Category Archives: Cognitive Neuroscience

The Onion in the Ointment: Neurodiversity With Psychopathy and Pedophilia

The formation of (and participation in) support groups to help individuals deal with unique medical or psychological conditions is a common occurrence in the United States. These groups help to build solidarity for individuals who once felt isolated, stories and anecdotes can be shared, and potential solutions or coping strategies can be imparted based upon similar experiences. These groups therefore provide an environment that is sensitive to the experiences and conditions that can stoke consternation and grief in everyday life.

Steve Silberman meticulously documented how the right group for those with autism can diminish the stresses experienced in a culture that has struggled to understand this neurodiversity. The number of support groups is endless, and they range from assisting victims of aggression, helping those suffering from debilitating and terminal illnesses, assisting those with neurological or psychological differences, and helping those who experienced extreme weather devastation. The point is that the support is there because there is a difference that majorities of people do not experience (or do not actively address), and this generates adaptation or standard of living concerns.

Technically, anything that meets this description generates the need of a support group, where measures can be addressed to help individuals onto a path that allows them to make the most of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. From a mental health perspective, this is often accompanied by movements that push for culture to accept neurodiversity as personality differences, moving away from the stigmas of disorders.

However, there are at least two groups that by definition fall under the neurodiversity banner, which are problematic; psychopaths and pedophiles. While there is no unified neurological profile that can within an acceptable level of error capture all those that meet the diagnostic criteria for each condition, many studies have identified neurological differences; although, there is much diversity within psychopathy and within pedophilia, which make it hard to suggest unifying neurological differences, and behavior is diverse, too.

The behavior of both psychopaths and pedophiles can often be catastrophic, and could pose a serious threat to those who interact with them. For other neurodiverse conditions, individuals are taught to learn and structure their lives in a way that works with their set of differences; this clearly cannot be encouraged with psychopaths and pedophiles. In fact, if either of these groups wished to exercise their right for self-determination, as certain pedophile groups often have, society will push back. Support groups for pedophiles tend to focus on encouraging them to control their desires and drives, although the success rate remains questionable.

For psychopathy and pedophilia, therefore, neurodiversity is met with the need for resistance and legal protections that inhibit destructive and antisocial behavior which can result from their neurodiversity. This makes them unique from other neurodiverse conditions, and so therefore needs to be acknowledged and addressed in discussions that seek to encourage acceptance of neurodiversity. This may seem obvious, but arguments looking to support self determination based upon diversity need to be taken seriously, not in the least because there are exceptions.

While breaking stigmas remains a crucial battle, psychopathy, along with pedophilia, remain the elephants in the room.


Neurological study reviews focused on psychopathy

Anderson, N. E., & Kiehl, K. A. (2012) The psychopath magnetized: insights from brainimaging. Trends in cognitive sciences, 16(1), 52-60

Umbach, R., Berryessa, C. M., & Raine, A. (2015) Brain imaging research on psychopathy: Implications for punishment, prediction, and treatment in youth and adults. Journal of criminal justice, 43(4), 295-306

Weber, S., Habel, U., Amunts, K., & Schneider, F. (2008) Structural brain abnormalities in psychopaths—A review. Behavioral sciences & the law, 26(1), 7-28

Neurological study reviews focused on pedophilia

Fonteille, V., Cazala, F., Moulier, V., & Stoléru, S. (2012) Pedophilia: contribution of neurology and neuroimaging techniques. L’Encephale, 38(6), 496-503

Mohnke, S., Müller, S., Amelung, T., Krüger, T. H., Ponseti, J., Schiffer, B., … & Walter, H. (2014) Brain alterations in paedophilia: a critical review. Progress in neurobiology, 122, 1-23

Wiebking, C., & Northoff, G. (2013) Neuroimaging in pedophilia. Current psychiatry reports, 15(4), 1-9

Prayer and Imagination

PrayerA while ago I wrote a blog post called A Sense of Future and the Act of Killing, where I discussed how morality is tied up in our projections of the future. I want to play on this ‘sense of future’ idea, because I think it is integral to how we function as human beings. We spend a great deal of our time thinking about the future, and we don’t even realize it, especially when we’re thinking in terms of hours, days, or weeks. If we start thinking about months, years, or decades, thought becomes difficult and requires more time, energy and the supplementation of a hot or alcoholic beverage. And there’s a very obvious reason for this – the further into the future we want to project, the more we rely on our imagination.

