The (sigh) Psychopath Brain

By Neuroskeptic | April 27, 2013 8:20 am

Neuroscience has revealed that Lady Gaga’s song Born This Way is probably about a psychopath. Or something.

HuffPo says –

Psychopathic Brain ‘Lacks Basic Hardwiring’ To Feel Compassion, Research Suggests

Meanwhile, the Daily Mail report –

Is this proof evil killers are born not made? Psychopaths’ brains ‘lack basic wiring that triggers empathy’

Last week the Mail borrowed one of my posts. Well, they can take this one as well. Copy the whole blog. Anything to stop articles like that.

What happened was a University of Chicago fMRI study of 80 prisoners measuring their brain activation in response to seeing videos of people getting hurt. Psychopathic convicts showed a different neural response, compared to the nice (by prisoner standards) guys.

This is fine, but it doesn’t imply anything about hardwiring, or being born not made. The paper doesn’t mention those topics, and rightly so because these results tell us nothing about the origin of the differences observed. It seems the source of the biological predeterminism was the University of Chicago press release about this paper, which said ‘not neurally equipped…lack the basic neurophysiological “hardwiring”’

The misunderstanding here is confusing a functional difference (in brain activation) with a structural difference in brain ‘wiring’. Now I’ve explained what’s wrong with this before. And again. And so on. So this time I’m just going to give an analogy:

“French researchers have discovered that English people lack the basic wiring that triggers speaking French. The neuroscientists scanned the brains of French and English subjects and showed them paragraphs of text in French. The English brains showed much less activation in the brain’s language processing areas, conclusive proof that the English are born not made…”

ResearchBlogging.orgDecety J, Skelly LR, & Kiehl KA (2013). Brain Response to Empathy-Eliciting Scenarios Involving Pain in Incarcerated Individuals With Psychopathy. JAMA psychiatry (Chicago, Ill.), 1-8 PMID: 23615636

  • psycritic

    Thank you for exposing the sad state of science reporting when it comes to the brain and fMRI studies like this. For the media, it’s all about getting clicks and pageviews, so attention-grabbing headlines are used at the expense of accuracy and subtlety.

    From the abstract of the paper, the high psychopathy group “exhibited significantly less activation in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, lateral orbitofrontal cortex, and periaqueductal gray relative to controls but showed greater activation in the insula, which was positively correlated with scores on both PCL-R factors 1 and 2.”

    I’m almost surprised the headlines didn’t say: “Does Having an Overactive Insula Make You A Psychopath?”


  • Lady of the Snows

    Of course psychopathy is almost certainly heterogenous in the first place. Hare’s psychopathy concept confuses two phenomena. Skeem (and other researchers) support Karpman’s distinction. Of course this research isn’t in the pop psych reading list, so no one will talk about this in the MSM.

  • Elizabeth Henning

    English Brains Unable To Understand French Like French Brains, Scientists Say

  • Nick Brown

    Hi Neuroskeptic,

    I apologise for using this comment as a way to contact you. I guess I’ll find out when I click “Post” whether comments are pre-moderated on your blog, but if they aren’t, please feel free to delete it, whether or not you reply. In fact, please delete it anyway.

    I’m contacting you about the comment that you posted at I may be in a position to do something about this, for reasons that I can explain better in an e-mail. I think it might be worth two minutes of your time. You can contact me at u1109621 (at)


    PS: I tweeted a shorter version of this message to you yesterday but I guess you either didn’t see it, or decided I was spamming you. Now, I guess maybe you’ll assume I’m a crank for contacting you twice. Making contact is hard when there are so many weird people out there.

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  • toostoned tocare

    But what about the views of Dr. Steven Novella… a leading light in the science based medicine skeptical arena…?

    • Neuroskeptic

      Well, it looks like he wasn’t paying very close attention when he chose this paper as an example.

  • Javier Elkin

    Maybe part of the problem is that Psychopathy is still not recognized as a separate disorder in any of the DSM versions. I predict this is about to get worst as the DSM-5 is preparing to confuse the world by adding a “slash” to antisocial personality disorder.

  • Callum Hackett

    One day, this kind of reporting only misinforms the public, but on another day, it can lead to MMR scares as has happened recently in Wales. Journalism needs to face some minimum regulatory standards for science reporting.

  • Buddy199

    From Wikipedia entry on Antisocial Personality Disorder:

    “Some theorists argue that many people show many of the behavioral characteristics of ASPD, but whose behavior is valued and encouraged by society, such as successful politicians and businessmen. These people are nonetheless omitted from a diagnosis of ASPD due to the focus of the diagnostic criteria on criminality and irresponsible behavior.”
    I love to start the week off with a good laugh!

    • Lady of the Snows

      What exactly is amusing about that?

      Its true, ASPD criteria in the DSM rely too much on the social value judgement placed upon behaviour rather than upon cognitive traits.

      Of course this brings into question all of psychiatric labeling. The range of ‘normal’ behavioural phenotypes will be different in a warlike society such as the Yanamamo relative to a conflict-avoiding one such as the Inuit. Psychiatry and its manuals such as the DSM and the ICD differ from real psychology and neurology in that their labels are not merely taxonomic concepts but judgements. These manuals don’t make a distinction between an impairment and a life history strategy.

      • Buddy199

        You can’t see the irony in excluding excluding banksters and politicians from the population exhibiting criminality and irresponsible behavior?

        • Lady of the Snows

          The point is they’d escape diagnosis.

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No brain. No gain.

About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.


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