What does it mean to be a psychopath?
Dr. Kent Kiehl of the University of New Mexico has a theory.
Dr. Kiehl is a neuroscientist specializing in the cutting edge field of behavioral neuroscience. Dr. Kiehl believes that psychopathic behavior is "hard-wired." In other words, those who commit criminal acts yet show no emotion or empathy aren't evil, they're suffering from a disorder of the brain.
Dr. Kiehl's lab has customized a van with a mobile brain scanner that allows him to drive it into prisons to conduct research. His research seems to indicate that psychopaths have low density levels and low activity levels in the para-limbic systems in their brains.
"Those systems, we think, didn't develop normally in Brian," says Dr Kiehl. Psychopathy seems to involve a lack of development in these regions - which may be genetically determined.The para-limbic system is located in the pre-frontal cortex of the brain and is regarded as the brain's behavior circuit. Patients who have suffered injuries to this part of the brain tend to exhibit behavioral changes and impulse control issues.
And that's where Dr. Kiehl's theory becomes very interesting.
Now I have a brother-in-law who suffered a severe head injury in an automobile accident 15 years ago or so. He was thrown out of his truck and hit his head on the road. He has had a multitude of problems as a result. The part of the brain that tells you when you're cold or hot doesn't always work. Neither does the part that tells you when you're no longer thirsty. He's not a psychopath and he hasn't been prone to violence over the years - but he is a different person than he was prior to the accident.
Dr. Kiehl believes that these deficiencies in the para-limbic system are genetic. He believes that people suffering from this disorder have impulse control issues and a lack of emotional ability. Their criminal acts aren't the result of criminal intent, but, instead, are the end result of their brain disorder.
His belief is that psychopaths aren't criminals because they lack the mens rea to commit criminal acts.
But what is to be done?
In Dr. Kiehl's world, doctors can intervene when young people begin to show early signs of psychopathic behavior. Early detection and treatment may be able to prevent that person from becoming a violent criminal.
But how should the criminal (in)justice system treat that person? Does he suffer from a mental defect? Does that defect prevent him from distinguishing between right and wrong? Does he understand the consequences of his behavior? These are all questions that must be answered.
And they are questions for which our legal system is ill-equipped to handle.
On the other hand, Dr. Kiehl may be treading down a dangerous path. Are we to believe that psychopathic behavior is inherited? Will screening tests be developed to determine who may or may not have the defect? Does having the disorder mean that someone will become a psychopath? Are we headed down the road to a genetic theory of crime?
There have been scientists in the past who theorized that mental defects caused people to become violent criminals. But just because a number of people labeled as psychopaths have a similar flaw in their brains, doesn't mean that the flaw caused the behavior.
Where's the control group? Do we know how rare, or how prevalent, this disorder is? What percentage of the population who have never committed a violent crime have this disorder? What percentage of violent psychopaths don't suffer from it?
Are we just automatons destined to commit acts outside our control due to the chemistry and physical make-ups of our brains, or do we have the ability to make decisions on how to behave? If it's the former, how do we handle those who exhibit psychopathic behavior? More importantly, how would society react?
"Talking like a psychopath," The Trial Warrior Blog (Oct. 27, 2011)