Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

The Violent Brain

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on July 15, 2013

Sagittal MRI slice with highlighting indicating location of the anterior cingulate cortex.

www.latimes.com/…/la-na-prisoner-brains-20130715,0,5130358.story

The anterior cingulate cortex(ACC)  fires, giving the person a feeling for what others experience, otherwise known as empathy. It stands to reason that those who have an ACC which fires with more intensity are going to have a greater sense for what others experience. So, the researchers from Kent Kiehl’s laboratory found that when scanning violent inmates, those with low ACC firing are more likely to be repeat offenders. As Michael Haederle reported in today’s LA Times…

 

“The trove of data they have gathered has revealed telltale abnormalities in the structure and functioning of psychopaths’ brains. On the whole, they have

less gray matter in the paralimbic system — believed to help regulate emotion — which may help account for their characteristic glibness, pathological lying,

lack of empathy and tendency to act impulsively.”

The nature/nurture argument returns. Empathy and impulsivity seem to be largely innate qualities, such that if we can measure brain activity in convicted criminals, we would get a better sense of a person’s predisposition towards further heinous crimes. Yes, this is not perfect, and so biological data can be used to convict criminals who should be given a second chance. However, this does not mean that further exploration about how brain activity predicts behavior should not be done. In other words, this report is an exciting development in understanding how brain function influences judgment.

5 Responses to “The Violent Brain”

  1. Ashana M said

    I think when it comes to the brain, because of its degree of plasticity, the nature/nurture argument is a false one. Our brains develop in response to our experiences. The fact that we can see the result of that development structurally does not mean it is an inevitable development nor does it mean that it cannot be changed. A brain is not like a foot or an arm, where once it has formed it has formed. It changes throughout our lives–sometimes for the worse, and sometimes for the better–as can be seen with Alzheimer’s. At the same time, some genetically-based developments (or lack thereof) may occur (or fail to occur) at certain crucial periods. So, a brain may look “normal” when a child is very young and then fail to pass successfully through a later stage.

    What would be more useful is whether important functions–like empathy or impulse-control–can actually be learned. The fact that we can see the brain is not functioning normally does not tell us that. In fact, it’s a little obvious that it isn’t functioning normally. All we’ve figured out is how and where to look in order to see that.

    • Thanks, Ashana. The idea is that traits such as impulse control are hard-wired, and then environment does make a difference, but certain folks have an easier time than others, based on their DNA.

      • Ashana M said

        We do seem to start out from different places in terms of our existing equipment, but impulse control is also learned. We learn impulse control by repeatedly attempting to control our impulses, which is a part of why we get better at it with age. The problem with psychopaths is they actually don’t see any reason to control their impulsivity, because their grandiosity prevents them from anticipating consequences and they don’t care how their actions affect others. So they don’t get any practice at it, and they don’t improve the way most of the rest of us do. They may start out more impulsive than average, but by adulthood they will end up worse at it because everyone else has been practicing impulse control and getting better at.

  2. Shelly said

    Don’t know where my previous reply went, but I wanted to take issue with something you posted. “The anterior cingulate cortex(ACC) fires, giving the person a feeling for what others experience, otherwise known as empathy….” and then, “So, the researchers from Kent Kiehl’s laboratory found that when scanning violent inmates, those with low ACC firing are more likely to be repeat offenders.” From the article, you conclude…”In other words, this report is an exciting development in understanding how brain function influences judgment.” I don’t think that just because two things are related, i.e. ACC firing and low empathy levels…and the fact that they did brain scans on repeat offenders, can lead you to the conclusion that a lack of empathy influences judgement (and by inference) can cause someone to do something harmful to others. Correlation does not imply causation. This makes a broad swipe against all Asperger’s sufferers stating that because they have a tendency to have a lack of empathy, they are more likely than others to do something harmful or something that lacks sound judgement.

    • Correlation does not imply causation. Absolutely! Perhaps I sounded too definitive. The excitement here is that the combination of low empathy and low impulse control might be predictive of REPEAT offenders. No one is saying that these findings can predict who will be criminals, but only that once someone has committed a crime, these findings might guide us to know who is at high risk for further criminal behavior. Plus, I am not sure that I agree with you that Asperger’s or now called autism spectrum folks have low empathy. They may have impairment in social communication, but that does not necessarily mean that they lack feelings or understanding of feelings. Plus, not all autism spectrum folks have low impulse control. This is yet another dimension of personality. Thanks for expanding this discussion.

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