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The Mind of a Psychopath

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In a prior post, I discussed how psychopaths lack the brake pedal most of us have that stops us from engaging in immoral behavior. Now a new study shows that this lack of conscience is actually wired into the physical structure of a psychopath’s brain.

In this study, incarcerated men’s brain activity was examined (via a functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging, fMRI, machine) while the prisoners played a game. During this game play, the men were given multiple opportunities to behave dishonestly. The first thing they found was that psychopathic prisoners were quicker to lie than non-psychopathic prisoners. No real surprise there. But when the researchers looked at the brain activity data, they did make a startling discovery. The higher the prisoner’s psychopathy score, the lower the activity in a specific area of the brain known as the Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC).

So what is the ACC and why should we care about it?

As it turns out, the ACC is a part of the brain that plays a vital role in impulse control and conflict monitoring. When most people consider committing an immoral act like lying, they experience conflict. On one shoulder sits a metaphorical devil hissing in their ear, daring them to be bad. On the other shoulder sits an angel, pleading for them to be good. The ACC is the part of our brain that recognizes when we are experiencing this tug-of-war between good and bad and helps us resolve it, usually by appealing to “our better angels,” as Lincoln once said.

But psychopaths have an inactive ACC. This means that when they find themselves in a moral dilemma, their brains fail to register that a conflict even exists. To a psychopath, deciding whether to lie or not is like choosing between eating chocolate versus broccoli. There is no conflict.

Now remember, this study focused exclusively on men who were incarcerated for committing a crime. First, this means that not all criminals are psychopaths. But more importantly, this tells us that criminals who are low in psychopathy do in fact experience conflict when they are lying (and perhaps even when they are committing a crime). Criminals high in psychopathy do not.

So what can these results tell us about others?

It is certainly not the case that everyone who has an inactive or small ACC is a psychopath. Psychopathy occurs because of a combination of traits, not just one (to learn more about what those traits are, click here). But this research does suggest that when those combined traits do exist, the psychopath’s neural architecture makes it easy for them to behave immorally, and do so with little concern or remorse.

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