I've been thinking about psychopaths, recently. It started a few days ago when I watched a BBC documentary about a 16-year-old girl who murdered a man. Though her circumstances were tough, I did wonder how much genetics came in to play. I then came across an article on the New York Times asking if you can call a 9-year-old a psychopath. The article, all nine pages of it, talks about the ability to detect psychopathic traits in children. It centered around one boy in particular, Michael, who took part in an experiment disguised as summer camp.
The article talks about the genetic differences in psychopaths – studies have proven that there are 'significant anatomical differences in the brains of adolescent children who scored high on the youth version of the Psychopathy Checklist — an indication that the trait may be innate.'
Differences can also be found in the blood - 'cold-blooded behaviours' have been linked to lower levels of cortisol and 'below-normal function in the amygdala, the portion of the brain that processes fear and other aversive social emotions, like shame.'
This means that with 'callous-unemotional kids', as the article refers to them, (in other words, pre-psychopathic), they don't experience uncomfortable or ashamed emotions when punished for doing something wrong.
Research on adult psychopaths has proven that they have 'significant anatomical differences: a smaller subgenual cortex and a 5 to 10 percent reduction in brain density in portions of the brain associated with empathy and social values, and active in moral decision making.' Researchers say that this inability to register negative feedback in the correct way is most likely genetic.
Psychopaths get a very bad name - of course, this is understandable, but is it really okay? If someone has significant anatomical differences that mean they are unable to empathise or feel remorse - shouldn't we be cutting them some slack? One common trait in psychopaths is abusive treatment to animals in childhood - but this stems from a genuine curiosity to see what will happen - as if they cannot comprehend that it is wrong.
The article doesn't show sympathy for Michael - it talks about how fed up his parents are and how bad his behaviour is. But, is this fair if he really doesn't process things in the same way as the rest of us?
Those who are mentally ill often have this taken into consideration by the legal system. Someone who is deemed 'psychopathic', however, gets bad press and morbid fascination from society – they’re labeled ‘psychopathic’ almost as if it’s a different breed. A clinical psychologist says in the article, “this isn't like autism, where the child and parents will find support. Even if accurate, it’s a ruinous diagnosis. No one is sympathetic to the mother of a psychopath.” This begs the question - can we judge/punish someone if they don't fully understand that their actions are wrong?