Psychopaths and coke-heads and what they have in common…

IMG_0206Psychopaths are different from the rest of us. I’ve known two in my life – one was a bald hypnotist who despite his whiter than white image was a secret alcoholic cocaine and ecstasy addict and the other was someone with whom I was once in a brief relationship. So I know all about psychopaths and their behaviour because I’ve had some first hand experience. A lot of people have had a brush with a psychopath at some stage in their lives, they just didn’t realise it until it was too late. Psychopaths are so different they’ve merited their very own separate area of study.

The psychopath is defined as someone who has no empathy for their fellow human beings, yet the psychopath is able to exploit the empathy of others – they have a finely developed ability to spot weaknesses in those they think they can use and have no hesitation in exploiting that knowledge. They take pleasure in the targeted destruction of their prey. They are master manipulators who are able to maintain an amicable front to hide their ruthless treachery. They can be captains of industry, politicians, criminals or even members of your own family. They are the ultimate predators and the latest research shows that they have other unique personality distinctions.

According to a recent study, violent psychopathic criminals may be unable to learn from punishment due to abnormalities in key parts of their brain. Brain scans of violent offenders show that those with psychopathic tendencies react differently when confronted with punishment or a negative reaction to their behaviour. This could be why psychopaths do not benefit from rehabilitation programs while other violent but non-psychopathic criminals often do.

Brain scans of psychopathic criminals showed significantly increased abnormal activation in the bilateral posterior cingulate cortex when punished compared to other violent non-psychopathic offenders. Around one in five violent offenders are thought to be psychopathic and they are known to have higher rates of reoffending.

In the non-violent spectrum, psychopaths experience no feelings of guilt when caught. They will lie convincingly and are able to justify their actions if only to themselves. Getting caught is the only thing that makes them feel remorse, but don’t be fooled… they are remorseful only because their self-image has been damaged. They will then likely embark on a pilgrimage of targeted revenge against those they perceive to have been responsible for their undoing – that is before they carry on with their old ways regardless of any penalties or restrictions imposed on them.

Serial killers are portrayed as cold, calculating and often obsessive. The researchers found that these traits may be linked to specific psychological disorders and childhood trauma. By analysing reports, legal files and journals from killers including Anders Breivik and Harold Shipman, they found that 28% of high profile killers were thought to have suffered from Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). In contrast, only around 1% of the general law abiding population is thought to suffer from the condition.

There were additional reports that claimed 20% had suffered a ‘definite or suspected’ head injury in the past. Of those killers with ASD and/or a head injury, more than half had previously experienced psycho-social stress such as sexual or physical abuse and/or parental divorce.

The research concluded there is a probability that more than 10% of serial killers on the whole, across the worldwide population, show signs of ASD, and a similar proportion had at some stage received head injuries. The researchers believe there is a distinct possibility that this combination could potentially result in an individual being predisposed to develop into a mass murderer.

The research scientists found that the psychopaths had reduced levels of grey matter and abnormal amounts of white matter in areas of the brain that are involved in learning from reward and punishment – in other words, the ability to apply principle.

Dr Nigel Blackwood, a psychologist at Kings College London, says that Psychopathic offenders are different from regular criminals in many ways. Regular criminals are hyper-responsive threat, quick-tempered and aggressive, while psychopaths have a very low response to threats, are cold, and their aggressively is premeditated. Evidence is now accumulating to show that both types of offenders present abnormal, but distinctive, brain development from a young age. We found that the violent offenders with psychopathy, as compared to both the violent offenders without psychopathy and the non-offenders, displayed abnormal responses to punishment within the posterior cingulate and insula when a previously rewarded response was punished.” 

The researchers, whose work was published in the journal Lancet Psychiatry, conducted MRI scans on 12 violent male psychopathic criminal offenders and 20 male non-psychopathic violent offenders from the UK. The men had all been convicted of murder, rape, attempted murder and grievous bodily harm and were recruited with the assistance of the probation service. They were asked to complete a task that involved matching pairs of images of animals or furniture displayed on a screen when they were in the MRI scanner.

The same test was also conducted on 18 healthy non-offenders.

Dr Blackwood says that When these violent offenders completed neuropsychological tasks, they failed to learn from punishment cues, to change their behaviour in the face of changing contingencies, and made poorer quality decisions despite longer periods of deliberation.’ 

