Psychopaths: Born Evil or with a Diseased Brain?

Mens rea is Latin for “guilty mind.” In criminal law, it is viewed as one of the necessary elements of a crime The act does not make a person guilty unless the mind is also guilty.

If it is found that the brain of a person who has committed horrendous crimes is diseased and he has no sense of responsibility for his actions, he should be held guilty in the usual sense of the word. Especially if he has no remorse and no understanding of why society is concerned about him and calls him a psychopath.

The neuroscientist Dr. Kent Kiehl of the University of New Mexico has built a unique mobile brain scanner. It is equipped with the latest imaging technology but fitted into a truck he can drive into high-security prison facilities.

He used this to perform two types of analysis on a specific brutal murderer’s brain: looking at its density and its function.

“[His] brain has very low levels of density in a system we call the para-limbic system,” he explains.

The para-limbic system is a “behaviour circuit” of the brain, including brain regions known as the amygdala and pre-frontal cortex.

“Those systems, we think, didn’t develop normally in him,” says Dr. Kiehl. Psychopathy seems to involve a lack of development in these regions – which may be genetically determined.

A new concept of law is evolving – neuro-law. It is based on the insight that some criminals have diseased brains that need to be treated. But Dr. Kiehl does not see his work resulting in any change to the prosecution of violent psychopaths. Instead, he argues that understanding psychopathy may lead us to different types of sentencing – in particular an end to the death sentence for psychopaths.

“My hope is that the neuroscience helps the legal system to understand that these individuals have a disorder and that this disorder is treatable,” he says.

Such treatment is not primarily designed to help someone who has committed a terrible act. Instead, he is working with other scientists to try and design interventions for children who display disturbing symptoms, before those symptoms escalate.

The hope now is to develop a specific diagnosis for certain troubled children and to develop treatments specifically geared to their condition. In essence, these children have to be painstakingly taught reactions that the rest of us have automatically.

Dr. Kiehl’s work in high security prisons is inspiring other labs, in the US and UK, who are working directly with children.

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One would hope that eventually this research will lead to something more fundamental in the administration of justice than a mere review of sentencing guidelines. An accused person, when asked whether to plead guilty or not guilty, should be allowed to plead: “By reason of a congenital condition, I had no mens rea. Therefore, not guilty.”

Source: BBC Radio 4


3 responses to “Psychopaths: Born Evil or with a Diseased Brain?

  1. The leap from “have a disorder” to “treatable” is considerable, and evidence for the latter seems much shakier than for the former. It reminds me of the psychotherapists’ reliance on the formula “this [undesirable trait] is a learned behaviour, therefore it is unlearnable” i.e., treatable. But in the immortal words of Ira Gershwin, it ain’t necessarily so! Walking and reading are learned; it’s hard to conceive of unlearning them…

  2. David Schatzky

    Since sociopaths and psychopaths were born with no capacity for empathy, they don’t understand that the pain they cause, or the destruction they wreak, hurts or even matters to their fellow human beings. They think their destructive actions are “victimless” and that anything they feel like doing is all right. The only deterrent is “getting caught”, although some sociopaths don’t understand why society needs to catch them. Dr. Kiehl’s work seems humane and practical. It’s possible to teach people NOT to do bad things, even if they don’t “feel” the reasons why. Early identification and swift intervention could lead to the prevention of at least some psychopathic behaviour, and, it’s to be hoped, to the end of the death penalty for perpetrators diagnosed as psychopaths.

  3. 3 thoughts. One, that many of the chief executives and politicians display characteristics of psychopathy. Two, can convicted people be rehabilitated (or treated)? (current answer seems to be that some can and some can’t).
    Why Dr. Kiehl want to end the death sentence for just psychopaths? (and I wasn’t aware there was such a connection anywhere in the world).