Category Archives: Amygdala

Psychopathy vs. Sociopathy

Psycho SocioI was happy to land my second review paper in the journal Aggression and Violent Behavior. Quibbling over terminology is not uncommon in any field, but I make the case that these two terms have to be treated separately. Robert Hare, the designer of the the Psychopathy Checklist (PCL), and Paul Babiak, state in their book Snakes in Suits that sociopaths differ from psychopaths in that they do have a sense of morality, although it’s a sense derived from a subculture (rather than the over-arching parent culture). The presence of a sense of morality means that the brain of the sociopath is likely to be different from the brain of the psychopath, or the characteristics that define both represent different brain systems – perhaps with some overlap.

Pemment, J. (2013) Psychopathy versus Sociopathy: Why the distinction has become crucial, Aggression and Violent Behavior (In press)


The terms psychopath and sociopath are often used interchangeably, but there appears to be some hesitance by researchers in the many disciplines comprising criminology to continue this trend. The problem seems to be that as research has advanced in studies of psychopathy, which is the more common of the two terms, psychopathy now commands a much more specific definition, and this is what alienates it from its estranged cousin, sociopathy. As language can serve to hinder or confound research, it is crucial that these terms take their proper place in brain science. Here, I present how the two terms are currently used in neuroscience and psychology, and suggest how research in sociopathy should progress.

The Anatomy of Violence – A Review

Anatomy of ViolenceAdrian Raine’s The Anatomy of Violence is possibly the most informative book I have ever read about criminal behavior. The deeper I got into the book the more I realized that I do not think about criminal behavior nearly as dynamic as it deserves. I do not honestly believe that there is another book out there that brings together so much useful information about antisocial behavior. Raine uses his extensive and admirable academic career to mention an exhaustive list of studies on the subject of criminal behavior, including studies that have shown a trend between fish-eating countries and their lower overall violence.

Raine makes a very powerful argument throughout the book that you cannot ignore the biological basis for crime, and to cement this argument he discusses studies that have explored genes, neuroanatomy, and the autonomic nervous system in those prone to criminal behavior. But to add to this, Raine helps to destroy the long standing barrier that is often reinforced between nature and nurture, and discusses how the role of the environment is heavily implicated because it interfaces with a person’s biology, at all levels. Many in the sciences now shun the nature v. nurture over-simplistic dichotomy, and Raine helps us to see how in understanding the criminal mind this dichotomy can only hinder our understanding of human behavior.

But the thing I like the most about this book, is that Raine does not stop once he’s fully indicted Biology. He goes on to discuss curing crime, what it means to bring biological knowledge to the courtroom, and in a very powerful section at the end he discusses measures that could be taken in order to seriously reduce and perhaps even eliminate crime altogether. Although, you should be warned – you will be lured into what many would consider an Orwellian nightmare, only to have your rationale for opposing his ideas gently pulled away.

This is a serious must read for anyone interested in how criminals come to be and why they continue to do what they do.

The affects of abuse in the brains of children

Brain scan when viewing photos of angry faces

Brain scan when viewing photos of angry faces

We’ve known for a long time that childhood abuse can leave long term damage and profoundly impact the life of an abused individual on into their old age. If you glance at any abnormal psychology textbook, and you look at suspected ideas of what causes personality disorders, childhood abuse is always on the list.

However, understanding what changes are actually taking place in the brain as a result of abuse have only really come to light over the last few years. This is mainly due to the bold and daring work of a number of neuroscientists – people like Dr. Eamon McCrory at the University College London.

Using fMRI, McCrory and his team found that children who had been exposed to family violence showed the same brain activity as combat soldiers, when exposed to an exercise where they viewed pictures of angry faces. If you just stop to think about that for a few seconds, it’s really very unsettling. The two brain areas that showed heightened activity in both abused children and soldiers were the amygdala (involved in fear recognition and memory formation), and the anterior insula (involved in emotion and self-recognition). McCrory suggested that perpetual exposure to negative stimuli, such as being subject to continued abuse or having to survive in a war zone, actually causes the hypersensitization of these two areas in the brain.

Hypersensitization means that those areas have essentially been trained to respond with a lot of activity, which over time means that there will be a large response, even when the stimulus is not as threatening or negative as the original (the abuse / the war zone). When the various parts of the brain have been calibrated to respond this way, the individual is likely to suffer from an anxiety or a stress disorder, or perhaps in the case of childhood abuse, a long term personality disorder.

