Criminal minds: Their brains really are different

Bad guys have brain abnormalities good guys lack


One of the more shocking revelations in a police career is how truly evil some people can be. Those of us with some degree of moral compass have difficulty understanding how those who don’t can victimize others and be completely cavalier about it. 

There is some evidence that criminal brains really are wired differently. 

One of the more common psychological maladies common to the criminal population is antisocial personality disorder, or ASPD. ASPD manifests itself in different ways, but it’s clinically diagnosed when an individual presents with four or more of these symptoms:

•    Failure to conform to social norms, especially with regard to lawful behavior
•    Deceitfulness by using other names, swindling, or outright lying for personal gain
•    Impulsivity or failure to consider the consequences of their actions
•    Aggressiveness and being quick to anger
•    Recklessness, especially with regard for the welfare of others
•    Irresponsibility in honoring promises, paying debts, and attending to work tasks
•    Unrepentance when someone is injured due to their actions or inactions

Sound like several people you know? ASPD is three times more common in males than in females, and the symptoms generally decrease with age. Few people with ASPD show clear signs of the disorder by the time they reach their 40s or 50s. 

Unfortunately, by the time this happens, many people with ASPD have accumulated prison sentences that will keep them inside for life. 

About a third of men with ASPD are true psychopaths or sociopaths. The terms are interchangeable, but “sociopath” is sometimes preferred because it’s less likely to be confused with psychoticism, a state where the afflicted has lost contact with reality. 

Psychopaths are people with ASPD who also exhibit a near-complete lack of empathy with others, especially those they have harmed. 

A study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry described the difference between people with ASPD and psychopaths: “We describe those without psychopathy as hot-headed and those with psychopathy as cold-hearted.” 

MRI scans of the brains of psychopaths and those with simple ASPD showed reduced gray matter in the anterior rostral prefrontal cortex and temporal pole regions of the brain, located just behind the forehead and slightly rear of the temples, respectively. These areas show increased activity when people consider moral conduct, what is right and wrong. 

A recent study at the Mind Research Network in New Mexico focused on male prison inmates who were pending release. MRI scans of the prisoners’ brain activity showed different levels of activity in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) region of the brain. 

The ACC is deep inside the brain, above and slightly to the rear of the nasal sinuses. Prisoners with the least activity in this region were 2.6 times as likely to be re-arrested for all crimes and 4.3 times as likely to be re-arrested for non-violent crimes, as compared to those with greater brain activity. 

These calculations take into account other factors such as age, substance abuse, and psychopathy. 

The researchers in both studies emphasize that the data is not nearly so complete as to recommend a crime control strategy, but they do suggest what could amount to a preemptive measure to identify potential offenders. 

The civil rights issues are considerably more complex. If someone is identified as a potential psychopath, do we just remove them from society for the greater good? There have been similar initiatives with regard to some sex offenders, especially pedophiles. 

Offenders who have served their sentences have been committed to secure treatment facilities instead of being released from prison. The working theory is that they still represent a danger to the public because of urges they cannot control, even though they have paid the penalty set down by the court that convicted them. 

It takes a strongly committed civil rights advocate to speak up for people like this, as pedophiles are possibly the most reviled group of offenders, people for whom very few have any sympathy. 

Psychopaths can do as much or more damage, but their victims have a greater capacity to protect themselves than do children. 

This isn’t an argument that is going to be resolved anytime soon, and maybe it shouldn’t be resolved at all. Even so, it is comforting in a perverted sort of way to know that the people cops deal with most often really aren’t right in the head. 

About the author

Tim Dees is a retired police officer and criminal justice professor. He has been writing on criminal justice technology issues for virtually every U.S. police publication and commercial website since 1988. Tim holds a bachelor’s degree in biological science from San José State University, and a master’s degree in criminal justice from The University of Alabama. He serves on the executive board of the Public Safety Writers Association.

He can be reached at tim.dees@policeone.com.

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