In the short term, we know there’s a very good chance we will be finishing work at a certain hour, eating and drinking at some point, coming into contact with certain people, driving our cars, taking a certain route to work, etc. We also know there’s a slim chance some of these things might not happen (as has been our experience), but as we expect to do the same or similar things as the days before, there’s a good chance our immediate futures will reflect our immediate pasts.

So, as we use our imaginations to predict our future, we use our pasts as a kind of truth or likelihood gauge. Even when we expect something different to happen, we factor in our past experiences in order to prepare ourselves. For example, if you’re expecting a family member to visit tomorrow, there might be a few things you feel the need to prepare – stock up on food and beverages, be ready to discuss an important issue, and get rid of allergy inducing pet hair/feathers. From past experience we remember that the family member likes these foods and drinks, the important issue might require you to remember and think about past events, and from experience we know that a vacuum cleaner can get rid of pet debris.

One way that humans try to minimize apprehension of future events, especially when they believe there is nothing in their past experience that is any comfort, is to try and control the future. However, most of us realize that this is impossible, and so in the face of this problem we really try to ‘control’ ourselves, and we do this in at least three ways. Firstly, we deny the future event – we convince ourselves it is not going to happen, or not happen in the way that causes us apprehension. Secondly, we prepare as best we can by forecasting what we might need to know at the arrival of said event. Thirdly, we acknowledge that the future event could be a mixed bag of both good and bad things, thus minimizing our sense of doom. The strategy we choose will of course be influenced by our past experiences.

Prayer, in part, is an attempt to control the future. It is the expression of a desired outcome, usually one that the ‘prayer-ist’ has decided is the best (based on past experience). For example, praying for a sick relative. Sickness results in pain and grievance, experience with the relative while they were not sick was pleasurable, and we have forecast (based on past experience) that their death will cause many problems, both emotional and logistical. While expressing the desire for this outcome, we are imagining a future and planting these desirable ideas in our minds. When we do this, we have created a positive memory, which when recalled, allows for the re-experience of positive emotion. This lays the groundwork for hope. The rest of the prayer could involve a meditative element, or validation of the procedure – thanking the deity or genie in advance, and placating them in the time-honored traditions.

The efficacy of prayer is of course measured by the number of desires coming to pass AND accepting that if they don’t come to pass that the prayer was simply not in the best interest of the deity or genie. Where prayer is taught, one is also told that whatever the outcome, it is for the best. However, those whose prayers never seem to come to pass, will be faced with doubt and dissonance (their experience with prayer is not good). There is any easy way to improve your ratio of prayers that come to pass to those that do not, and it comes from the application of your imagination. Pray for things that you have a lot of experience with and for events that are in your immediate future. For example, pray that the Sun will rise and fall tomorrow, that you will eat and drink at some point, talk to your friends again, you’ll see cars and buses, you’ll receive a paycheck, or watch a movie soon – past experience dictates the extreme likelihood of all of these things, and will ease the burden of the abject failure of the big prayers – the ones that require a departure from past experience and are expected in the ‘unforeseeable’ future.

Dissecting Empathy: How Do Killers Experience Other People?

Dissecting empathyThe stereotype of a killer, especially a serial killer, is well known – a cold and remorseless man who usually plans and calculates his abductions and assaults, and has absolutely no empathy with his victims. The victim is not a person. They do not have hopes, dreams, and desires. They do not have family or friends who are going to miss them. They do not feel pain or suffering. They are a thing to fulfill the self-serving desires of the monster.

