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Defending the Psychopath: “His brain made him do it”

Monday, November 11, 2013
posted by Douglas Keene

psychopath fmri 2013Recently, we wrote about how risk assessment measures do not work on the psychopath. So it seems only fitting we summarize a new article that explains psychopathic behavior using fMRI scans that purport to show how the defendant is not in control of his behavior because “his brain made him do it”. This is an article on whether we should allow the death penalty to be applied to the psychopath. While they don’t say that the convicted psychopath should not go to prison, there are some, according to this writer, saying “a psychopath’s personality neither allows him to care about others nor have empathy for his victims; therefore, juries should not punish a psychopath by imposing the death penalty”.

If you are not familiar with the literature on psychopathy, this article offers a good (and a little scary) summary of psychopathy and the behaviors exhibited by the psychopath. This is not a minimization of the failings of the psychopath–it is rather a summary of the literature on both criminal psychopaths and what the author calls “successful psychopaths” who live among us: “Some psychopaths function reasonably well–as lawyers, doctors, psychiatrists, academics, mercenaries, police officers, cult leaders, military personnel, businesspeople, writers, artists, entertainers….”.

Having made us question nearly everyone around us, the author then describes the various functional brain deficiencies seen in the psychopath (e.g., impaired impulse control, decision-making, and planning; lack of empathy and inability to take other’s perspectives; impaired emotional processing and lack of fear conditioning; among others). She also describes the structural brain abnormalities often present–which leads to the conclusion reached by a current popular singer, psychopaths are “born this way.” There is much disagreement in the research on structural abnormalities in the brain, however, and not everyone with the structural abnormalities in their own brain, is a psychopath. There is apparently a very complex relationship between the brain structure and psychopathic behaviors.

Neuroimaging techniques have been in use for some time now in research on the brains of psychopaths. The author describes the work of Dr. Kent Kiehl (perhaps best known among those working in this area) with fMRIs and the brains of psychopaths, as well as a few lesser-known researchers. fMRIs themselves have been at the core of controversial “his brain made him do it” defenses. The danger, say critics, is that participants view the lovely and brightly colored images and believe the colors really do represent the emotions and thoughts in the brain of the person being scanned. Most neuroscientists say the fMRI is really not ready for courtroom use (and most judges agree). The challenge, says this author, is proving “brain abnormalities identified by the scan actually correlate with psychopathic traits and behavior”. The question remains, do the brain abnormalities cause psychopathy or does psychopathy cause the brain abnormalities detected by the scans? The well-known “dead salmon fMRI test subject” study is discussed as a means of “exposing some of the problems associated with fMRI and brain disorders such as psychopathy….the data, while certainly not useless, is also fallible and tricky”.

The author then returns to Dr. Kiehl who says, “the legal system should treat psychopaths ‘like people with very low IQs who are not fully responsible for their actions’ because psychopaths have low emotional IQs”. Others, many jurors included, see the behavior of psychopaths as chilling and the author believes that “convincing a jury that a defendant’s psychopathy is a mitigating factor might prove difficult”. Multiple studies, according to the author, have shown that mock jurors view the psychopath more negatively than nonpsychopathic criminals and punish them more severely.

In conclusion, the author acknowledges “the deck is largely stacked against attorneys representing psychopathic offenders at death penalty sentencing hearings”. Still, she says, “the positive impact that a neuroscientist’s testimony coupled with a colorful fMRI scan might have on a death penalty jury is a defense strategy worth pursuing”. She also recommends that prosecutors prepare for a detailed cross-exam of this testimony with an eye to discrediting it, and that judges ensure jurors are not confused or misled by the fMRI images.

Overall, the article is a good overview of the literature–it doesn’t cover everything but it certainly hits the highlights, demonstrates the frightening behavior of the psychopath, and raises the question of whether we should apply the death penalty sentence to someone whose brain appears to be abnormal, and whose criminal behavior may be related to that abnormality. It’s a good question. Not as emotionally compelling as the fear and terror often elicited by hearing the specifics of a psychopath’s crime, but certainly a good question.

Phillips, KD (2013). Empathy for psychopaths: Using fMRI brain scans to please for leniency in death penalty cases. Law and Psychology Review.

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