Study: Psychopathy could be caused by impaired attention mechanisms in brain
Psychopathy is a “wildly misunderstood corner of mental health research,” according to the author of a new study on psychopathy and attention mechanisms in the brain.
A new study on psychopathy suggests the disorder could be caused by impairments to brain regions associated with attention.
Psychopathy is a “wildly misunderstood corner of mental health research,” according to study author Nathaniel E. Anderson.
“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 his colleagues recruited 168 adult male prisoners to participate in an auditory oddball task, in which participants were instructed to click a button whenever they heard a particular tone. The auditory task was conducted inside a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine that measures activity in various regions of the brain.
Each participant was also measured for psychopathic traits using the Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R), a commonly used psychological test that measures psychopathic personality traits like shallow affect, parasitic lifestyle, pathological lying and proneness to boredom.
The results showed that participants who scored higher on the psychopathy checklist also displayed abnormalities in brain regions associated with attention, including the anterior temporal cortex, medial prefrontal cortex, dorsal anterior cingulate, temporoparietal junction, and posterior cingulate cortex.
“The basic message is pretty simple. Psychopathic traits are commonly attributed to deficits in emotional processes that lead to the severe consequences in judgement and behavior,” Anderson told PsyPost.
“What this study shows is that there may be even more fundamental processes that are impaired – specifically, the way the brain encodes differences between what is important and what is not, even without emotional content involved – and this has more to do with attention.”
The study authors suggest psychopathy might be caused by an inability of different functional networks of the brain to integrate properly. For example, psychopaths might not be able to efficiently switch from a wakeful rest state (default mode) to one in which they can readily make decisions.
“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 said. “So it’s not integrated strongly into more complex processes like decision-making.”
However, the study is limited in that it only examined adult male prisoners performing one specific task under an fMRI machine. Still, Anderson hopes studies like his will continue to shed light on psychopathy, which he said has too often been framed as a disorder fueled by evil instead of fundamental brain abnormalities.
“As a consequence, the behaviors and traits that we would most benefit from preventing and treating go unattended,” Anderson told PsyPost. “People with psychopathic traits are unfortunately among the most neglected by one of society’s best tools: scientific research.”
Malcolm Gladwell teaches "Get over yourself and get to work" for Big Think Edge.
- Learn to recognize failure and know the big difference between panicking and choking.
- At Big Think Edge, Malcolm Gladwell teaches how to check your inner critic and get clear on what failure is.
- Subscribe to Big Think Edge before we launch on March 30 to get 20% off monthly and annual memberships.
You can say 'no' to things, and you should. Do it like this.
- Give yourself permission to say "no" to things. Saying yes to everything is a fast way to burn out.
- Learn to say no in a way that keeps the door of opportunity open: No should never be a one-word answer. Say "No, but I could do this instead," or, "No, but let me connect you to someone who can help."
- If you really want to say yes but can't manage another commitment, try qualifiers like "yes, if," or "yes, after."
Three scientists publish a paper proving that Mercury, not Venus, is the closest planet to Earth.
- Earth is the third planet from the Sun, so our closest neighbor must be planet two or four, right?
- Wrong! Neither Venus nor Mars is the right answer.
- Three scientists ran the numbers. In this YouTube video, one of them explains why our nearest neighbor is... Mercury!
Neuroscience research suggests it might be time to rethink our ideas about when exactly a child becomes an adult.
- Research suggests that most human brains take about 25 years to develop, though these rates can vary among men and women, and among individuals.
- Although the human brain matures in size during adolescence, important developments within the prefrontal cortex and other regions still take pace well into one's 20s.
- The findings raise complex ethical questions about the way our criminal justice systems punishes criminals in their late teens and early 20s.
SMARTER FASTER trademarks owned by The Big Think, Inc. All rights reserved.