The topic of empathy in all humans (not just criminals) has been studied extensively, usually by taking ‘normal’ people and contrasting their biology and behavior with people we know have killed or committed cruel acts against another. In psychology, this line of questioning has led to diagnostic categories that are used to indicate a variety of disorders. For example, it is widely held that a lack of empathy is characteristic of a number of personality disorders – such as Antisocial Personality Disorder (APD), Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). However, it must be noted that the lack of empathy experienced is not necessarily permanent, and may even be for only brief periods of time in very specific circumstances. Out of all three of the above mentioned personality disorders, APD is by far the most associated with serious crime.

Because of neuroscience, we now know that there are numerous ‘mirror’ neurons in the brain that become active in an individual when they both watch a task and perform the same task. This suggests that witnessing the behavior of others causes activation in our own brains similar to if we were doing the behavior ourselves. The argument is that perhaps we can ‘recreate’ the experience of others, which points to the presence of a neurological tool kit geared for this very purpose.

A recent study by Meffert et al. (2013) looked at brain activation in psychopaths when they were deliberately asked to empathize with individuals they saw in videos. One of the videos involved slapping another person’s hand with a ruler. When psychopaths observed this action there was low activation in the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC) (an area associated with pain), but when asked to empathize, the activity in the area increased when viewing the same video. Another aspect of the experiment involved the psychopaths actually getting hit in the hand with a ruler, similar to the video, and there was no difference in activation between the psychopaths and the non-psychopaths. This means that the dACC was active in the psychopaths when experiencing the slap. The study suggests that the mere act of asking the psychopaths to empathize, literally did ‘flick on’ their ability to empathize with pain.

Could a victim of a psychopathic killer or rapist simply ask their attacker to empathize with their pain? Probably not. Passively watching a video of a non-sexual and relatively innocuous act seems to be necessary for it to work, and we have to remember that empathy with no action does not stop criminal behavior. This is not to undermine the above study, because showing that empathy can exist in psychopaths is a major finding. I would also like to know what would happen if the normal group in this study were asked to not empathize or at least fabricate irrational reasons why they hate the person getting hit by the ruler. Would we see something as devastating as the Stanford Prison Experiment?

So, empathizing with victims is clearly compromised in the mind of a killer, but what about empathizing with partners in crime? I bring this up because I think it adds another layer of complexity as to why people kill. Most serial killers act alone (Bundy, Dahmer, Gacy, Sowell, Keyes, etc.), but there are some infamous partnerships and groups who are also responsible for multiple murders. The D.C. Sniper (John Allen Mohammed), who terrorized Washington D.C. in early October 2002, had an accomplice – Lee Boyd Malvo. Mohammed had become a father-figure to Malvo after they met, and despite being separated numerous times, Malvo always sought out Mohammed. Malvo had only been fifteen when the two met the first time. After the two were arrested, Malvo did later testify that Mohammed had pulled the trigger ten times, and himself three times (Censer, 2010).

Clearly, there was a relationship between Mohammed and Malvo.  I do not think it is a stretch to say that Malvo loved Mohammed, as evidenced by his willingness to imprint on the former U.S. soldier. Mohammed had very strong anti-U.S. views and even went so far as to say that the U.S. deserved the terrorist attack on 11th September, 2001 (Censer, 2010). Mohammed’s views no doubt rubbed off on Malvo, who was receptive to them because he loved his father-figure. In a child-parent bond, it is love that helps provide our truth criterion for the world. Parents are imitated by their children, in part because the child loves them (they would be less inclined to imitate people they have taken an active dislike to). The activities of the parent are therefore recreated and performed in the brains of the children – this means that the child can and will now empathize with the parent. Malvo imprinted on a killer.

