Are the Brains of Psychopaths Different?

22 Jul


There has been a long running debate on whether those labeled as psychopaths, or sociopaths, have an anatomical, or perhaps a chemical, basis for their aberrant behavior. It’s actually a debate that has raged for many years. Back to the days of phrenology, and before. Phrenology was the study of the shape of the skull and its use in predicting behavior and personality. It didn’t, it couldn’t, but it was a belief that had its loyal followers.

Dr. Kent Kiehl has spent years studying the possible connection between brain anatomy and physiology and behavior. As part of his research he performed MRI brain exams on thousands of prisoners. His findings have shown that the amygdala—an area of the brain involved with emotions and decision making—-tends to be smaller in psychopaths.


Also he uncovered evidence to suggest that assessing the activity of the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), an area of the brain involved in error processing, might be useful in predicting which inmates might be prone to re-offend after prison release. Those with reduced ACC activity were twice as likely to re-offend when compared with those with high ACC activity.


This, of course, will require further study but it’s an interesting concept and could be useful. It could also lead to the creation of a real “Minority Report.” Remember that movie? A futuristic sci-fi story that dealt with the ability to predict future crime—called predictive policing. The future just might have arrived.



16 responses to “Are the Brains of Psychopaths Different?

  1. Nancy DeMarco

    July 22, 2015 at 8:00 am

    I have to wonder whether the smaller amygdala is more likely to be a consequence of genetics, or is it lack of use during childhood development, which may be a matter of nurture? Or both.


    • D.P. Lyle, MD

      July 22, 2015 at 8:03 am

      Yes that’s a question that hopefully will be answered down the road. The old nature versus nurture argument—which most often ends in both are important.


  2. Carla Norton

    July 22, 2015 at 8:19 am

    You may be interested in this relevant piece that came out yesterday: “A scientist who studies psychopaths found out he was one by accident—and it completely changed his life.”


    • D.P. Lyle, MD

      July 22, 2015 at 8:24 am

      Carla–That’s a fascinating story. Thanks for sending it.


    • Sue Coletta

      July 22, 2015 at 11:30 am

      I watched a Ted talk with him awhile back, where he was searching his family’s brain scans after discovering his family line. Never expecting it was him who was the psychopath. Fascinating article, and a nice follow-up to the Ted talk.


  3. Mary Lee Barton

    July 22, 2015 at 10:59 am

    What is “error processing”?


    • D.P. Lyle, MD

      July 22, 2015 at 12:26 pm

      Error processing is how the brain checks up on itself so to speak. These errors appear in many situations such as trying to make coffee or the performance of some other common task. If a process mistake is made, most people realize it and correct it along the way. Others don’t. This happens in traumatic brain injuries and other situations. It also relates to how we cognitively evaluate and control our behavior. Errors in this ability would be part of a sociopathic personality.


  4. Sue Coletta

    July 22, 2015 at 11:31 am

    This post is equally compelling. Thanks for sharing, Dr. Lyle.


  5. sknicholls

    July 22, 2015 at 7:31 pm

    Very informative and interesting to think about. Have you read Jon Ronson’s “The Psychopath Test”? Apparently top CEOs and such are often psychopaths who have learned to channel their deviant behavior productively.


    • Carla Norton

      July 23, 2015 at 8:52 am

      Yes, Jon Ronson’s “The Psychopath Test” is well worth reading. While we’re on this topic, here’s the link to a short piece I wrote titled, “Can Psychopath’s be Rehabilitated?”

      Liked by 1 person

      • D.P. Lyle, MD

        July 23, 2015 at 10:01 am

        Yes it is a very interesting book. And thanks for the link, Carla.


      • sknicholls

        July 23, 2015 at 10:52 am

        Thanks for the link. Since my wip has a couple of psychopaths. I’m really enjoying the posts.


      • sknicholls

        July 23, 2015 at 11:01 am

        I read about Hare’s checklist, and went down the list myself. Sort of scared me.


      • Noreen Ayres

        July 23, 2015 at 4:50 pm

        Carla, a big THANK YOU for an article you casually refer to (humbly refer to) that surely took a lot of your time to write. You are an educator, among all the other things your fans respect you for. This that you said particularly touched me: “And some argue that their [the psychopaths’] civil commitment is unfair to mental health professionals.” Too often we see professionals as mere robots in service. That these folk, those having to deal with psychos, would have to spend (waste) time and energy with them is so unfair. I hope your words have influence somewhere beyond us fiction aficionados!


      • Carla Norton

        July 24, 2015 at 5:23 am

        Noreen, what a nice note! I learned about this during research, and though it didn’t fit into my fiction, I wanted to comment on the burdens placed upon our mental health care professionals. Thanks for noticing!


  6. Ellen Byron

    July 25, 2015 at 2:19 pm

    I’m fascinated by this and have read everything I can get my hands on about it. Thanks for sharing!



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: