Pieces of the Psychopathic Brain
According to the Federal Bureau of Investigations website, psychopathy has been described as the single most important clinical construct in the criminal justice system. It goes on to say that the need to understand psychopathy cannot be overstated (FBI, 2013.) From environmental influence to biology, psychopathy can be looked at from several different angles. This paper examines current thinking about how the brain and its structures contribute to psychopathy.
One area of research in psychopathy focuses on the set of structures in the brain known as the limbic system, but more specifically on a structure known as the amygdala. According to neuropsychology class slides, the amygdala is involved in emotions and storage of emotions in memory as well as the fear response when encountering threatening environmental stimuli. Osumi and colleagues (2012) note that the affective and interpersonal facets of psychopathy, such as cold-heartedness and lack of empathy, which are thought to be the core features of psychopathy, are associated with reduced activity in the amygdala. This is coupled with the fact that a less functional amygdala is associated with a psychopathic individual’s exhibition of antisocial behaviors, at least in part because he will not perceive the threat of punishment as a consequence of his actions. So whether it be the acts against other people or the acts of justice that may be carried out against the perpetrator, the psychopath will perceive both as less significant, as compared to a non-psychopathic individual. (Osumi et al., 2012)
Kiehl’s (2006) literature review continues with this idea of amygdala implication in psychopathic traits by saying that the amygdala, in particular on the left, appears to be implicated in aversive conditioning. In other words, the non-psychopathic individual will take punishment, or the threat of punishment, for his offenses as an opportunity to alter his behavior and reduce the likelihood of repeating undesirable behaviors. In contrast, a psychopath with diminished amygdala activity may continue to act in harmful ways to other individuals without consciously recognizing retribution may be in his future. Kiehl also points out that studies indicate that damage to the amygdala is involved in certain symptoms of psychopathy, including aggression, impulsivity and poor behavioral control as well as the inability to recognize emotional states of individuals as evidenced by facial expressions. Specifically, those with bilateral amygdala damage have difficulty in recognizing faces that show emotions such as anger or fear. Thus, a psychopath who is fabricating an environment of terror for an individual will not be able to understand he is doing so by observing his victim. Likewise, because of the amygdala’s role, the psychopath will not be less able to discern verbal intonations of fear and discomfort that are prominent in his target. (Kiehl, 2006).
In order to further...