Mohammed may have loved Malvo as a son or a protégé, but Malvo is not the reason he became a killer. Mohammed had killed in the army, felt betrayed by the U.S., and developed strong radical Islamic beliefs that preached the U.S. to be the enemy. The choice to kill civilians is lost within those facts and we do not know if he had any pathology that led him down the road to murder (i.e. psychopathy).

Linda Kasabian, Patrica Krenwinkel, and Susan Atkins also imprinted on a dangerous man. Through the use of drugs, role playing and open sex, Charles Manson slowly but surely began to control the minds of these young women when he met up with them in California in the 1960s. Manson was eventually able to talk these women into the mindset of murder. He had become their leader and they would do anything for him. Like Mohammed, Manson had very strong beliefs about the world, particularly that a war between black people and white people was inevitable. Through the relationship that these women established with Manson, he was able to persuade them to share a similar outlook.

I have argued elsewhere that we need to treat the terms ‘psychopathy’ and ‘sociopathy’ differently (Pemment, 2013). One reason I give for this is that sociopaths do have a sense of morality (Hare & Babiek, 2010) and as such their brains are likely to function differently than the psychopath. The need for this distinction can also be seen in the light of these examples. A strong relationship with a criminal mind can facilitate the acceptance of criminal behaviors and the adherence to dangerous ideas. This happens because of empathy. A sense of morality is still present, only it allows for circumstances that devalue life. A sociopath, therefore, must be capable of empathy for a cause or an ideology (or a person who represents them), so they can ironically prevent themselves from empathizing with those this ideology devalues. A psychopath, as we have seen, has a diminished capacity for empathy that results from their brain not developing correctly. Psychopaths, by extension, do not tend to have a sense of morality.

In law, when considering murder, the concept of guilty mind (mens rea) and guilty body (actus reus) are often considered, and I also think these concepts can be used to discuss psychopathic and sociopathic killers. Dahmer was a psychopath and tortured and killed animals as a teenager and later had uncontrollable urges to drug and kidnap other men, rape them, and carryout unspeakable acts with the bodies. In an interview with Stone Phillips, Dahmer discussed how he wanted complete sexual control over the men he abducted, and this was not explainable, other than he just felt the compulsion to commit these acts. The detective (Keppel) who helped bring the psychopath Ted Bundy to justice, once interviewed Bundy, and Bundy explained his need for necrophilia like a chemical tidal wave – like the sudden need for a narcotic. These needs do not reflect a morality or a worldview consisting of many interlocking and self-supporting ideas.  Mohammed’s anti-US Islamic ideas, Manson’s race wars, and I would argue Anders Breivik’s National Socialism, do.

There has been a lot of debate surrounding psychopathic serial killers and whether or not they can be held accountable, especially if they have a unique brain. If we consider the mind as the part of the brain responsible for our intellectual life and our worldview, then this is not the part of the brain that motivates psychopathic killers to kill – therefore they would have actus reus, but not mens rea. Sociopathic killers, by contrast, would have at least mens rea, and possibly actus reus. Psychopathic killers have to have a guilty body because the physical interaction with their victim is everything to them – and this interaction usually results in their victim’s death. But to have a guilty mind in the context of murder, one must have a capacity for empathy.

© Jack Pemment, 2013


Censer, J. R. (2010) On the Trail of the D.C. Sniper: Fear and the Media, University of Virginia Press

Hare, R; Babiak, P. (2006) Snakes in Suits, Harper, New York

Meffert, H.; Gazzola, V.; den Boer, J. A.; Bartels, A. A.; Keysers, C. (2013) Reduced Spontaneous But Relatively Normal Deliberate Vicarious Representations in Psychopathy, Brain, 136, 2250-2562

Pemment, J. (2013) Psychopathy Versus Sociopathy: Why the Distinction Has Become Crucial, Aggression and Violent Behavior (in press)

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 Role of Ring Girls at Professional Fighting Events

I am a boxing fan, and I do enjoy some of the promotional theatrics before professional sporting events between boxers. But what really sells the fight for me is the opportunity to watch two highly trained and highly skilled athletes box in the ring. Ring girls have always been there, and usually you just see an attractive and sometimes mostly-naked woman walking around in between rounds to let the crowd know which round is about to begin. It’s obviously all about sex appeal and something to press the deep evolutionary buttons within male audience members to give them a temporary buzz and make them feel like the event was worth the price of admission.

