What it Means to be a Psychopath

By Lauren Stiene | Online Reporter | SQ Online (2016-2017)

Can you imagine not only committing a senseless streak of murders, but committing them with pride? The Zodiac Killer, undoubtedly one of the most infamous serial killers of all time, boasts that he killed thirty-seven people. Each of his murders was carefully planned with complete disregard for human life or suffering and marked with an arrogant symbol to take credit for the crime. The cruelty and crime that exists in our world can often seem unexplainable, with no purpose or reason. One is led to believe that the suspected individuals responsible for such actions simply have no concern for anyone but themselves. However, most do not think to consider the deep-rooted psychological issues behind their behavior. Nearly all of the most notoriously violent and cold individuals that have been investigated throughout history can be diagnosed as psychopaths.

           Characterized by callousness, impulsivity, and a profound lack of empathy or remorse, psychopathy is a mental disorder that has had horrific implications for society. It has been said that one in every hundred people is a psychopath, or at least shows psychopathic traits. Statistics also show that psychopathy is prevalent in approximately twenty percent of the US nation’s prison population. With this serious mental disorder affecting such a large portion of the population, it is hard to believe that the specific neurological basis of psychopathy is yet to be determined, but it remains a rather unexplored realm. However, there are several theories that link multiple areas and structures of the brain to the formation of this disorder.

         A psychopath is diagnosed by testing the degree of personality traits commonly associated with psychopathy that an individual possesses. One of the most commonly  used tests is Hare’s Psychopathy Checklist Revised (PCL-R). The PCL-R consists of two factors,: the first factor assesses interpersonal and affective deficits, whereas the second factor measures symptoms of antisocial behavior.

         Recent studies have found evidence of reduced prefrontal connectivity in the brains of psychopathic individuals. Motzkin et al., in the department of psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has shown a correlation between psychopathic traits and reduced structural integrity of the right uncinate fasciculus, which serves as a connection between the anterior temporal lobe and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex plays a large role in decision- making and social behavior. Reduced connectivity within the prefrontal cortex could therefore attribute to the impulsivity and antisocial behavior of psychopaths. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, (fMRI), a process that helps visualize brain connectivity, their study has shown evidence of diminished connectivity between the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) and the medial parietal cortex, as well as between the vmPFC and the amygdala. The amygdala is also associated with decision making as well as emotional response. Robin L. Aupperle, in the UC San Diego psychiatry department, explores the process of amygdala activation when individuals view emotional images. Because psychopaths have reduced emotional response to stimuli, this research could support the theory that psychopathy is a result of reduced connectivity to the amygdala.

           Although there is no known cure for psychopathy, there are some possible treatments. One treatment that has been proposed is electroinclusive therapy, which passes small electrical currents throughout specific parts of the brain in an attempt to alter their chemistry. Drug therapy is another possible treatment. However, most individuals refuse to undergo these treatments, and the success rate of these treatments are not high. Research on psychopathy is still very limited, but as the topic becomes more and more popular through the media it is expected that we will have more knowledge about this psychological disorder in the next few years.