The Neuroscience of a Psychopath

On February 14, 2018, a 19-year old man stormed into a school in Parkland, Florida and proceeded to shoot and kill the students.

Needless to say, this is a horrific and traumatic event. My heart and prays rest in the families of those affected. Currently, the death toll is at 17 innocent children. To read more about the shotting itself read this New York Times article.

Horrific events like this beg the question, what leads someone to commit a mass homicide?

This post, we will delve into the neurological and psychological background of individuals inclined to take another person’s life.

I understand this is a very serious topic so here is a trigger warning for explicit content about guns, violence, and homicides.

While very few studies have been conducted on the shooters themselves, there is a monumental amount of evidence connecting violent video games with a heightened desire to commit crimes in children. First person video games actually rewire a player’s brain to seek pleasure out of hurting others because dopamine is released when they win the game, which is achieved by killing another player.

From an evolutionary perspective, humans are programmed to feel rewarded when defending a threat, such as a lion or a tiger. This protected us from threats during evolutionary times. Apply this to the modern day and individuals get a rush of dopamine from shooting guns, as the experience resembles fighting off a threat. To make matters worse, guns can fire bullets in as short as 100 milliseconds, meaning shooters can seek that high quickly and easily.


Humans had to be violent in the face of a threat to survive during evolutionary time.


Now, you be thinking, what about the perpetrators? Not all not video game players are violent in real life?

First, it can be assumed that the executioner of a mass homicide is a psychopath due to its definition: “a person suffering from a chronic mental disorder with abnormal or violent social behavior.”

Wait, what about the neuroscience of their brains themselves? Before I answer that question, I would like to show you the following image. What differences do you see in these two brains?

Normal vs. Psychopath’s brain

You may have noticed that the brain of the psychopath does not have much activity in the front of their brain or in the frontal lobe area. Within the frontal lobe is the amygdala which is involved in the process of experiencing emotions. This is the key to understanding the brain of a psychopath – biologically speaking they do not experience emotion. Therefore, they are less likely to have connections with others, remember happy memories, and feel empathy.

This is what makes psychopathy so hard to treat because it is inherently not treatable. Currently, there is no medication one can take to feel emotions. Yet, there are methods being developed to lessen the severity of the physchotic behavior.  For example, a study from the Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center Program in Wisconsin has shown that using their Decompression Model, the members of juvenile detention were 50% less likely to commit a crime. The model utilizes positive reinforcement to make the youth feel less targeted and more accepted. The youth are closely monitored for signs of positive behavior, regardless of its size. When they show signs of kindness, the staff members gave the youth a form of reward. The rewards become larger the more frequently the youth do a good dead. In short, this method work as follows: good deed = reward and it closely resembles that in dog training. Good behavior = dog treat.

Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center in Wisconsin. Image source.

Lastly, what about decision making? What leads someone to kill another human and not think about the long-term effects?

A study from Josh Buckholtz, assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Universty, found that psychopaths value immediate rewards, such as the rush from a shot of a gun over the long-term consequences and danger of their actions, such as the mourning families and prison.

“We mapped the connections between the ventral striatum and other regions known to be involved in decision-making, specific regions of the prefrontal cortex known to regulate striatal response,” Buckholtz said. “When we did that, we found that connections between the striatum and the ventral medial prefrontal cortex were much weaker in people with psychopathy.”


Decision making plays a role.


Psychopaths do have different brains which solicits the question: can psychopaths truly control their actions or are they victims of mental illness?

I would like to end by reiterating how sad I am for all the victims of gun violence, in Florida and beyond.

The recent shooting sheds light on the larger issue of gun control in this country. How many acts of murder will it take before we understand that guns are dangerous and there should be more regulation?

Photo source.













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