Tag Archives: law

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

Neuroscience, Law, and “The Christmas Tree Effect”

Medical and legal professionals have for a long time known that damage to the brain can cause a personality change, whereby the individual becomes more aggressive. Antonio Damasio has famously referred to this phenomenon as “acquired sociopathy”, and perhaps the most famous and most parroted case of acquired sociopathy is the life of Phineas Gage. Gage, a nineteenth century railroad worker, had an iron bar used for packing down explosives into rock, explode up and into his head, destroying a good chunk of his frontal lobe. After the incident, Gage was said to have changed – he was suddenly aggressive and unwilling to conform to the moral norms and values of the time (and not in a libertine kind of way).

This phenomenon is still happening today, but not just from accidents resulting in brain injuries, but also from the natural formation of tumors and the required surgery to remove them, and from dementia, such as Alzheimer’s Disease. While there is still no way to causally connect the damage to the resultant antisocial or criminal behavior, there seems little doubt that the the damage did increase the probability of said behavior from close to zero to probable. But how do you account for this probability in a legal setting?

The questions asked by the prosecution are usually driving at “Did they do it?” and “Were they in control when they did it?” The first question seems fairly simple, because somebody had to do have committed the act, but the second question is far from black or white, and probably should not be left up to lay people to decide. If an individual never acted aggressively, then suffered frontal lobe damage and subsequently had a penchant for assaulting strangers, would we still want the full weight of the law to crash down on them?

These PET scans were not used in a criminal court case. I’m just using them to demonstrate how PET scans can just simply dazzle you without really offering any useful information.

The problem from the side of the prosecution with neuroscience defenses is that there is no causal link between brain injury and aggression, and even if there was it doesn’t rule out that the individual had no control whatsoever, despite the injury. That is to say his drive to commit these acts may have increased from a minimal or none existent desire to where he needed to lock himself in a room to prevent going out and hurting anyone. There is no brain scan that can show a level of “self control” or provide a probability of offending. So when functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) or positron emission tomography (PET) is used to show levels of activity in various parts of the brain, the prosecution is likely to dismiss them as “The Christmas Tree Effect” – pretty pictures of the brain that are meant to dazzle and distract the jury.

Neuroscience has come a long way in understanding the neurobiology of crime. We know that poor impulse control, which is associated with many criminal behaviors, can result from abnormal levels of serotonin. We know that the brain of the psychopath has significant differences when compared to the non-psychopath brain. We know that pedophiles, too, have significant differences in their brains. But none of this is ever going to please the prosecution, because they need the guy to have done it; not his different or damaged brain, but him.

In this respect, the prosecution is never going to merit neurobiological explanations of criminal behaviors, because neurobiology pulls the concept of agency apart in a way that they can’t deal with. Neuroscience and prosecutors, it seems, are destined to remain enemies forever.

Copyright Jack Pemment, 2012


Additional Source

Davis, K. (2012) Brain Trials: Neuroscience is taking a stand in the courtroom, ABA Journal, 11/2012