Is There a Criminal Mind? What Does It Look Like?

New research takes us closer to the answers.

Posted May 19, 2013

Think about some of the world's most notorious criminals, such as Jesse James, Charles Manson, and Jeffrey Dahmer. What drove them to commit such evil acts? While the answer is a complex combination of nature and nurture, a recent study reveals clues to how psychopaths' brains differ from others'.

A putative definition of antisocial personality disorder states that is a mental health condition in which a person has "a long-term pattern of manipulating, exploiting, or violating the rights of others. This behavior is often criminal.” The causes are unknown but research finds that both genes and the environment contribute; factors include, for example, child abuse and/or having an antisocial or alcoholic parent. In addition, considerably more men than women have the disorder, and it is common among prisoners.

Dundanim/Shutterstock
Source: Dundanim/Shutterstock

Building on previous research that finding differences in brain structure between antisocial and healthy people, Kaja Bertsch of the University of Heidelberg recently led the first study comparing two groups of offenders with antisocial personality disorder. The first group included men with antisocial personalities who also had borderline personality disorder—but were low on the psychopathic traits. The second included antisocial men high on psychopathic traits. The authors reasoned that this was a fruitful comparison because borderline personality disorder or high psychopathic traits co-occur with equal levels of frequency among antisocial offenders.

So, what are people with antisocial personality actually like? Typically, antisocial offenders with borderline personality disorder are emotionally reactive, unable to regulate emotions, bereft of cognitive empathy (knowing how another person feels), rageful, and reactively aggressive. By contrast, antisocial offenders with high psychopathic traits can be characterized as emotionally detached, cognitively empathic, morally problematic, exploitative, and proactively and reactively aggressive.

The investigators took MRI scans of the two groups of antisocial offenders, with the aim of exploring differences in the cerebral structure of their brains. All offenders had been convicted for capital, violent crimes (including murder, manslaughter, robbery, or rape); were in high-security forensic facilities or penal institutions; and had been formally diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder. (There was also a comparison group of healthy men.)

What did the researchers find?

The antisocial offenders with borderline personality disorder had alterations in the orbitofrontal and ventromedial prefrontal cortex regions, which are involved in emotion regulation and reactive aggression. There were also differences in the temporal pole, which is involved in the interpretation of other people's motives. By contrast, the antisocial offenders with high psychopathic traits showed reduced volume mostly in midline cortical areas, which are involved in the processing of self-referential information and self reflection (i.e., dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, posterior cingulate/precuneus) and recognizing the emotions of others (postcentral gyrus). According to the authors, these findings could reflect neural correlates of the psychopath's hallmark features: callousness and moral bankruptcy

The authors note that their results must be replicated in larger samples. Still, they say, this inside look into the antisocial brain may yield clues to criminal behavior.

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More about the Blogger: Vinita Mehta, Ph.D. is a licensed Clinical Psychologist in Washington, DC, and an expert on relationships, managing anxiety and stress, and building health and resilience. Dr. Mehta provides speaking engagements for your organization and psychotherapy for adults.  She has successfully worked with individuals struggling with depression, anxiety, and life transitions, with a growing specialization in recovery from trauma and abuse. 

Dr. Mehta is also the author of the forthcoming book Paleo Love: How Our Stone Age Bodies Complicate Modern Relationships.

You can find Dr. Mehta's other Psychology Today posts here.

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