And that is the only point of ring girls. Carrying cards to indicate forthcoming-rounds is the epitome of a sinecure job. Obviously, ring girls are not the only example of using sex and naked women to enhance and promote events and products, and maybe there is an argument that being a ring girl helps to promote modeling careers of the women involved. While I am ashamedly on the fence with a number of these issues, what worries me is the presence of representations of sex and aggression in the same place.

Something that should strike us all as obvious, at least in the male, is that the brain can be warmed to sex and to aggression at the same time, meaning that they are not as conflicting emotions as one might think. This does not necessarily mean one is emphatically horny and dangerously aggressive at the same time, but the general buzz of both emotions can effortlessly sit in the slightly excited body of the spectator. Perhaps both of these feelings together represent a state of mind and brain that makes one feel like an alpha male – a firing of all the cylinders in the ‘machismo’ circuit, which helps boost the ego and makes one feel alive.

Areas of the brain have been explored in men that become increasingly active during exposure to aversive/aggressive circumstances, and during exposure to sexual/erotic imagery. These tests are obviously controlled, so any activation is limited by precisely what the participant was exposed to, and the increased activation of certain brain regions must not be interpreted as these are the sole areas specifically involved in these activities. A point to note, however, is that a number of the same or similar areas are involved in both perceiving and feeling aggression, as perceiving and feeling arousal. Hopefully, one day we’ll see a study that monitors changes in activity from aggressive stimuli to arousing stimuli; my guess is that there might be one or two key differences, but the rest would remain subtle and barely noticeable. While this study would not tell you about the individual’s conscious experience through this shift, it might tell you just how lazy the brain can be when the context changes. This laziness could perhaps indicate how easy it is to shift from the aggressive state to the erotic state, and vice-versa.

But back to ring girls. While I am not going to argue for the complete removal of the girls from the sport of boxing, or indeed from other professional fighting events, I wholeheartedly argue that they be more clothed. One reason for this is that if ring girls are mostly naked, it creates the expectation that they be mostly naked all the time – the expected buzz attached to the price of admission. A model in an evening gown can still arouse the brain, but to the point of a subtle appreciation of her beauty, after all, spectators should be there to watch the boxing match. There are other places to go or websites to visit if anything else is desired.

There is a ‘ring girl’ culture growing in the United States, mainly in the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) and other Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) events. Ring girls have televised try-outs and have to pose in outfits that would make normal underwear blush. In fact, it almost appears that MMA ring girls are vying to compete with Playboy (indeed some MMA ring girls have been in Playboy). This is no doubt a marketing ploy of MMA promoters in order for them to create a strong brand and maximize their franchising, on top of promoting their fights. The continual rise of MMA is going to be interesting to watch, because fighters are permitted to be fairly brutal to each other, showing maximal levels of aggression, and the associated ring girls are flaunting maximal levels of sex appeal.

In terms of appealing to the young male mind, the trap has been set.


Ferretti, A., Caulo, M., Del Gratta, C., Di Matteo, R., Merla, A., Montorsi, F., … & Romani, G. L. (2005). Dynamics of male sexual arousal: distinct components of brain activation revealed by fMRI. Neuroimage, 26(4), 1086-1096.

Lotze, M., Veit, R., Anders, S., & Birbaumer, N. (2007). Evidence for a different role of the ventral and dorsal medial prefrontal cortex for social reactive aggression: An interactive fMRI study. Neuroimage, 34(1), 470-478.

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.

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