The Psychopathology of Evil Children

Question: What makes good people do evil things?

Michael Stone: Well for people who are not typically prone to do evil things, right.  You would never say that’s an evil person, but rather what he or she did as a one-off was an evil act.  Some of them, there would be brain changes in the sense that their braking system is not good. 

Now you have to realize that adolescents, in general, young people have a poorer braking system then people in their 20s.  That’s why you don’t vote until you’re around, in my generation, until you were 21, now it’s 18.  But the point is the frontal part of the brain that constitutes this moral decision-making and braking system is not fully developed until you are around 22, 23 years old.  Therefore, that’s explanatory of the impulsivity and those impulsive crimes of violence, et cetera. that many adolescents get involve with that you don’t see so often in adult people.  It’s also the reason why some adolescents will go bad, but who were okay as kids and get okay again as they get to be in their late 30’s and 40’s.  And there would be brain changes demonstrable in the adolescent that might be then less easy to pick up as they got more mature and those parts of the frontal lobe develop their full complement of fatty tissue, what we call myelin sheathing that prevents the wires from getting crossed, so to speak.

Question: Can evil be spotted in children?

Michael Stone: Well, there are certain types of children, mercifully rare, called callous-unemotional youths.  Now they are the ones who become psychopaths as they become older.  Not all psychopaths started as callous-unemotional youths.  But practically all callous-unemotional youths end up as psychopaths.  They’re the kids who could throw a kid off the roof at the school because they were annoyed at him.  They are heartless, they can do terrible things.  

I got called by the mother of such a child, a twelve-year-old, in the midst of my doing my Discovery Channel program, who had been born when she was a young woman and she was having an affair with an ex-con in one of the southern states.  So the boy, you know, was... had some genes probably from that ex-con.  When he was 12, by that time she had remarried to a nice man, they had a nice daughter, but the boy had the famous triad of bedwetting—he still wet his bed at 12—fire setting, and animal torture, which is usually a prelude to violent crimes, especially sexual ones as you get older.  He also stole, he bullied kids in school, and he tried to strangle his own sister.  So, he was unmanageable at home.  And I was personally helping that family to get him into an institution, which is where he is now.  But the point is, that’s a callous-unemotional youth and for sure there would be some brain changes that you could pick up then. 

The problem is, what do you do with a callous-unemotional kid?  Very little.  So that’s the kind of kid, if you spot him really... you really, the therapy that we have available today really doesn’t reach them very easily because they don’t have the emotional machinery in their brain, you know, to feel compassion for other people.

Question: Is there any way to treat these callous-unemotional youths?

Michael Stone: Well, this fellow is in a particular institution where they may be able to give him medications that would lower the tendency to act impulsively, like mood stabilizers and so that would be to lower the irritability, for example.  They might also try to institute some kind of behavioral treatment where they gradually teach him that if there’s certain things you do it has bad consequences, even if he doesn’t feel in his heart that it was wrong.  He might feel, “Well if I beat up this other kid, what’s the difference?”  And you don’t make him feel compassion.  You don’t try to educate him to feel compassion because it wouldn’t work, but you might educate him to say, “Well, okay so you don’t really feel in your heart of hearts that what you’re doing is unacceptable, but accept the fact that it is unacceptable and if you get caught, you could end up in jail or in very unpleasant circumstances.  So from the cost/benefit analysis that these people are capable of carrying out, it’s not to your advantage.  So that some of them can be deterred from doing what they want to do, thinking of the consequences not because they suddenly develop a full flower of compassion for their fellow human being.

Recorded on July 27, 2010
Interviewed by Max Miller

Some children—thankfully few—are born without a conscience or the ability to feel compassion.

To boost your self-esteem, write about chapters of your life

If you're lacking confidence and feel like you could benefit from an ego boost, try writing your life story.

Personal Growth

In truth, so much of what happens to us in life is random – we are pawns at the mercy of Lady Luck. To take ownership of our experiences and exert a feeling of control over our future, we tell stories about ourselves that weave meaning and continuity into our personal identity.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Ashes of cat named Pikachu to be launched into space

A space memorial company plans to launch the ashes of "Pikachu," a well-loved Tabby, into space.

GoFundMe/Steve Munt
Culture & Religion
  • Steve Munt, Pikachu's owner, created a GoFundMe page to raise money for the mission.
  • If all goes according to plan, Pikachu will be the second cat to enter space, the first being a French feline named Felicette.
  • It might seem frivolous, but the cat-lovers commenting on Munt's GoFundMe page would likely disagree.
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