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Medicine Science

Psychopaths Have Brain Structure Abnormality 438

mmmscience writes "A group of scientists has identified a structure in the brain of psychopaths that is abnormal when compared with controls. The change is found in the uncinate fasciculus, a bridge of white matter that connects the amygdala (emotion/aggression brain region) and the orbitofrontal cortex (decision making region). Interestingly, the greater the abnormality in the region, the more severe the levels of sociopathy in a subject. The results were published as 'Altered connections on the road to psychopathy' in the journal Molecular Psychiatry. A researcher on the team suggests the finding could have considerable implications in the world of criminal justice, where such scans could one day be presented as evidence in a trial." The study's results have not yet been replicated by other researchers.
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Psychopaths Have Brain Structure Abnormality

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  • Cause or effect? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Rival ( 14861 ) on Tuesday August 04, 2009 @11:55PM (#28951585) Homepage Journal

    Given the brain's ability to mold itself with use, I wonder whether this abnormality is a contributing factor of the psychopathic behavior, or a result of it?

  • by erroneus ( 253617 ) on Wednesday August 05, 2009 @12:03AM (#28951647) Homepage

    Perhaps one thing that might restore sanity to the world is a bit of screening for this characteristic and perhaps some surgical corrections.

    Yeah, I know that would never happen... "these" particular sociopaths are our leaders and our heroes. We shouldn't identify them with negatives should we... so let's continue supporting our sociopathic world leadership as we always have.

  • by JoshuaZ ( 1134087 ) on Wednesday August 05, 2009 @12:03AM (#28951649) Homepage

    The summary mentions use of such scans in court cases. Frankly, that worries me a fair bit. Saying to a jury "look, this guy's brain shows that he's likely to kill people, so he's probably the murderer" is worrisome. It is all the more worrisome because of the implied argument that the individual should be locked up anyways. There's also the additional issue that when there are brain differences detected with MRI and similar methods they are often at a large-scale statistical level and there might be a substantial fraction of normal people whose brain structure looks close to that of a psychopath. I can't access the original study, so I can't tell.

    This does also bring up the standard issues of free will and such. At minimum, if someone commits heinous crimes due to brain problems it makes it ethically problematic to engage in essentially punitive imprisonment.

  • by girlintraining ( 1395911 ) on Wednesday August 05, 2009 @12:16AM (#28951757)

    A researcher on the team suggests the finding could have considerable implications in the world of criminal justice, where such scans could one day be presented as evidence in a trial.

    My response:

    "There is a tendency... today to explain human behavior, to remove purpose - motive - from serious consideration. We tend to accept the notion that mechanical, not purposive, causation accounts for the things people do. Joe Sinister is a criminal because his parents beat him or because of a chemical imbalance in his brain or because of a genetic disorder that removed the function we call conscience... These explanations of human behavior may be accurate... but the issue of accuracy is, in fact, quite irrelevant to human societies. A human community that uses mechanical causation to account for human behavior cannot survive, because it cannot hold its members accountable for their behavior. That is, no matter how you account for the origin of a human behavior, a community must continue to judge the perpetrator on the basis of his intent, as near as that intent can be understood (or guessed, or assumed). That is why parents inevitably ask their children the unanswerable question: Why did you do that? Terrible as that question is, it at least puts the responsibility back on the child's head and forces the child to ask himself the question that society absolutely requires him to answer: Why do I do the things I do? And how, by changing my motives, can I change my behavior?... We must believe in motives for human behavior, or we cannot maintain community life."
    ~ Orson Scott Card, from the Introduction to "Cruel Miracles".

  • by PitaBred ( 632671 ) <> on Wednesday August 05, 2009 @12:20AM (#28951783) Homepage
    Correlation sure as shit IMPLIES causation. It does not PROVE causation, though. If we didn't use correlation, we wouldn't get anywhere.
  • by OpinionatedDude ( 1323007 ) on Wednesday August 05, 2009 @12:29AM (#28951843)
    This is scary as heck. And you think it's a pain in the backside having to take your shoes off at the airport now. "Sir, please place your head in the scanner..." Clang! "hey, how come that metal ring just tightened around my neck?" scary stuff... jp
  • by OpinionatedDude ( 1323007 ) on Wednesday August 05, 2009 @12:46AM (#28951979)
    Scan everyone involved with the design, construction, sales, and use of the scanner...
  • Psychology (Score:2, Insightful)

    by oldhack ( 1037484 ) on Wednesday August 05, 2009 @12:51AM (#28952009)

    If the results can be replicated, maybe, just maybe, "psychopath" can actually be defined with some degree with concreteness, with physiological distinction. It'd be a big step for the pseudo science toward becoming less of quackery.

