Thanks to new research, our understanding of psychopathy has improved substantially beyond the Hollywood clichés of Hannibal Lecter and Norman Bates over the last few years. Some studies have completely changed our perception of what it means to be a psychopath, showing that despite their reputation, not all are cool, calm, and anxiety-free. Others are more trivial. Psychopaths are more likely to listen to heavy metal and rap (apparently, No Diggity is a particular favorite) than classical music and jazz. We also know they like to hang out in the boardroom, the courthouse, and on TV.
Yet our comprehension of what makes a psychopath is far less clear. Traditionally, it is associated with some sort of moral failing or an absence of empathy but Nathaniel E. Anderson from The Mind Research Network and Lovelace Biomedical and Environmental Research Institute has an alternative theory. He reckons psychopathy is linked to attention-based deficiencies in the brain and set out to prove so in a study recently published in the journal Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience.
“The public tends to view psychopaths as monsters and lost causes," Anderson told PsyPost.
"I want to encourage the recognition that this is a serious mental health condition that can be addressed with the same tools we use to study things like schizophrenia, autism, and depression.”
Anderson and co-workers looked to a 2010 study that had found a connection between impaired attention and psychopathic traits, suggesting the former contributes to the latter. To investigate this idea further, the team recruited 168 male inmates from two medium-security state correction facilities and had them complete an auditory oddball task. The volunteers (all of whom had been certified as having psychopathic traits as per the Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised) were asked to listen to a recording of different sounds and press a button when they heard a very specific high-pitched tone. While this was going on, the volunteers were inside a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine so that the researchers could monitor their brain activity.
The fMRI revealed abnormal activity in areas of the brain involved in attention such as the anterior temporal cortex, medial prefrontal cortex, and dorsal anterior cingulate, apparently corroborating the earlier findings. This shows that the way the brain decides what is important and what is not – whether it has anything to do with emotion or not – may have an important role in the development of psychopathy.
“The reason emotional processing might be impaired in psychopaths to begin with, is because a psychopathic brain doesn’t attend to emotional information in the same way a healthy brain does," Anderson continued. "So it’s not integrated strongly into more complex processes like decision-making.”
The experiment looked at one very specific task and so, while it sheds an intriguing light onto psychopathy, it is not conclusive. Anderson hopes to extend this research to different attention-based tasks and other populations, such as children who display psychopathic traits.