Study Finds Psychopaths’ Brains Don’t Register Punishment

The brains of violent psychopaths have fascinated scientists for years. What makes them so different from “normal” people? How can they be so cold-hearted toward their victims? Now, a new study may give researchers a little more understanding to assist in early detection and treatment of the disorder.

In a study published in the journal Lancet Psychiatry, researchers have found that psychopaths have abnormalities in the part of the brain that learns from punishment.

A psychopath is defined as an individual who displays “moral depravity” or “moral insanity,” even though they display outwardly normal behavior.

A co-author of the study, Dr. Nigel Blackwood, explained how violent psychopathic offenders are different from regular criminals, who respond quickly – often impulsively — and aggressively to threats. Psychopaths, he says, plan their violent acts, are cold and calculated, and have a low response level to threat.

Psychopaths also do not respond to punishment in the same way as regular criminals, and do very poorly in rehabilitation programs.

“One in five violent offenders is a psychopath,” study author Prof. Sheilagh Hodgins sid.

“They have higher rates of recidivism (relapse) and don’t benefit from rehabilitation programs. Our research reveals why this is and can hopefully improve childhood interventions to prevent violence and behavioral therapies to reduce recidivism.”

According to Medical News Today, the researchers studied the brain structure and activity in both violent offenders and non-offenders using MRI technology. The study was comprised of 12 psychopaths, 20 violent offenders with anti-social personality but no psychopathy, and 18 non-offenders.

In a 2013 study reported by the Inquisitr, it was found that psychopaths do not completely lack empathy, contrary to what has been previously believed. However, in the new study, the psychopathic test subjects were found to have less gray matter volume in areas of the brain related to empathy, moral reasoning, and the processing of emotions such as embarrassment and guilt.


During the MRI scanning of their brains, participants completed an image-matching task which measured their ability to alter their behavior depending on whether they received positive or negative feedback for their actions.

When responses that were previously rewarded with a positive response were punished, the psychopaths displayed abnormal responses in comparison to the other participants.

The researchers concluded that the results suggested a defect in the brain of psychopaths that did not allow them to learn from punishment. Hodgins believes that psychopaths do not consider the negative consequences of their actions, only the positive – or what they perceive as positive.

The scientists feel the findings give insight into future treatment for psychopathic disorder. Blackwood also hopes that the results will assist in determining psychopathic tendencies in children and treating them with “learning-based interventions that target the specific brain mechanism” to modify their behavior before it becomes violent.

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