A key difference, with regards to brain activity, between abused children and combat soldiers, is that the brain of the child is still developing. Brain maturation is complete at about the age of 25, but there are some crucial developmental stages during childhood. After the child is born to the age of 6, very important areas in reasoning and emotion are still growing and developing. So if a child experiences extreme stress, certain areas of the brain that have not matured yet will still respond to the environment, only the over activity and the stress could cause neurochemical changes that stymie neuronal growth, meaning that these areas will never develop correctly.

When this happens the child could end up with a personality disorder – the worst case scenario being antisocial personality disorder, or psychopathy.

Fear and the Amygdala

The experience of fear has often been closely tied to activity in the brain structure called the amygdala, which is itself a cluster of nuclei and highly involved in the processing of memory. There are two amygdalae, one on each side of the brain.

There is ample evidence that the amygdala is heavily involved in fear conditioning, the procedure whereby we learn to tag aversive experiences with feelings of fear. Fear conditioning is perfectly natural, and functions to help you avoid aversive experiences in the future. There are numerous problems that can arise because of fear conditioning, however, such as tagging healthy and innocuous experiences with a fear response (perhaps because of past trauma), making one susceptible to perpetual fear, paranoia, and misanthropy. On the whole, though, fear conditioning should facilitate your passage through life.

A recent study by Feinstein et al. found that while the amygdala is active during fearful occurrences, it is not responsible for our subjective experience of fear. Feinstein et al. found that a lady, who suffered a condition that resulted in a reduced amygdala, and subsequently seemed to lack a fear response, could be induced to experience fear by increasing her carbon dioxide intake. In fact, people who have a reduced amygdala become even more fearful than those with a healthy amygdala during these negative experiences. I would expect that CO2 triggers fear because of the impending threat of suffocation; if the body is becoming low on oxygen, any mechanism or experience that motivates the organism to take action will promote survival.

On the surface, this experiment seems to suggest that you can induce fear in those who do not typically experience it.

Naturally, this peaked my curiosity because of my interest in psychopaths. Those with psychopathy typically have a reduced amygdala and cannot experience fear. I would be curious to know if this method of inducing fear could be used to help psychopaths develop a conscious and emotional understanding of what it is to experience fear. There are still no treatments for psychopathy, but if we could induce fear in these individuals, perhaps we could trigger the beginning of a conscience?

Jack Pemment, 2013



Nature News: Researchers scare ‘fearless’ patients – Feelings of terror did not involve the brain’s fear center.

Feinstein, J. S., Buzza, C., Hurlemann, R., Follmer, R. L., Dahdaleh, N. S., Coryell, W. H., … & Wemmie, J. A. (2013). Fear and panic in humans with bilateral amygdala damage. Nature neuroscience.

Mind Whimsy

Not at a deficit, just different

deficit or differenceThere has been a big push in the field of clinical psychology to recognize and celebrate difference, pushing us away from behavioral explanations that might use words such as retarded or deficit. The motive for this is obvious; using these kinds of words with negative connotations can hugely undermine all of the great qualities of the patient in question. I support this kind of thinking, but have the following reservations.

Firstly, I have no problem with the word retarded going into the dustbin of history. That word is no use to anyone.

But I would like to maintain that deficit does have a place. Those in developmental neuroscience are becoming very familiar with neurogenesis (the creation and proliferation of neurons) and brain development. The biochemical environment in the brain tissue during development is crucial for proper neurological maturation and for the brain to function. If the environment in the brain changes, because of high levels of stress hormones or the presence of harmful drugs, the outcome will be a neurological deficit. Depending on where this deficit is will have serious implications on the afflicted’s lifestyle.

You could refer to this hindered development as a difference, not a deficit, but that undermines the fact that given different circumstances (environmental or genetic), there was no reason for the lack of neuronal growth to occur. Academically, it’s critical to recognize the factors that hinder potential growth and the resulting behavioral consequences. To refer to hindered development as just a difference undermines the pursuit of preventing developmental disorders.

