New study suggests intense criminal behavior can be identified and treated in the brain.
New neurological research is adding fuel to the debate about a criminal psychopath’s ability to control his or her own actions, and the study is giving criminologists new perspectives to consider when apprehending and rehabilitating society’s worst-of-the-worst.
Examination of the brain physiology of psychopaths is not uncommon in the research community, but neurologists in Wisconsin have discovered some of the most convincing evidence yet that there is a fundamental difference in the biology of the nation’s most hardened and violent criminals.
Specifically, researchers focused on two areas of the brain during scans of inmates in a Wisconsin prison. The first area of interest was the amygdala, which is believed to help humans experience and manage fear. Next, researchers focused on the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain responsible for complex emotions such as empathy, regret and guilt. Study authors compared scans from the general inmate population with those of identified psychopaths, defined as criminals who have repeatedly engaged in especially violent activity and show little remorse for their actions or victims.
Among the psychopaths, the fine, white fibers connecting the amygdala and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex were visibly less substantial. At the same time, records of brain activity showed much less electro-chemical communication between the two areas. While the evidence is far from conclusive, this physical abnormality could explain why psychopaths can so freely engage in heinous activity with no fear of repercussions and little regard for the fate of their victims.
If this is a trait of psychopathic behavior, the criminological implications are profound. First, if psychopathy can be spotted with a relatively simple brain scan, it’s possible psychopaths can be identified and managed before they engage in violence. Who can and should be scanned, however, and what should be done with those who test “positive” for psychopathy are complex questions that touch all areas of criminology, personal privacy and civil liberty.
The research also implies the psychopathic abnormality in the brain can be treated with a combination of neurotherapy and drugs. Again, the prospect of scientifically altering a criminal’s behavior (likely without their consent) raises serious questions about a convict’s rights weighed against the greater good of society.
Perhaps more significant is the new perspective this research applies to the proper sentencing and rehabilitation of psychopaths. If psychopathy is the result of a physical abnormality, one the psychopath can neither control nor correct, should judges and juries consider the “disability” when handing down sentences up to and including the death penalty?
On one side, if a psychopath is hard-wired for violence, is it not prudent to remove the offender from society (via a lifetime jail sentence, or worse), based on the scientifically-backed belief that no amount of traditional rehabilitation is likely to result in a measurable change in behavior? Or, does the physical trait absolve the criminal of at least some measure of personal responsibility for his or her actions, earning the offender at least the chance to be rehabilitated through experimental therapy if he or she requests such treatment?
These are questions for the very bravest criminologists to tackle, and as neuroscience continues to gain momentum in the study of severe criminal behavior, there will certainly be much tackling ahead.
Source: “The biology of evil: Is bad wiring behind psychopaths?”
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