    But I doubt it.

  • by 644bd346996 ( 1012333 ) on Wednesday August 05, 2009 @12:53AM (#28952019)
    In discussions of rigorous statistics, the word "implies" is typically used in the strict mathematical sense, where it is essentially the same as "proves". In this context, an unambiguous way to convey your point would be to say that correlation suggests causation.
  • by UncleMidriff ( 935137 ) on Wednesday August 05, 2009 @01:12AM (#28952137)
    The brain is a physical thing, and the brain is what makes us do stuff, like think or act. I'm relatively certain that if we stick around long enough, we'll figure out what parts of the brain cause anyone to do anything, and thus every action, from eating cereal to stabbing puppies, will be subject to a "I couldn't help myself" kind of defense. That's fine with me, but we still need to figure out what to do with the people who "choose" to skip breakfast in order to stab more puppies.

    Certainly, we can sympathize with them if they truly could not help themselves, but the fact remains that we'd like to have as few puppy stabbers running around as possible. "3 hots and cot" seems like the best option to me; isolate them from the society that they can't fit into for that society's benefit, but don't go out of your way to make life hell for them either. It'll be a long time before that view is accepted though. We really want to believe that the puppy stabber is a bad person who must be punished, and that we would have chosen differently given the exact same brain.

    Or, I'm full of crap and scientists will soon discover FreeWillnium, a substance not subject to the laws of physics, found in the brains of all humans and sufficiently cute puppies.
  • by mysidia ( 191772 ) on Wednesday August 05, 2009 @01:30AM (#28952241)

    They don't show a causal relationship. Changing the structure doesn't necessarily 'fix' it.

    And the possibility of non-psychopaths having the structure abnormality, and/or psychopaths not having the abnormality has not been ruled out.

    Given our limited understanding of the human brain, it's quite possible there be multiple things that cause psychopathic tendency.

    For all we know removing perceived "abnormal" structure could wind up creating an even bigger harm, or worse disorder.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday August 05, 2009 @02:02AM (#28952351)


    Our legal system is based on the concept of choice; when you commit a crime, you are assumed to be making a conscious choice, and the fact of your doing it proves the choice that you made, and thus your guilt. The laws themselves read this way: part of the definition of a crime in California is that you must INTENTIONALLY perform the illegal act, but this is almost meaningless since it's assumed that you mean to do what you do.

    However, it's my belief that ultimately, there is no real choice. We are a product of our biology, genetics, epi-genetics, and experiences.We make choices based on the combination of these factors, and if it were, in fact, possible to account for all the minute variables in these factors, our decisions could be predicted in virtually every case.

    Well, in which case the jury was predestined to convict, the police were predestined to lay the charges, and the legislators were predestined to pass the law, so who is this rant possibly aimed at? Nobody, I guess ... it was just predestined to happen.

  • by timeOday ( 582209 ) on Wednesday August 05, 2009 @02:05AM (#28952375)
    The philosophical questions surrounding free will are older than dirt. From a utilitarian perspective, perhaps it doesn't much matter; what does matter is determining when the carrot and stick may have some effect, and when they won't. Paying people increases the chance of them "choosing" to work, so we do it. Punishing 6 month olds for pooping their diapers doesn't deter them (they don't have the mental or physical capacity for potty training) so we don't do that. A belief in determinism doesn't change the situation.
  • by timeOday ( 582209 ) on Wednesday August 05, 2009 @02:15AM (#28952489)
    One additional observation - any test for "crazy" that's solid enough to preclude punishment for a crime is also solid enough to imprison those who fail the test even if they have not yet comitted any crime.
  • by icebike ( 68054 ) on Wednesday August 05, 2009 @03:13AM (#28952855)

    > but the sale of ice cream doesn't rely imply the possibility of a shark attack.

