Study shows psychopathic brains are wired in a way that can lead to dangerous and violent actions

July 5, 2017
Credit: Human Brain Project

Josh Buckholtz wants to change the way you think about psychopaths - and he's willing to go to prison to do it.

An Associate Professor of Psychology, Buckholtz is the senior author of a study that relies on scans of nearly 50 prison inmates to help explain why psychopaths make poor decisions that often lead to violence or other anti-social behavior.

What they found, he said, is 's brains are wired in a way that leads them to over-value immediate rewards and neglect the future consequences of potentially dangerous or immoral actions. The study is described in a July 5 paper in Neuron.

"For years, we have been focused on the idea that psychopaths are people who cannot generate emotion and that's why they do all these terrible things," Buckholtz said. "But what what we care about with psychopaths is not the feelings they have or don't have, it's the choices they make. Psychopaths commit an astonishing amount of crime, and this crime is both devastating to victims and astronomically costly to society as a whole.

"And even though psychopaths are often portrayed as cold-blooded, almost alien predators, we have been showing that their emotional deficits may not actually be the primary driver of these bad choices. Because it's the choices of psychopaths that cause so much trouble, we've been trying to understand what goes on in their brains when the make decisions that involve trade-offs between the costs and benefits of action.," he continued. "In this most recent paper...we are able to look at brain-based measures of reward and value and the communication between different that are involved in decision making."

Obtaining the scans used in the study, however, was no easy feat - where most studies face an uphill battle in bringing subjects into the lab, Buckholtz's challenge was in bringing the scanner to his subjects.

The solution came in form of a "mobile" scanner - typically used for cancer screenings in rural areas - that came packed in the trailer of a tractor trailer. After trucking the equipment to a two medium-security prisons in Wisconsin, the team - which included collaborators at the University of Wisconin-Madison and University of New Mexico - would spend days calibrating the scanner, and then work to scan as many volunteers as possible as quickly as possible.

"It was a huge undertaking," he said. "Most MRI scanners, they're not going anywhere, but in this case, we're driving this inside a prison and then in very quick succession we have to assess and scan the inmates."

The team ultimately scanned the brains of 49 inmates over two hours as they took part in a type of delayed gratification test which asked them to choose between two options - receive a smaller amount of money immediately, or a larger amount at a later time. The results of those tests were then fit to a model that allowed researchers to create a measure of not only how impulsive each participant's behavior was, but to identify brain regions that play a role in assessing the relative value of such choices.

What they found, Buckholtz said, was people who scored high for psychopathy showed greater activity in a region called the - known to be involved in evaluating the subjective reward - for the more immediate choice.

"So the more psychopathic a person is, the greater the magnitude of that striatal response," Buckholtz said. "That suggests that the way they are calculating the value rewards is dysregulated - they may over-represent the value of immediate reward."

When Buckholtz and colleagues began mapping which brain regions are connected to the ventral striatum, it became clear why.

"We mapped the connections between the ventral striatum and other regions known to be involved in decision-making, specifically regions of the prefrontal cortex known to regulate striatal response," he said. "When we did that, we found that connections between the striatum and the ventral were much weaker in people with psychopathy."

That lack of connection is important, Buckholtz said, because this portion of the prefrontal cortex role is thought to be important for 'mental time-travel' - envisioning the future consequences of actions. There is increasing evidence that prefrontal cortex uses the outcome of this process to change how strongly the striatum responds to rewards. With that prefrontal modulating influence weakened, the value of the more immediate choice may become dramatically over-represented.

"The striatum assigns values to different actions without much temporal context" he said. "We need the prefrontal cortex to make prospective judgements how an action will affect us in the future - if I do this, then this bad thing will happen. The way we think of it is if you break that connection in anyone, they're going to start making bad choices because they won't have the information that would otherwise guide their decision-making to more adaptive ends."

The effect was so pronounced, Buckholtz said, that researchers were able to use the degree of connection between the striatum and the to accurately predict how many times inmates had been convicted of crimes.

Ultimately, Buckholtz said, his goal is to erase the popular image of psychopaths as incomprehensible, cold-blooded monsters and see them for what they are - everyday humans whose brains are simply wired differently.

"They're not aliens, they're people who make bad decisions," he said. "The same kind of short-sighted, impulsive decision-making that we see in psychopathic individuals has also been noted in compulsive over-eaters and substance abusers. If we can put this back into the domain of rigorous scientific analysis, we can see psychopaths aren't inhuman, they're exactly what you would expect from humans who have this particular kind of brain wiring dysfunction."

