likely to have difficulty engaging in moral reasoning. So, when they are presented with imaginary situations in which one person intentionally attempts to kill another person, individuals with damage to this area of the brain do not find the attempted murderer to be at fault.
In my last post, I discussed how Dr. Kent Kiehl, a neuroscientist, is using fMRI technology to detect brain abnormalities in people with psychopathy. His participants are prison inmates who score high on the PCL-R, a psychodiagnostic measure used to assess psychopathy. Once he determines that the participant is, in fact, a psychopath based on their PCL-R score, he takes scans of their brains using an fMRI to determine if there are brain differences between psychopathic participants and normal controls. He has found defects in the paralimbic system that he believes relate to psychopathy.
Interestingly, Dr. Kiehl’s research is being used by perpetrators to avoid prison or to reduce sentencing. One such case has plagued the Chicago area for over two decades. Brian Dugan, a 52-year-old man with a 13-year crime spree, including murders, rapes, arson, and burglaries, spanning the 1970s and 80s finally went to trial for his crimes in late 2009. For those interested in death penalty laws, this case has a lot of history, and contributed to the moratorium on the death penalty in Illinois due to the wrongful conviction of three men for one of the murders (Jeanine Nicarico) that Dugan committed.
Neuroscience is a fascinating field, yet one that I often find confusing to navigate. Interestingly, there has been some research in recent years attempting to find the coordinates of psychopathy within the brain. Interviews and articles about Dr. Kent Kiehl, in which he discusses his research using fMRI technology in an attempt to target the brain region involved in psychopathy, help break down the research into more manageable terminology.
Dr. Kiehl has identified a defect in the “the paralimbic system, a network of brain regions, stretching from the orbital frontal cortex to the posterior cingulate cortex, that are involved in processing emotion, inhibition, and attentional control” as the causes for psychopathy. Psychopathy is characterized by a lack of empathy and remorse, along with severe emotional detachment.