    Sure it does. You just said it does.
    You said they correlate.
    Therefore, if ice cream sales are increasing you can expect shark attacks to increase.

    Because they correlate.

    You have forgotten what you set out to prove. Causation need not be present for correlation to be useful.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday August 05, 2009 @03:24AM (#28952933)

    Sure, in a punishment model you have to determine if this brain abnormality somehow decreases the "moral responsibility" of the perpetrator, and how this affects the amount of punishment they "deserve".
    Seen from a rehabilitation point of view, this abnormality could indicate a greater need of treatment, and some kind of special medical treatment may be considered. Or maybe they'd simply be deemed unsafe to release back into normal society without some sort of assistance.
    The "making an example of" part shouldn't change much, since it isn't actually concerned with the known perpetrator.

  • by twostix ( 1277166 ) on Wednesday August 05, 2009 @03:27AM (#28952951)

    How ridiculous.

    I just read the definition of "Antisocial Disorder" and I have known at least a dozen people who fit three or more points in the "criteria", hell at some stage *I* probably did. One or two have had minor legal problems but for the most part they get on. The single thread that joins all the people who spring to mind is that *all* of them grew up without a father figure and they never properly got past adolescence. Which of course I see is not even touched on in the research into the area (rather typical for psychiatry - never can a father be beneficial and necessary to a boy, only detrimental suggests the rabid ideology that all to often plagues that area of "study").

    Anyway the symptoms are so broad that anybody at all could be painted as having "Antisocial Disorder" and if "we" (I assume you mean "normal" people lol) took any adverse action towards individuals simply based on the fitting the definition of it then I would say that it is society that is psychopathic.

  • Only if the mob is composed of lunatics

    Which is generally the case with mobs....

  • by MindlessAutomata ( 1282944 ) on Wednesday August 05, 2009 @03:52AM (#28953135)

    Disorders are certain ways of acting, it's certain ways of acting or thinking that is problematic to the individual. If, as an example, exhibiting schizoid behavior works for you and you lead a happy, functional life that way, then it's not truly considered a "disorder." A diagnosis is only rendered (or at the very least, treated) if it's problematic to the individual. Precisely because there is no "right" way for humans to think and act. You are paying too much attention to popular media and Scientologists' portray of psychiatry/clinical psychology.

  • Re:Test Bank CEOs (Score:5, Insightful)

    by dunkelfalke ( 91624 ) on Wednesday August 05, 2009 @04:04AM (#28953225)

    There is no such thing as a healthy free market because greed is an antagonist of good faith.

  • by Bombur ( 544425 ) on Wednesday August 05, 2009 @04:20AM (#28953341)
    On the other hand we had no choice in putting up that legal system, it was dictated by our genetics, too.
  • by speedtux ( 1307149 ) on Wednesday August 05, 2009 @04:23AM (#28953367)

    If I speed because of my sum biology + experience, then can't it be argued that I really don't have a choice in speeding?

    But you do have a choice. There is nothing physically preventing you from acting differently and you logically understand the consequences of your actions, both the harm you cause others, and the punishment you will face. That's all that free will and choice means. If you're biologically inclined to make choices that are bad for you or others, well, so be it; you just have to live with the consequences, which may include incarceration or execution.

    Purely from a practical point of view, people who are biologically destined to be sociopaths with a propensity to cause harm to others are exactly the kind of people we need to remove from society. Whether you call that "punishment" or "treatmnet" really doesn't make a big difference.

  • Re:Test Bank CEOs (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday August 05, 2009 @06:20AM (#28954247)
    Is that why cooperation generally nets you more cash than the opposite?
  • by P0ltergeist333 ( 1473899 ) on Wednesday August 05, 2009 @07:02AM (#28954509)

    And if the abnormality is the result of psychopathy, not the cause?

    In any case, we are not robots programmed by the structure and chemistry of our brains. My fear is that discoveries such as these will prompt people to start blaming criminal behaviour on physiological features, with brain surgery as the prescribed cure, just as ADD is overused as an excuse for misbehaving children with the result that children are being medicated with potent drugs.

