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MRI scans show that violent psychopaths don’t understand punishment

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Psychopathic violent offenders don’t learn from punishment the way most people do, a new MRI study has revealed. After scanning the brains of 32 violent offenders, researchers Canada
and the UK have discovered that those who are psychopathic have
abnormalities in the regions of the brain that are associated with
learning from punishment.

The research is extremely important when it comes to working out the
best way to stop people from committing crimes. “One in five violent
offenders is a psychopath,” said Sheilagh Hodgins, one of the lead
researchers from the University of Montreal, in a press release. “They
have higher rates of recidivism [reoffending] and don’t benefit from
rehabilitation programmes. Our research reveals why this is,” she added. 

The study also highlights neurological differences between regular offenders and those who are psychopathic.
“Psychopathic
offenders are different from regular criminals in many ways. Regular
criminals are hyper-responsive to threat, quick-tempered and aggressive,
while psychopaths have a very low response to threats, are cold, and
their aggressively is premeditated,” said Nigel Blackwood, the co-leader
of the study, from King’s College London, in the release.
“Evidence is now accumulating to show that both types of offenders
present abnormal, but distinctive, brain development from a young age.”
During
the study, the team conducted functional MRI (fMRI) scans on 32 violent
offenders in England, who had been arrested for crimes such as rape,
grievous bodily harm and murder. Out of the offenders, 12 were
classified as psychopaths and 20 were not. The team also compared the
brains of the offenders to 18 healthy non-offenders.
Inside the
MRI machine, the researchers asked the participants to play a game where
they matched cards – sometimes they were rewarded for matching cards
with points, but sometimes the game would change and punish them for
doing so and they’d lose points

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Overall, they found that the violent offenders, regardless of whether
they were psychopaths or not, were worse at learning from the
punishment cues, and made far poorer decisions, despite taking longer to
think their options through than the non-offenders. 
But when
they looked at what was happening inside the brains of the offenders
during the task, they found that there was something particularly
strange going on in the brains of psychopaths.
When the game
stopped rewarding card-matching and started punishing it, the neural
pathway in psychopaths that’s usually involved in learning from
punishment had abnormalities “in both grey matter and specific white
matter fibre tracts”, said Hodgins.
Grey matter is involved with processing information and cognition,
while white matter coordinates the flow of information between different
regions of the brain.
The non-psychopathic violent offenders, on
the other hand, showed similar brain function in this region to
non-offenders. The results have now been published in Lancet Psychiatry.
“These
results suggest the violent offenders with psychopathy are
characterised by a distinctive organisation of the brain network that is
used to learn from punishment and from rewards,” said Blackwood in the release.
Knowing
this information can now help researchers work out how to both identify
potentially violent psychopaths at a young age, and help develop
intervention strategies. 
“The results of our studies are
providing insights into the neural mechanisms characterising adult
violent offenders that may be used, along with other findings, in
designing programs to reduce recidivism. Our results also provide
hypotheses about the abnormal development of violent offenders to be
tested in studies of children,” said Blackwood.
“Since
most violent crimes are committed by men who display conduct problems
from a young age, learning-based interventions that target the specific
brain mechanisms underlying this behaviour pattern and thereby change
the behaviour would significantly reduce violent crime,” added Hodgins.
And not to freak you out or anything, but recent research also found that men who take a lot of selfies are more likely to have psychopathic traits. Consider yourselves warned.

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