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Psychopathy | It’s About Their Brain
How do we know? Symptoms of Psychopathy


Psychopathy | It’s About Their Brain

Symptoms of Psychopathy

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stick_figure_at_podium_with_pointer_anim_300_clr_6795You might be wondering how do we know ‘what we know’ regarding the symptoms of psychopathy – the neuroscience & psychology. Well that’s a great question. The current knowledge base regarding psychopathy is pooled from several resources.

We know about their behavior through

• Neuroscience, psychology, and legal studies, etc.

• Case Studies of confirmed psychopaths

• Experiences/ interactions with them

In society, the type of psychopath we hear of the most are those with criminal histories – the ‘criminal psychopath’ (*this is not an official label – simply a descriptor).


John Allen Muhammad | By Pierce County Sheriff’s Office

Individuals such as Ted Bundy, Joran van der Sloot, Scott Peterson, John Allen Muhammed, Ariel Castro, Phillip Garrido, and many others make headlines with crimes that send a chill down our spine.

The collective thought of most within society is how could he do that? And why would he do that?

The idea that a human being could violate another, to the point of robbing a victim of their life, freedom, safety, or sanity is nearly unimaginable. However, for those with psychopathy no pain, sorrow, or concern is felt for the torment they inflict.

This is why this specific group (psychopaths) is unique from all other groups who have a condition of the mind and brain. This group poses a very real danger to society. Their propensity toward certain behaviors result in unsuspecting targets potentially losing their lives or living in ways they never intended (e.g., under conditions of abuse, fear or trauma).

Joran van der Sloot | By Aruba Police Force

Given that society’s exposure to psychopaths is primarily via the media regarding a heinous crime, psychopathy easily becomes equated with criminality – murder, death, rape, and torture. However, this is only a part of the picture – a small part.

The larger portion are individuals with traits of the condition at varying degrees and are law abiding citizens who run companies, lead in government, head households or religious congregations, and hold roles such as boyfriends, husbands, fathers, wives, mothers, or girlfriends.

We are much more likely to cross paths with this larger population of psychopaths on any given day, in comparison to the serial killer or violent criminal psychopath.

Many within society may not realize that they come into contact with or are impacted by psychopathic individuals regularly. There are psychopaths within nearly every position, with most gravitating toward positions that offer some taste of power and control over others.

For example – CEOs, company managers, financial experts, leadership positions within government, self-help gurus, community board members/leaders, and more. Or he simply might be that individual behind you on the expressway close to your bumper, attempting to intimidate you, because you are driving the speed limit.

Science has found that many of the same patterns of brain functions are present within the smaller psychopathy group (e.g., criminal) and the larger psychopathy group (e.g., noncriminal). Clearly there are different risks regarding safety based upon many variables, however the disorder is essentially the same.

Callousness, inability to bond, manipulation, absence of empathy, lack of care-based morality, and significant interest in power, control, winning at all cost, and intimidation are common. Most are selfish, cold, and may have an odd set of rigid rules they impose on others.

There could be obsessiveness, minimal respect for social rules/tact, and a desire to hurt others with their words

“I say what I want to say!”

“It’s stupid to be politically correct! What do I care!”

“I’m just being honest”

“I don’t beat around the bush.” 

“Just get over it, it happened in the past.”

“If you can’t take it, then that’s your problem.”

Unfortunately comments of that nature are often valued and considered a sign of strength — but should we really value hurtful comments? Shouldn’t we look at the overall personality structure to try to determine if that individual is actually sick and therefore, their speech merely reflects an underlying personality style associated with hatred and instability?


Over the past several decades science has learned a considerable amount of information regarding psychopathy. But what I want to do now is  focus on the neuroscience of it all. Specifically, how this information is garnered.

If you have browsed through our articles here at neuroinstincts.com, you have likely noticed we referenced specific brain regions in association with psychopathy. A few areas we mentioned most included the

prefrontal cortex (e.g., ventromedial prefrontal cortex/ orbitofrontal cortex),

the amygdala,

reward system,

and the anterior insular cortex.

You might question:

How do you know those brain regions have an association with psychopathy?

Well, let’s look at 2 general ways.

1)  Research of subjects with psychopathy


The primary way we learn about psychopathy is by evaluating and analyzing the brains of psychopaths. Hence, much of what we know about the brain of someone with psychopathy is through specific neuroscience studies.

The researchers gather individuals who are identified as psychopathic and study their brains through various neuroimaging technologies. The neuroscientist know these individuals suffer with psychopathy because they have been tested and interviewed, with a thorough review of their histories.

The research participants can originate from anywhere (because psychopathy is not isolated to one location), hence some research projects have gathered their subjects from college campuses, while others from prisons.

The subjects were typically presented with certain tasks that would allow the scientists to get a gauge of which areas of the brain responded and which did not. They typically compared the psychopathy group with a Control group (subjects without psychopathy).

2) Lesion Analysis

headache_pain_800_clr_3364We learn quite a bit about the functions of the brain when something goes wrong. By studying individuals who have suffered strokes or experienced head trauma, neuroscientists were able to learn what function a specific region was associated with when it was damaged.

Therefore, the participants within these studies are not primary psychopaths. They tend to have no history of any mental or emotional illnesses prior to their injury or neurological illness (e.g., stroke/ lesion). They were subjects because they suffered an incident of some type – such as a cerebrovascular accident (e.g., stroke), head trauma, or brain injury that resulted in a change in behavior or personality. This change allowed researchers to get a better idea of the workings of that specific brain region.

For instance, there are numerous studies regarding the workings of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) garnered through analysis of subjects with vmPFC damage. 

For the family, coping with the loss associated with damage to regions of the brain such as the ventromedial or orbitofrontal prefrontal areas, adjusting to the changes can be beyond challenging. (“He’s not the same – he makes bad decisions and gets in trouble!“)

With injuries to the prefrontal region of the brain, a person who may have been mild mannered, loving, sociable, cooperative, and regulated (emotionally) could change into a callous, egocentric, individual who lacks self control and concern for others after their brain trauma. “They are more prone to make utilitarian decisions. They are extremely limited in the ability to experience compassion, shame or guilt” Koenigs, Young, Adolphs, Tranel, Cushman, Hauser, & Damasio, 2007, pp  1;  Koenigs, Kruepke, Zeier, & Newman, 2012). We refer to this neurological state as pseudopsychopathy (acquired psychopathy due to damage to the brain).

There are some differences between pseudopsychopathy and psychopathy. However, through the information garnered through brain trauma research, scientist have been able to learn more about the personality disorder of psychopathy.


Primary psychopathy of course is not associated with any kind of traumatic event or external damage. Psychopathy is a developmental condition, present throughout life, that impairs emotional processing (Blair, 2012). Brain trauma research has been one way we have gained more knowledge about this disorder.

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 Image credit:

• Presentermedia.com

• John Allen Muhammad | By Pierce County Sheriff’s Office | http://www.thesmokinggun.com/mugshots/celebrity/killers/john-allen-muhammad

• Joran van der Sloot | By Aruba Police Force (KPA, #13234) – Interpol arrest warrant, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10725621

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