    Everyone still has the ability to choose their actions, and for everyone with a disorder that "forces" them to commit a crime, I'm sure you can find someone with the same feature who lives a normal life. Brains are not computers, you cannot expect to hack them for a quick fix to interpersonal problems.

    I am extremely puzzled by your post. You start out asking what "if the abnormality is the result of psychopathy and not the cause" and then go on to talk like your hypothesis is proven fact. I have no choice but to ask you the opposing question: What if there turns out to be a direct, provable causation between the abnormality and psychopathy? What if there are people who literally have NO choice about their 'moral' decisions? At the very least it would put the practice of 'punishment' under a whole new light if you are punishing people for something they have no control over.

    My personal view, based upon my own experience, agrees somewhat with some of what you said. MOST people can at the very least see the consequences of their actions, if not the actual morality of them, and can choose to act one way or another. On the other hand, I have met a few individuals who have no tangible empathy or sympathy, and cannot perceive that their actions will affect their or others lives adversely, no matter how much you try to teach them. I call them Neoconservatives (I joke...).

    All kidding aside, punishing someone who cannot see their actions as wrong, or even realizing the adverse consequences their action will have on theirs or others lives is pointless and cruel. By better understanding and possibly treating the extreme cases instead instead of locking them away for life or killing them, possibly we can also help the ones that are not so severe to not commit a crime in a time of weakness and throwing their life away, when they could have been a productive member of society. I understand this brings up questions about free will. But at the very least, I can imagine a juvenile or first time offender gladly give up some of their own free will if it gave them back some humanity and gave them the freedom to live in society instead of being locked away from it. I realize I am getting into Anthony Burgess / Clockwork Orange territory (It may not be nice to be good, little 6655321. ... It may be horrible to be good. And when I say that to you I realize how self-contradictory that sounds. I know I shall have many sleepless nights about this. What does God want? Does God want goodness or the choice of goodness? Is a man who chooses the bad perhaps in some ways better than a man who has the good imposed upon him? Deep and hard questionsâ¦) but that example, as deep and disturbing as it was, again presumed that people actions are purely a matter of choice, and in the real world not everything is black and white. Often times there is a gray area. And sometimes, there are new discoveries and ideas that completely redefine the color scale.

  • by P0ltergeist333 ( 1473899 ) on Wednesday August 05, 2009 @08:06AM (#28955081)

    Because dogs are animals and the danger to multiple human beings outweighs the animals life because rabies is an infectious disease and thus can spread to others and must be contained. And the only way we know how to treat rabies before it becomes incurable (and knew at what point it becomes incurable) was by keeping the dogs (and humans) alive.

    A State sanctioned murder is morally worse than a sociopath's, because we know better.

    Revenge is NOT justice.

  • by Dr La ( 1342733 ) on Wednesday August 05, 2009 @08:54AM (#28955673) Homepage
    First, sociopathy is not a mental illness. It is a personality disorder.

    And yes, the assignment of a personality disorder depends on the culture you are part of. In some cultures for example it is acceptible to be very emotional and theatric, while in for example Calvinistic north European cultures like mine it is not. In the one culture people will see nothing wrong, while in my country such a person could (if it is deemed disruptive to his social environment) be deemed to have a "Histrionic personality disorder".

    The point (and many people seem to mis this point) of psychology is to map why a certain person does not feel well and/or funtion well within his social surroundings, and help solve that. So a diagnosis being tied to the culture you deal with is not strange and simply valid science actually. many sciences, including the natural sciences, actually employ criteria and diagnostics valid for a particular context only.
  • by Maguscrowley ( 1291130 ) <{Maguscrowley} {at} {}> on Wednesday August 05, 2009 @09:32AM (#28956241)
    I think we should start with the people who are so ready to indulge in eugenics and not bat an eye. Next let's go with the rest people who think that they have the right to dictate people's worth to society on their own personal scale. Both categories, if they were serious, show little regard for human life.