Professor Sheilagh Hodgins, from the University of Montreal, who was also involved in the study, said learning from punishment was an important part of regulating behaviour:

Offenders with psychopathy may only consider the possible positive consequences and fail to take account of the likely negative consequences. Consequently, their behaviour often leads to punishment rather than reward as they had expected. Punishment signals the necessity to change behaviour. Clearly, in certain situations, offenders have difficulty learning from punishment to change their behaviour... Since most violent crimes are committed by men who display conduct problems from a young age, learning-based interventions that target the specific brain mechanisms underlying this behaviour pattern and thereby change the behaviour would significantly reduce violent crime.

What strikes me most about this research was not so much that it confirms what I had always suspected to be the case anyway, but the startling similarity between the behaviour of psychopaths and drug addicts. Again, I have had some experience with heroin addicts, some of whom I worked with in the mid 1980s. I swiftly came to the conclusion that addicts have no conscience and no empathy, that they do not learn by their mistakes and appear unable to apply principle.

Addicts are unable to recognise loss, such as the consequences of a break-up or being sent to jail, because the drug changes the way their brain functions.

According to a new study carried out in New York, researchers found cocaine addicts continue their destructive drug habit even in the face of huge personal setbacks because the parts of the brain responsible for predicting emotional loss become severely impaired.

HOW THEY DID IT

The new study recorded the brain activity of 75 people, 50 of whom were cocaine users with a further 25 non-users making up the control group. Using EEG (a machine that detects electrical activity in the brain) each of the test subjects played a gambling game on a computer. Each player had to predict whether or not they would win or lose money on each game.

The study, published in The Journal of Neuroscience, focuses on the difference between a likely reward, or loss and a person’s ability to predict that outcome. This measurement is known as Reward Prediction Error, or RPE.

RPE signaling is believed to drive learning in humans because it guides future behaviour. After learning from an experience, people can usually modify their behaviour without having to learn from the same mistake twice. Previous research has shown that predictions of actual reward or loss are managed by shifting levels of the chemical dopamine, produced by nerve cells in the brain, where changes in dopamine levels accompany unexpected gains and losses.

The results of the experiment showed that the group of cocaine users suffered impaired loss prediction signalling, which meant they failed to trigger RPE signals in response to worse than expected outcomes in comparison to the 25 healthy people.

The researcher’s findings appear to offer insights into the compromised ability of addicts to learn from unfavourable outcomes, that they are unable to apply principle, which potentially results in their continued drug use even after suffering major losses.

Study lead author Doctor Muhammad Parvaz, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine in the US, says We found that people who were addicted to cocaine have impaired loss prediction signaling in the brain. This study shows that individuals with substance use disorder have difficulty computing the difference between expected versus unexpected outcomes, which is critical for learning and future decision making. This impairment might underlie disadvantageous decision making in these individuals.” 

The study also took into consideration how ‘high’ the addicts were when they took the test. Half the group had used cocaine within 3 days of the study whilst the other half had abstained for at least 3 days. The addicts who had been using cocaine had a higher level of electrical activity in the brain’s reward circuits when they had an unpredicted compared to a predicted win. This pattern was consistent with and similar to the 25 healthy control subjects. Conversely, the addicts who had abstained for at least 72 hours did not display the higher activity in response to an unpredicted win.

The researchers said these findings support the hypothesis that in addiction the drug is taken to normalise a certain brain functions, in this case RPE signalling of better-than-expected outcomes.

Principal investigator Dr. Rita Goldstein says that This is the first time a study has targeted the prediction of both gains and losses in drug addiction, showing that deficits in prediction error signalling in cocaine addicted individuals are modulated by recent cocaine use.” 

So what the psychopaths have in common is they are unable to instigate any form of self-control. It can be argued of course that psychopaths are born like that and don’t have any choice, whereas the coke-heads did have a choice and that would be fair comment. However, the end result is the same – a failure to regulate their antisocial behaviour.

To this fine research I would like to add a comment of my own. It is my own experience that people who are addicted to any kind of drug, whether it be illegal, prescription or legal (as in the case of alcohol) display symptoms of poor decision making together with carelessness, recklessness and a complete disregard for what others may want or expect. These bad behaviours are not difficult to spot. Whether it be drug abuse or gambling or alcoholism, some people set themselves on self-destruct. No one forces them to take drugs or to get drunk – they are all adults and know what they are doing. There are things that can be done to help them, but only if they want to be helped. The really difficult decision, and one that seems to have been glossed over by our leaders and perhaps society in general, is whether the rest of us should have to continue to put up with it.

Copyright Andrew Newton 2015. All rights reserved.