Violent Psychopaths’ Brains are unable to understand Punishment

violent psychopaths' brains

Violent psychopaths’ brains can’t learn from punishment

A new study using MRI scans to investigate violent psychopaths’ brains finds that abnormalities in their brains prevent psychopaths from adjusting behavior in response to punishment.

Psychopaths, or people with a psychopathic disorder, differ from the rest of us by displaying antisocial behavior, a reduced ability for empathy and lack of inhibitions inhibitions. This disorder doesn’t automatically mean violence, but earlier studies suggests that violence are more likely in people with psychopathy. New research from University of Montreal suggest that people who are psychopaths don’t “understand” punishment or reward and are unable to adjust their behavior in response to it.

Violent Psychopaths’ Brains “Can’t understand” punishment

The findings were reported in the journal Lancet Psychiatry.

“One in five violent offenders is a psychopath. They have higher rates of recidivism and don’t benefit from rehabilitation programmes. Our research reveals why this is and can hopefully improve childhood interventions to prevent violence and behavioural therapies to reduce recidivism,” Professor Hodgins of the University of Montreal one researchers contributing to the study.

In the study researchers used MRI scans to study violent psychopaths’ brains and compare brain structures with violent criminals that don’t suffer from psychopathy. Researchers found that psychopaths don’t “understand” punishment in the same way as other people. Psychopaths don’t change their behavior in response to punishment meaning it’s unlikely psychopaths will benefit from any traditional punishments, like incarceration.

In this study researchers used MRI’s to scan the brains of 12 violent criminals with psychopathy, 20 violent criminals with antisocial personality disorder and 18 healthy individuals who weren’t criminals. The criminals were all convicted of violent crimes such as murder, rape, attempted murder or assault.

During the MRI scans participants played a matching game resulting in rewards or punishments. This game was meant to determine if participants could adjust their behavior to shifting circumstances. The matching game consisted of pairing images with others images. Correctly pairing images sometimes earned you a reward in the form of points and sometimes didn’t.

In violent psychopaths researchers found abnormalities. Psychopaths’ brains’ had lower volume of gray matter in brain regions associated with empathy, processing pro-social emotions and moral reasoning. Grey matter is the cell-types in the brain responsible for processing information in contrast to white matter which is the “wiring” that conducts signals between different brain regions. Grey matter volume wasn’t the only difference seen on the MRIs researchers also found abnormalities in the white matter tracts that connects several areas of the brain. These brain abnormalities are thought to be the cause of the lack of empathy seen in psychopaths and why the ability to learn from both punishments and rewards were missing.

If violent psychopaths’ brains can’t understand punishment, what can be done to help them? The researchers of this study suggest that early intervention can help prevent the brain from forming these abnormalities. A way to help psychopaths control their behavior is by intervening early in their life during childhood while the brain is more pliable.

[pullquote]”Since most violent crimes are committed by men who display conduct problems from a young age, learning-based interventions that target the specific brain mechanisms underlying this behaviour pattern and thereby change the behaviour would significantly reduce violent crime,” Professor Hodgins said.[/pullquote]

Image Credit: Dave Mathis via flickr.com, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0