Friday, August 1, 2014

The Psychopath Whisperer by Kent Kiehl

 Reviewers on Amazon often seemed to dislike Kiehl's attitude, accusing him of bragging. I see where they might have been coming from, but I just dismissed it as the ravings of a man who is passionate about his work, and excited about where life has taken him. When he was working on his doctorate in Psychology, he got the rare opportunity to work with a Canadian penitentiary and take the inmates, one by one, to a local hospital with an fMRI machine  "...scientists can determine which brain regions are consuming oxygen while participants are doing specific tasks in the MRI scanner...We typically refer to this technique as functional MRI, or fMRI." to scan their brain waves to see how they differ from the brain waves of "normal" non-criminal people.

He occasionally seems to have a wry sense of humor about things, as evinced by the tag line on the story he tells of how he got the opportunity to study psychopaths in prison, "And that's how I started down the career path that brought me to maximum security prison."

I learned so many new things about the brain,

"The amygdala also helps us learn what stimuli are important to amplify and raises this information into awareness...The hippocampus ist he seat of memory in the brain...particularly good at storing emotional memories...The temporal pole is...a region where sensory information and visual information converge...and is responsible for detecting what type of emotion is being conveyed by affective speech."

All of these areas of the brain are impaired, to some degree, in psychopaths. They do not process emotional, motivation, and value-based stimuli in the same way as normal people.

For some time, psychologists have used fairly simple, low tech methods to assess whether a criminal has psychopathic traits or not.

"...scores on the Psychopathy Checklist uncannily predict which inmates will commit new crimes and which inmates won't. Indeed, inmates who score high on the Psychopathy checklist are four to eight times as likely to recidivate than inmates with low scores."

With the fMRI, scientists are finally able to directly see what's going on as our brains process information.

"The brain is truly amazing at differentiating different word types. One hundred and seventy-five milliseconds after the word is presented, the brain has started to put abstract words on a different processing path than concrete words. But for psychopaths, brain waves show that all words were processed in the same way, going down the same path. Their brains did not respond differently to abstract and concrete words."

A couple of fun facts:
"Psychopaths rarely know details about their children...they often don't even now how many children they (might) have."
"The best available evidence shows that for every ten male psychopaths, there is one female psychopath. Like their male counterparts, female psychopaths tend to get in trouble with the law and often end up in prison."

Perhaps the most important revelation for Kiehl was finding that psychopaths may actually be born, not made.

"The incarcerated youth with elevated callous and unemotional traits as assessed by the Youth Psychopathy Checklist had the same brain abnormalities as the adults with psychopathy."

Prior to this discovery, childhood indicators of psychopathy were often misdiagnosed.

ADHD and "Childhood bipolar disorder and autism spectrum disorder are diagnoses du jour that are often used to (mis)label the child with severe disruptive behavioral problems."

All in all an interesting read, though once again it feels like a research paper expanded and dumbed down a bit for us non-psychology majors. Kiehl's research has some major sociological and criminological implications.

1 comment:

Laying down the Law said...

That's fascinating to me. I've long been interested in the interface between mind and body, and the brain is where it happens.

"The amygdala also helps us learn what stimuli are important to amplify and raises this information into awareness...The hippocampus is the seat of memory in the brain...particularly good at storing emotional memories"

Oddly enough, those two areas are where my brain lesions are located.