Behaviorally, everyone is at a deficit! There are millions of things I will never be able to do, and things that somebody else will always be able to do better than me. But there are nasty diseases that can result in the break down of once healthy systems, and there are nasty diseases that can prevent one from having the healthy system in the first place – such as motor movement and coordination, our propensity for empathy and an intuitive understanding of others, and one’s ability to memorize, intellectualize, and think critically. While these things may not have developed or may have started to deteriorate, as humans we usually learn to compensate for these growing deficits by adopting new skills or techniques that we never used previously. There is nothing wrong with acknowledging the deficits, because that allows us to deal successfully with reality.

This issue of deficits is clearly about respect and a fear that by focusing on deficits we will fail to give people the dignity that they deserve.

Which brings me to my second reservation. There are some disorders that are now synonymous with neurological and behavioral deficits that we would not want to celebrate as just different. The main disorder in question here is a developmental disorder known as psychopathy. Neurologically, we know that those with psychopathy have deficits in their amydalas and in the posterior prefrontal lobe. Behaviorally, psychopaths do not have a conscience, cannot understand emotion, and often engage in very risky behaviors that can seriously harm the wellbeing of others. Here, the term deficit appears perfectly valid, and I think part of the reason is because we despise the behavior of these people and recognize that as their brain failed to develop correctly they are at a deficit, both personally and socially. Psychopathy is not a difference to be celebrated.

I think there is also an element of our willingness to accept a ‘greater good’ mentality over those with neurological deficits to this argument. Autistic individuals are known to have a poor understanding of the feelings and emotions of others. The same is true of psychopaths. Culturally, (for the most part) we accept autism and marvel at the analytical and descriptive talents that are present in some autistic individuals, and those with autism never really go out of their way to harm others. Therefore, we have no problem allowing those with autism to be fully integrated into society, albeit in their fastidious and calculating bubbles; those with autism are just different from us.

But psychopaths? Yes, they have neurological and sociological deficits, but they are harmful to others. So in this case we do need to exercise a ‘greater good’ mentality to keep them out of society and prevent them from continuing to hurt people. This isn’t a difference we can accept. A psychopath’s deficits can make them deadly, and as it is the recognition and comprehension of these deficits that help us to identify these people, talk of deficits is just fine.

Copyright Jack Pemment, 2013

Kevin Dutton on psychopathy: A bright side?

In a two-part podcast (Part 1 : Part 2) on the Scientific American website, Kevin Dutton, a psychologist from Oxford University in the UK discusses why psychopathic traits could be a good thing. Dutton has recently written a book entitled The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us about Success. This line of thought is obviously a little shocking, not in the least because of the immense societal and personal damage that can happen in the name of psychopathy. On the podcast, however, Dutton is clearly an expert on the subject and has clearly put an immense amount of work into this book.

So what are some of the points that get raised in the interview?

There are two points made clear that I believe are done to ease us into accepting the benefits of psychopathy, as well as to educate us about psychopathy and dispel some of the myths. Firstly, psychopathy is a dynamic scale and is far from a black and white issue, and secondly, many psychopaths are not violent. These are perfectly valid points.

Dutton also draws a distinction between successful and unsuccessful psychopaths. This distinction has been made for a while; in neurological studies of psychopaths, success is measured by determining time in prison (more time, less success), and researchers have tried to see if there are brain differences between these groups of psychopaths. Yang et al. (2005) found that unsuccessful psychopaths seem to have a reduced amount of prefrontal gray matter (less neuronal cell bodies) when compared to their successful counterparts. Dutton discusses success in terms of impulsivity; if the psychopath is too impulsive, then their actions are more likely to land them in trouble or veer them away from their ultimate goals. The neurological aspect could actually reinforce this view, because the prefrontal cortex does play a role in impulse control; a reduced amount of neurons in the prefrontal cortex could result in low impulse control.

Dutton goes on to mention that a successful psychopath, i.e. with good impulse control, could make a good politician. Impulse control, coupled with manipulation, a lack of empathy, grandiosity and charisma, could indeed make you a great politician or political leader. However, I think it must be noted that many people are likely to distrust politicians if some of those characteristics become evident, and so even if they are natural to the psychopath, exposing these true colors could mean that they will not be re-elected. The dirty deeds of politicians are also enough to give most people scruples, and I’m sure many would elect to be moral individuals rather than a heartless and two-faced politician. Having said that, I’m sure the argument could be made that these people are a necessary evil that do ultimately push progress, even if it is at the expense of others (someone has to get their hands dirty).