Explore further: Psychopaths can regret bad decisions—but don't learn from them

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TheGhostofOtto1923
not rated yet Jul 05, 2017
""But what what we care about with psychopaths is not the feelings they have or don't have, it's the choices they make."

-No, we know they pose an existential danger to society. What we care about is identifying them and preventing them from doing damage.

"They're not aliens, they're people who make bad decisions,"

-No, they have little control over their desire to victimize.
cont>
TheGhostofOtto1923
not rated yet Jul 05, 2017
"One of the basic assumptions of psychotherapy is that the patient needs and wants help for distressing or painful psychological and emotional problems. The psychopath does not think that they have any psychological or emotional problems, and they see no reason to change their behavior to conform to standards with which they do not agree. They are well-satisfied with themselves and their inner landscape. They see nothing wrong with they way they think or act, and they never look back with regret or forward with concern. They perceive themselves as superior beings in a hostile world in which others are competitors for power and resources. They feel it is the optimum thing to do to manipulate and deceive others in order to obtain what they want."
cont>
TheGhostofOtto1923
not rated yet Jul 05, 2017
"Most therapy programs only provide them with new excuses for their behavior as well as new insights into the vulnerabilities of others. Through psychotherapy, they learn new and better ways of manipulating. What they do NOT do is make any effort to change their own views and attitudes."
http://www.cassio...path.htm

-In short, psychopaths ARE aliens. They are unfixable. And researchers should stop wasting time trying to turn them into regular humans and instead figure out how to protect us from them.
TheGhostofOtto1923
not rated yet Jul 05, 2017
"But what what we care about with psychopaths is not the feelings they have or don't have, it's the choices they make."

-They make the choices they do expressly because they dont have emotion. And any attempts to reform them by showing them the consequences of the choices they make, only makes them better deceivers and victimizers.
PoppaJ
not rated yet Jul 06, 2017
This article does not tell the whole story and it puts a dangerous label on Psychopaths. There are are many degrees of psychopath. And sadly it is this type of one size fits all mentality that illicit irrational responses from people like TheGhostOtto1923. The issue is that only the Psychopaths that end up having other issues in life that get the spot light. I am a psychopath. But that does not mean I will or desire to kill. It just means that I do not process emotions as others do. I do not make long term meaningful emotional connections with other humans. However, I am what you would call a high functioning Psychopath. I can function within society even though much of what people do and express really don't make to much sense. Psychos come in all shapes and sizes. Doctors, politicians, teachers. We are everywhere and we are not generally here to hurt you. Keep in mind "normal" people do crazy things as well.
TheGhostofOtto1923
not rated yet Jul 06, 2017
The issue is that only the Psychopaths that end up having other issues in life that get the spot light. I am a psychopath. But that does not mean I will or desire to kill. It just means that I do not process emotions as others do
Psychopaths are congenital liars and so there is nothing in your post that can be trusted. That is, whether you're a genuine psychopath or just pretending to be one.

Idiot trolls are also a menace yes?
TheGhostofOtto1923
not rated yet Jul 06, 2017
Doctors, politicians, teachers. We are everywhere and we are not generally here to hurt you
Psychopaths (and common trolls) are generally here to hurt people.

"This leads us to an important quesion: what does the psychopath REALLY get from their victims? It's easy to see what they are after when they lie and manipulate for money or material goods or power. But in many instances, such as love relationships or faked friendships, it is not so easy to see what the psychopath is after. Without wandering too far afield into spiritual speculations - a problem Cleckley also faced - we can only say that it seems to be that the psychopath ENJOYS making others suffer. Just as normal humans enjoy seeing other people happy, or doing things that make other people smile, the psychopath enjoys the exact opposite."

- They can't be fixed and they can NEVER be trusted.
TheGhostofOtto1923
not rated yet Jul 06, 2017
I am a psychopath. But that does not mean I will or desire to kill
"Most of us would not imagine any correspondence between conceiving an ethnic genocide and, say, guiltlessly lying to one's boss about a coworker. But the psychological correspondence is not only there; it is chilling. Simple and profound, the link is the absence of the inner mechanism that beats up on us, emotionally speaking...

"What differentiates a sociopath who lives off the labors of others from one who occasionally robs convenience stores, or from one who is a contemporary robber baron - or what makes the difference betwen an ordinary bully and a sociopathic murderer - is nothing more than social status, drive, intellect, blood lust, or simple opportunity."

-Whether you're a genuine psychopath or just a troll, you would read the link I provided and use it only to refine your tactics. As in 'We are everywhere..."
somefingguy
not rated yet Jul 06, 2017
Here he is again, the delusional Ghost of Otto, spewing his usual bullshit. You must be really butthurt over a "psychopath" (which you most likely term anyone more intelligent than yourself, which is to say almost everyone) having screwed you over once. At least this time you're spewing your bullshit over a relevant article that is about psychopaths; usually you do it in completely unrelated articles.
marko
not rated yet Jul 06, 2017
This research on psychopaths is great.

