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Neurobiology of the psychopath: when the brain loses humanity

The neurobiology of the psychopath reveals that the brains of people with this personality disorder function differently. Beyond the lack of empathy, there are other singular factors that leave a brain imprint in that 1% of the population who, according to experts, could have significant traits of psychopathy.

Listening to the word “psychopathy”, names like Caharles Manson or Ted Bundy might immediately come to mind. These psychological profiles arouse fascination and interest in many people, and for this reason they have often been the subject of films and television series followed by many. The perversity and the dark side of our ideal of humanity both intrigue and terrify us.

The world is not threatened by bad people, but by all who allow badness.”

-Albert Einstein-

However, there is one aspect that we sometimes underestimate. Books like The Psychopath Test by journalist, researcher and expert on the subject Jon Ronson reveal that nearly 4% of CEOs of large companies have psychotic traits. The gist of this speech is very simple: the psychopathic personality does not manifest itself only in the form of serial killings or in inducing others to do so (as did Charles Manson).

This profile also includes people we deal with every day. Just as Jon Ronson explains to us, we live in a society that (in some cases) is oriented and structured to reward those who manipulate, deceive and come to power by trampling the needs and rights of others.

Well, the need to dominate and attack in an implicit or explicit way does not appear by chance, but is built on biological foundations that it is good to know.

Neurobiology of the psychopath

Before delving into the topic of psychopathic neurobiology, it is important to define how a person suffering from this personality disorder is and how he acts. Broadly speaking, we can say that the psychopath is the one who cannot or does not know how to love (he does not have this ability). He is a person who does not feel empathy, who is adept at manipulation and is an excellent lie strategist.

The psychopath masters the gift of persuasion, is fascinating and responds coldly to situations of stress or anguish. To date, we have a very good tool to measure this dimension: the Hare psychopathy test. This tool allows us to evaluate the degree of psychopathy of a person by assigning them a maximum of 40 points.

The neurobiologist with the psychopathy gene

When referring to the study of the psychopath’s neurobiology, it is almost mandatory to speak of researcher James Fallon, a neuroscientist at the University of California at Irvine, one of the leading experts on the psychopathic personality. Fallon is a consultant to the Pentagon and a point of reference for the study of the criminal mind.

The curious thing is that Fallon himself presents the “psychopathy gene”. Along with his team, Fallon has spent years running diagnostic tests trying to define the traits of this disorder. The results were disturbing and revealing: Dr. James Fallon’s brain was not that distant from that of the individuals under study diagnosed with psychopathic personality disorder.

This figure was not entirely coincidental, up to 7 murderers can be identified in Doctor Fallon’s family tree. Among them we find Lizzie Borden, a woman known as the assassin of the ax for killing and cutting her parents to pieces. The famous neuroscientist and absolute reference point in this field suggests that the evil gene exists, but a series of triggers must occur for it to manifest.

Let’s see below some data that will allow us to better understand this idea.

Reduced gray matter

In an interesting study carried out in 2012 at King’s College London, a factor was proved that Dr. Fallon himself had already observed in 2006. People who have been diagnosed with psychopathy have less gray matter in the anterior rostral prefrontal cortex and in the time poles.

What does it mean? This anomaly, undoubtedly one of the most characteristic of the psychopath’s neurobiology, reveals the reason for the lack of empathy and difficulty in feeling guilt.

Enjoy the pain of others, but not your own

We mentioned one of the personality traits of the psychopath: the lack of empathy. Well, there is actually a slight nuance to point out: these people feel empathy, but only towards them. This data was highlighted by the experts of a study from the University of Cambridge and published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience in 2013.

The research involved the creation of 121 magnetic resonances on psychopathic subjects. At the sight of people in pain, their brains did not react. The only reaction was obtained when the researchers asked them to imagine themselves in that same situation.

But the best was yet to come. Researchers found that when these people saw others suffering or experiencing pain, their striatum activity increased. This area of ​​the human brain is very interesting as it is linked to the reward process, motivation, pleasure and decision making.

The fact that this area featured increased activity highlighted an overwhelming reality: psychopaths enjoy seeing others suffer.

Does the evil gene exist?

More than a “wickedness” gene, there are genetic variants that define a greater tendency to violence, such as the CDH13 and MAOA genes. Neuroscientists from the Karolinska Institute have revealed that we can inherit these variants from our parents, although not all of us come to manifest them.

If we take the case of neuroscientist James Fallon as a reference, he himself possesses the traits and brain alterations typical of psychopathy. However, in addition to a certain risk tendency and certain problems related to impulse control, Fallon never showed any other psychopathic traits. This could be due to two factors: the childhood lived and the education received.

Doctor Fallon has always lived in an affectionate environment and with a family that knew how to educate him correctly. He never lacked affection and clear directives on the behavior to adopt, and he also spent his childhood in an empathic environment devoid of deficiencies and trauma.

The neurobiology of the psychopath reveals that this condition often arises as a developmental disorder. Sometimes emotional detachment, trauma during childhood or any stressful or distressing situation may be enough to generate a series of biochemical alterations that result in a progressive change in the brain and attitude.

Genetics certainly comes into play, however it is not decisive: the environment, growth and education are equally fundamental. Another fact highlighted by anthropologists and psychologists and which is important to specify is that violence and psychopathic behavior are decreasing.

Three centuries ago, violent and aggressive behavior was almost predominant in our society. Nowadays, however, these behaviors are on the decline, although they struggle to disappear completely. 1% of the population continues to have the traits of psychopathy.

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