Scientists found something weird in the brains of psychopaths

There has been much fascination around psychopaths in pop culture recently, but they may not be evil at all.

Psychopaths’ brains are wired differently, in a way that means they put more value on immediate rewards, and have trouble thinking ahead to future consequences of bad behaviour, according to new research.

Josh Buckholtz, senior author of the study, went into prisons to examine the brains of 49 criminals.

His team scanned their brains while they took part in a test on delayed gratification. They were asked to choose between receiving a smaller amount of money immediately, or a larger amount later on. This allowed the researchers to see how impulsive each participants’ behaviour was, and see what brain regions played a part in making the decision.

Those who scored high for psychopathy had more activity in a region called the ventral striatum, which is known to be involved in evaluating reward, for the more immediate choice.

Buckholtz also found that the part of their brain responsible for “mental time-travel” has a weaker connection to the decision-making parts of the brain. This, he argues, can explain why psychopaths are more likely to commit crime.

Buckholtz says:

For years, we have been focused on the idea that psychopaths are people who cannot generate emotion and that's why they do all these terrible things.

Even though psychopaths are often portrayed as cold-blooded, almost alien predators, we have been showing that their emotional deficits may not actually be the primary driver of these bad choices.  

He argues we shouldn’t think of psychopaths as evil, because their brains are simply wired differently, like in the brains of compulsive over-eaters and substance abusers. They are less able to make judgements about the future outcome of crimes – which the rest of us often use as a deterrent.

He says:

They're not aliens, they're people who make bad decisions

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