This is how it can and will be be used.

From this - " researchers were able to use the degree of connection between the striatum and the prefrontal cortex to accurately predict how many times inmates had been convicted of crimes ".

To, in the future - Law enforcement and the judicial system will use the degree of connection between the striatum and the prefrontal cortex to pre-emptively sentence pre-criminals for crimes they have not yet committed.

somefingguy
not rated yet Jul 06, 2017
This research on psychopaths is great.

This is how it can and will be be used.

From this - " researchers were able to use the degree of connection between the striatum and the prefrontal cortex to accurately predict how many times inmates had been convicted of crimes ".

To, in the future - Law enforcement and the judicial system will use the degree of connection between the striatum and the prefrontal cortex to pre-emptively sentence pre-criminals for crimes they have not yet committed.



Ok there Tom Cruise, Minority Report was only a movie.
TheGhostofOtto1923
not rated yet Jul 06, 2017
spew... bullshit... butthurt... spewing... bullshit
-And thank you for your cogent reply. You'll note (or not - who cares?) that my spewing are mostly excerpts from expert commentary. In contrast to your belchings and scratchings.
TheGhostofOtto1923
not rated yet Jul 06, 2017
Law enforcement and the judicial system will use the degree of connection between the striatum and the prefrontal cortex to pre-emptively sentence pre-criminals for crimes they have not yet committed
"Following widespread concern that the criminal justice and mental health systems are failing to deal effectively with dangerous psychopaths, there is a movement in several countries to instigate fundamental legal reform. The most controversial suggestion is to make it possible for individual who have severe personality disorders to be detained in secure mental institutions even if they have been accused of no crime."

-Any more belchings for the community?

As Londoners know full well, you don't leave unexploded ordinance lying about. You defuse it and dispose of it. Or else it will eventually level the entire block.
TheGhostofOtto1923
not rated yet Jul 06, 2017
Interestingly the behavior of psychopaths can be indistinguishable from that of committed tribalists.

Compare this

"Bernie Madoff... the admitted operator of a Ponzi scheme that is considered the largest financial fraud in U.S. history. Prosecutors estimated the size of the fraud to be $64.8 billion, based on the amounts in the accounts of Madoff's 4,800 clients as of November 30, 2008"

-with this:

"LAKEWOOD NJ ...massive welfare fraud investigation that is expected to expand with more arrests has left the township's ultra-Orthodox Jewish community reeling... Those arrested in the first raids early Monday include Rabbi Zalmen Sorotzkin, 39, who runs the Congregation Lutzk synagogue, and his wife. The others facing state and federal charges are also well-known members of the community, local leaders said."

-The key to differentiating may be whether the crime benefits only the individual or the community they might be identifying with.

The psychopath - a tribe of 1.
PoppaJ
3 / 5 (2) Jul 06, 2017
TheGhostofOtto1923 You may want to have yourself analyzed by a psychotherapist. You are exhibiting the signs of a sociopath. I am not saying this to be a jerk. It maybe why you spew such emotional hate towards those that have done nothing to you. Generalizing a group of individuals as bad is bigotry.
TheGhostofOtto1923
not rated yet Jul 07, 2017
Generalizing a group of individuals as bad is bigotry
Tribalism is bad. It's most dangerous expressions - the surviving world religions - pose the greatest threat we face today.

Tribalists hide behind their religious and ethnic affiliations because criticizing them can be construed as racist or bigoted. But the tribal dynamic is intrinsically bigoted. Religion is intrinsically bigoted.

"[Psychopaths] perceive themselves as superior beings in a hostile world in which others are competitors for power and resources. They feel it is the optimum thing to do to manipulate and deceive others in order to obtain what they want."

-Substitute tribalists for psychopaths in the above quote. And then consider that the bible is a book about a mythical chosen people who were told they were more deserving of the holy land than the people who were already occupying it.
Cont>
TheGhostofOtto1923
not rated yet Jul 07, 2017
You're ok with generalizing Nazis as bad. They're intent to cleanse Lebensraum of its undeserving inhabitants is indistinguishable from the genocidal joshuan rampage through Palestine. Both had a divine mandate. Both were acting to further the fortunes of their tribe at the expanse of others.

We can even compare Gideon with the einsatzgruppen, both tasked with finishing the job that the regular troops were reluctant to complete.

No, it's not wrong to condemn groups of people when the motivations which define them are based on tribalist bigotry.

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