    I really don't like how you are seem to be referring to such people as "them" (that tone you have for "justify letting them walk around.") and how that could mean anyone that has a mental disorder which causes SOME people to commit atrocities. Particularly how it would make people avoid treatment. I understand how you'd want to keep those crazy potential psychos away from you and your tiny little world, but please don't talk from a high seat and decide who deserves to live and die or decide who can be free and who can live like an animal. Accept that there will always be people with problems and minds that don't function nicely in your world. When they go off, there's a decision to make in the courts based on their actions. Things they've actually done.

    I admit I have a bias here as I am in treatment for a number of disorders, but I'm fine in sociaty when I keep up with my meds and such. I've worked very hard to relearn things and structure myself and have not committed any crimes. However, in your pipe dream I would have been raised so many red flags that I'm sure that I'd never see the light of day again. I'm sorry I'm not worth your chance, but I personally think that every human being is entitled to a chance and to be judged only by their actions.

    No I probably wouldn't shed a tear if I saw you get hit by a bus, probably not even if you were a friend. Does that mean I'm going to push you in front of a bus though? As much as I'd like to rid the world of someone who'd think like you I respect your person-hood. Now if I could get away with it for sure ... I'd be very very tempted. In fact I could do it without really caring. I could even console you family pretending I cared. But I wouldn't because my beliefs require me to respect your right to live. My ability to do these things do not imply action.

    Now what scares people I find is that they think that this means that I'm going to do it because I wouldn't suffer consequences. You seem to think that most people are only thinking of teh consequences or need them to keep you on the straight path. I'm not afraid like you are of doing these things. I personally find you a little weak for not being able to in fact. I for some reason don't do horrible things though. Most sociopaths don't act out on these things, or at least not to a great extent. See I live in complete freedom from the fear of consequences and feelings of grief that you do and I get to be moral only because I choose to follow what I know is right. Some sociopaths just choose to do horrible things anyway because it was an interesting choice. You think that stealing that bike will get you in trouble. I know I could do it and pull it off but I don't for some reason. Odd thing.

    So at this point you should realize my point that sociopaths are simply more free. I personally don't think that they should be given much leeway in the courtroom because they naturally have MORE choice. Punishment will be ineffective anyway until you explain things on our terms, if we listen. Still, equal punishment must be served. Nothing more nothing less. You can never punish for things that have yet to happen for you are not a god and you cannot determine what I will choose or assume that I am immoral for my lack of inhibition.

    When someone like you devalues me and people with similar conditions like this I do get rather ticked off. Thankfully with some time and learned self control I can say my peace, laugh, and tell you to go fuck yourself. =D
  • Re:Test Bank CEOs (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday August 05, 2009 @09:36AM (#28956293)

    That is not necessarily true. If as a result of our interaction, my greed is satiated by you becoming successful and providing me with better prices / products / services, then we both win and I continue to act in good faith. Not all interactions are a zero-sum game. One man's floor is another's ceiling and all that.

  • by mcgrew ( 92797 ) on Wednesday August 05, 2009 @09:57AM (#28956615) Homepage Journal

    Too bad psychology hasn't progressed to a true science.

    it's "narcisistic personality disorder" for those who have no criminal activity and "antisocial personality disorder" for those who do.

    So as soon as someone with narcisistic personality disorder smokes a joint he automatically becomes someone with antisocial personality disorder, even though someone with narcisistic personality disorder who takes a drink isn't? Someone with antisocial personality disorder who drank in 1930 automatically became someone with narcisistic personality disorder when prohibition was repealed? A woman in Iran who has narcisistic personality disorder who wants equality of the sexes becomes someone with antisocial personality disorder?

    Lots of laws themselves are antisocial; the Jim Crow laws in the US in the early 20th century, for example. As Spock's dad would scream when he's got the Vulcan alzheimer's, "ILLOGICAL! ILLOGICAL! ILLOGICAL! *sob*"

  • by mcgrew ( 92797 ) on Wednesday August 05, 2009 @10:29AM (#28957185) Homepage Journal

    They know that your brain is constantly rewiring itself. Perhaps some non-surgical and non-drug therapy could be developed.

