Are Psychopaths Born or Made?

In a feature story in the current issue of Scientific American Mind, neuroscientists from the University of New Mexico and Vanderbilt University outline the brain development of people classified as psychopaths–emotionless, cruel, impulsive, and completely lacking in empathy.

The scientists interviewed hundreds of prison inmates, and they describe new and ongoing research about what makes them tic, and which parts of the brain lead them to live an emotionally disconnected and often violent life. Faulty wiring in the limbic system (the brains emotional center) and the amygdala (which generates fear) make psychopaths able to do horrendous things and feel nothing, and never fear danger or consequences. A limbic region called the insula–which helps us feel disgust and recognize something as a drastic social violation–is awry, making psychopaths unphased by, for example, awful smells or images of mutilated faces.

How much do genes and biology contribute, versus a person’s environment and family life? And at what age do the scientists say signs show up?

The classic disregard for other’s feelings, the lack of any deep emotional experience, and the inability to learn from mistakes can show up as early as five years old, say the neuroscientists. And they believe that genes contribute 50 percent of the puzzle, life experience the other 50. They note that many psychopaths have traumatic pasts, but others are just considered the “black sheep” in an otherwise normal family.

Don’t confuse your little one’s seeming lack of empathy with an early case of psychopathy, though. It’s not until the age of four that children are classically thought to grasp other people’s feelings. Even at five years old, a child would have to be significantly different than his peers in this regard (the kind of kid who harms small animals and feels no remorse, for example) to be in question.

It’s probably true that some of us are programmed this way from the start, with genes coming together in just the right combination to create a brain with specific deficits that add up to a cold, unemotional life. Historically, psychologists have written these people off as beyond help, but a one-on-one therapy program described in the article had a high success rate at lowering violence, so there is some hope.

Image: Flickr/Heungsub

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