Tag Archives: antisocial personality disorder

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

Sources

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)

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.

Treating Antisocial Personality Disorder

Psych CentralI feel sorry for any therapist who diagnoses a patient with Antisocial Personality Disorder (APD). Not only can reaching a diagnoses be a difficult decision, but I am convinced that clinical psychologists wince slightly when they realize that their patient/client has APD.

If a person with APD ever ends up in a therapist’s office, you know that there is a pretty substantial trail of destruction behind them, and this is likely to continue on into the future. Even more disheartening, you know that therapy is going to be tremendously difficult, especially given the facts that those with APD do not think there is anything intrinsically wrong with themselves, they have problems with authority figures (they are likely to see the therapist as one), and they experience emotions in a very limited way.

I recently came across a page on Psych Central that lists the challenges therapists face with treating Antisocial Personality Disorder (APD treatment). It’s worth a read for anyone interested in how APD is approached, but the exhaustive explanations really just seem to demonstrate the frustration with treating it, coupled with the frustration of how it is misunderstood.

I don’t know what the answer is for ‘curing’ APD, but I suspect it involves figuring out its development, and stopping those factors coming together in future generations. It would also be worth figuring out why those with Conduct Disorder before they hit puberty are likely to have APD in adult life, and why those who develop it in their teen years have a better chance of not having APD.

Aftermath: Resources on surviving psychopathy

AftermathA fellow blogger (ponerologynews.com) passed on this link to Aftermath to me today, introducing me to an excellent resource on surviving psychopathy.

Psychopathy accounts for around 50% of violent crime, and many victims of psychopaths have a very hard time escaping these individuals, especially if they’re in a “relationship” with them.

I highly recommend this site for people dealing with psychopathy, or are just interested in psychopathy in general.

Jack Pemment, 2013

Richard Chase: A schizophrenic serial killer

Richard Chase (1950-1980)

Schizophrenic individuals do not usually present with violent behavior, and the odds of a schizophrenic committing serial murder are probably about the same as me winning the jackpot from numerous Vegas casinos in one night. However, it does appear that Richard Chase, who became known as the Vampire of Sacramento, was one such individual. Serial murder is most often associated with the psychopathic, or those with extreme Antisocial Personality Disorder. David Berkowitz, also known as the Son of Sam, claimed to be schizophrenic and that his neighbor’s dog was instructing him to kill, but it wasn’t long before he recanted.

There are a number of different types of schizophrenia, perhaps the most common being paranoid schizophrenia. Paranoid schizophrenics have progressed passed the so called negative symptoms of schizophrenia, such as jumbled and confused thoughts, and an inability to speak fluently and coherently, to the positive symptoms, which include auditory and visual hallucinations. In other words, paranoid schizophrenics are having sensory experiences that are not obviously coming from their environment (i.e. hearing a voice when nobody has spoken). It is not hard to imagine how this could become a living hell. In fact, for some insight, watch this video from youtube as to what it is like to experience these symptoms.

Although schizophrenia can result in violent outbursts, it must be realized that as a mental disorder that results in disordered thinking, it is not really conducive to the cold blooded and premeditated serial killing that we have come to associate with Bundy or Ridgway.

Richard Chase was clearly a special case.

While still young, Chase did wet the bed excessively, liked to light fires, and killed small animals. These three behaviors are actually associated with Conduct Disorder (childhood psychopathy), so while schizophrenic in his early adult life, he could have also had Antisocial Personality Disorder. In his late teens, Chase would hear voices and even answer them, responding, “I’m not going to do that,” and, “Stop bothering me.” This seems consistent with schizophrenia.

Chase developed an obsession with his own personal health and believed that there were problems with his blood and his circulation. While in hospital he remarked to a doctor that his pulmonary artery had been stolen and that his blood flow had stopped.

Throughout his twenties, Chase continued to exhibit weird behavior and paranoia, and continued to receive diagnoses of paranoid schizophrenia. His mother, however, did not want him to be put in a mental health home, and eventually was able to get him his own apartment.

It wasn’t long before his neighbors began to witness his weird behaviors, and the fact that animals would be seen in his apartment, such as dogs and cats, but would never be seen again certainly raised some questions. In fact, one day Chase showed up at his mother’s house, holding up her dead and bloodied cat by the tail. Much to his mother’s absolute horror, Chase stuck his hand into the dead animal and then smeared the blood all over his body.

Chase eventually moved on to stalking humans. After a few close encounters with a number of individuals who managed to escape, some were not so lucky. Theresa Wallin, who was 3 months pregnant, had been spotted by Chase only moments before he decided to gun her down in her home with his .22 caliber semi-automatic pistol, which he had managed to purchase legally as the 3 day wait had not picked up his psychiatric history. Chase mutilated the body and smeared Wallin’s blood on his own body, also using an empty yoghurt cup as a means to drink from her.

Less than a week later, Chase entered the home of Evelyn Miroth and murdered four people, including Evelyn. He shot all of them with his .22 caliber. After shooting Evelyn, Chase mutilated her body and drained much of her blood into a pail, from which he dipped a coffee mug and began to drink her blood.

Chase was caught the very next day after killing Miroth. Police knocked on his apartment door, and he came out carrying a box. After trying to make a sudden break for it, the box fell and revealed bloody papers and rags, and Chase was quickly apprehended. Later in the evening, after obtaining a search warrant,  police entered Chase’s apartment. On his bed was a dinner plate with a piece of human brain swimming around in it. In his freezer was a half gallon container with either human or animal organs sitting inside it.

You can see from these events that Chase does not fit the stereotype of a serial killer. For one, the murders don’t seem very calculated or premeditated, other than Chase’s insatiable drive for blood – he probably knew he wanted human blood, but he went after it in a very irrational and disorderly way. And secondly, the murders happened very close together and were devoid of the “cooling off” period that typically describes the psychopathic serial killer.

Chase was sentenced to death, but actually died from an overdose of his medication while in San Quentin State Prison.

Copyright Jack Pemment, 2013

Source

Alone with the Devil: Famous cases of a courtroom psychiatrist, Ronald Markman M.D. & Dominick Bosco

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…

Evolution and the Psychopath

http://www.rudecactus.com/archives/001430.html

Since I began studying psychopathy, I have often wondered about an evolutionary basis for this dangerous disorder. Psychopathy is considered to be a developmental disorder (Blair, 2006), which means that through its normal course of development the brain experiences stresses or biochemical changes that are not conducive to proper neurological development. This idea is supported by suppositions from both behavioral psychology and neuroscience; firstly, in behavioral psychology, it is suspected that serious child abuse could be an underlying factor behind psychopathy (Kunitz et al., 1998), and secondly, in neuroscience, it has been noted that many with psychopathy show a significant underdevelopment of a number of regions in their brain (for a review see Pemment, 2012).

Read more at Psychology Today…

Copyright Jack Pemment, 2012