  • Re:Test Bank CEOs (Score:3, Insightful)

    by radtea ( 464814 ) on Wednesday August 05, 2009 @10:32AM (#28957239)

    There is no such thing as a healthy free market because greed is an antagonist of good faith.

    Adam Smith called. He'd like to know he has a 200 year old valid argument for you, if you could be bothered to learn something about economics, ethics and human behaviour rather than just making stuff up.

  • by radtea ( 464814 ) on Wednesday August 05, 2009 @10:34AM (#28957289)

    That is why parents inevitably ask their children the unanswerable question: Why did you do that?

    No, parents ask that question because their job is to inform the moral character of their children. This is completely different from the role of the state, which is to violently enforce acceptable norms of behaviour.

    People who fail to distinguish the role of the parent from the role of the state, and the structure of the state from the structure of the family, are almost always dangerous ideologues bent on totalitarian ends.

  • by Psyborgue ( 699890 ) on Wednesday August 05, 2009 @11:39AM (#28958425) Homepage Journal
    Of all tyrannies a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baronâ(TM)s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. They may be more likely to go to Heaven yet at the same time likelier to make a Hell of earth. Their very kindness stings with intolerable insult. To be âcuredâ(TM) against oneâ(TM)s will and cured of states which we may not regard as disease is to be put on a level with those who have not yet reached the age of reason or those who never will; to be classed with infants, imbeciles, and domestic animals. But to be punished, however severely, because we have deserved it, because we âought to have known betterâ(TM), is to be treated as a human person made in Godâ(TM)s image. - C.S Lewis - Humanitarian Theory of Punishment
  • by bill_mcgonigle ( 4333 ) * on Wednesday August 05, 2009 @03:45PM (#28961973) Homepage Journal

    Lots of laws themselves are antisocial; the Jim Crow laws in the US in the early 20th century, for example. As Spock's dad would scream when he's got the Vulcan alzheimer's, "ILLOGICAL! ILLOGICAL! ILLOGICAL! *sob*"

    There's a distinction in the English system between "mala prohibita" and "mala in se". The first is laws like 'smoking a joint is wrong'. The second is 'killing your neighbor is wrong'. The second were the laws that made Common Law.

    When the phrase "ignorance of the law is no defence" was coined it referred to "in se" crime, and I can't find the original quote at the moment, but it went on to explain that nobody could possibly be expected to know all of the prohibita law (which is orders of more difficult today).

  • by P0ltergeist333 ( 1473899 ) on Wednesday August 05, 2009 @04:03PM (#28962243)

    And who has the right to decide who lives and who dies? And by what authority?

  • by P0ltergeist333 ( 1473899 ) on Wednesday August 05, 2009 @05:15PM (#28963363)

    Fair enough. I still think a regular prison is too good for them though. I think that something along the lines of superjail might be more effective.

    From a 'feelings' perspective, I can agree with you and some of the other posters. However I really don't think that's constructive or relevant.

    Science requires objectivity. To view the subject objectively, you have to remove the feelings from the equation and view it like an anthropologist viewing a primitive culture. Only then can you make a rational decision based upon facts.

  • by P0ltergeist333 ( 1473899 ) on Thursday August 06, 2009 @02:23AM (#28968589)

    I guess that's fine if killing innocent people doesn't bother you. Just look at the death row inmates that were on appeals in Detroit and other places when DNA evidence cleared them. The appeals process helps to ensure that there was nothing overlooked, and no shortcuts taken. This is especially necessary in an age of overzealous, dishonest police and prosecutors out to make a name for themselves. There was a case where I live of a man who was sent down as a child and spent over 20 years in jail because of an overzealous sheriff and a dishonest prosecutor who hid exculpatory evidence. []

    If he had been an adult, he may have gotten the death penalty, and died before anyone knew or bothered to find out the truth. Never mind the real culprit, who was free to murder again.

    Then there is the case of that idiot prosecutor in Kern county, California who literally went on a modern day witch hunt (see documentary: Bakersfield's Witchhunt).

    When our law system becomes infallible, then we can abolish the appeals process, and not one moment before.

    And please no one try to offer the argument of: Well if they're suspected, they must have done SOMETHING wrong. That's just plain ignorant.

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