In fact, Dutton does allude to the necessary evil that perhaps societies have to have by mentioning the utilitarian argument, which is essentially acting in a way that will benefit the most. It turns out that non-psychopaths can actually be very bad at this, and Dutton uses a couple of moral dilemma questions to demonstrate the point. A train is hurtling out of control down a track and on course to hit 5 people. You can divert the train by pulling a switch, but by doing so the train will hurtle down another track and kill 1 person. Assuming that 1 person is a stranger to you, most people would agree that pulling the switch is the right thing to do. However, in a different scenario, what if the only way to stop the train from killing the 5 people was to push a large stranger from a footbridge in front of the train? Not many people would elect to do this, but a psychopath makes no distinction between these two scenarios, and this has been tied to a lack of cellular activity that takes place in the prefrontal lobes of psychopaths.

Using this example, clearly pushing somebody in front of a train is not something we should ‘learn’ from the psychopathic, but it does raise the interesting point that perhaps in more complex situations, where the consequences may not be quite as severe as murder, perhaps we do need people who do function and think this way. Many political leaders and CEOs often make decisions that increase the profit margin at the expense of making many workers redundant. Successful and intelligent psychopaths are clearly made for these kind of jobs. But again, is this something we should learn from psychopaths or just accept that in order for the world to work it is a necessary evil?

Dutton also mentions that psychopaths do not procrastinate, they are cool under pressure, and they do not care what people think of them. On the surface it could seem like these are great qualities, but it must be pointed out that the  reasons they do not procrastinate, are cool under pressure, and do not care what people think of them is because their brain has not developed correctly.

I would argue that the reason psychopaths do not procrastinate is actually related to Adrian Raine’s hypothesis, which is that as psychopaths also have a low-resting heart rate (something that could feel uncomfortable as it is a struggle to feel aroused), they are prone to seeking stimulation. Psychopathy is often comorbid with alcoholism and cocaine addiction, but these are clearly things we would not want to learn from them. However, with good impulse control, the psychopath will be seeking a huge physiological pay-off if they succeed in their plans -which will no doubt be experienced at the considerable expense of others.

The reason they are cool under pressure is because their amygdala is either under-active or/and maldeveloped. One of the things the amygdala is responsible for is fear conditioning – things that shock and scare us cause the amygdala to become active and it increases the saliency of memory at that moment, which helps us remember in the future what in the past caused us to be scared. Psychopaths do not feel fear, at all, meaning they cannot be fear conditioned. I would argue that this is actually a bad thing and is likely to cause more problems than advantages. For one, you cannot grow up and assimilate into society with a sense of morality if you are a psychopath; however you can completely fake it. To be a successful psychopath, therefore, and go unnoticed and unchallenged, you had better also be very intelligent.

Having no empathy will of course lead you to not give a damn about what other people think. However, surely the merits of this are situational? You should always care about what your loved ones and friends think about you, because that helps you to grow and mature, and opens you up to certain kinds of wisdom. So while it is important that you know who and what to ignore, you also need to know when to pay attention.

These qualities are not decidedly psychopathic and can be learned from life experience. It’s almost accidental that psychopaths show those traits – given their neuronal deficits, they don’t have a choice.

Personally, I think that Dutton has raised some great points about the role of psychopathy and how culturally we do seem to have a niche where these people can flourish – this probably tells us a lot about human nature and society. But from this cursory introduction to his work, I would be careful of blurring the line between taking life lessons from a psychopath and accepting that our culture needs/rewards them.

I do, however, look forward to adding his book to my collection, and benefiting from his wealth of knowledge on the subject of psychopathy.

Copyright Jack Pemment, 2013

What would we find wrong in the brain of a serial killer?

You do not have be enlightened to realize that there is something different about serial killers. Clearly, the horror stories from victims and police reports will soon have you believing that something has to be very different about these people for them to do what they do, and whatever that something is has to be encoded in the brain somewhere, somehow. I would like to talk through some of the psychological disorders that could be behind the possibility for serial killing, but firstly, I would like to clarify what I mean by ‘encoded in the brain.’ I simply mean that at any one moment in time our brains have developed in one particular way and that way controls the statistical likelihood of certain behaviors occurring under certain circumstances, in this case, serial killing.

Read more at Psychology Today…