“I heard a story about her once,” said James. “She was interviewing a psychopath. She showed him a picture of a frightened face and asked him to identify the emotion. He said he didn’t know what the emotion was but it was the face people pulled just before he killed them.” —The Psychopath Test, by Jon Ronson
Several decades ago on Mauritius, a small island off the coast of Madagascar, a group of researchers sat 1,795 three-year-olds down one at a time, clapped headphones on them, sounded a tone, waited a few seconds, and then exposed them to a cacophony of jangling metal objects. The first sound, followed by the second, was repeated again and again. Each child was hooked up to electrodes that measured how much perspiration he or she excreted in the interval between the tones. The vast majority of the children soon began to sweat up a storm after they heard the first tone, associating it with the second, painful one that inevitably followed.
Twenty years later, the researchers identified 137 of those children who’d grown up to have criminal records—drug arrests, driving offenses, violent attacks. They matched them with a “cohort” of participants with similar backgrounds but no criminal records. Then they compared the groups’ kiddie tests. They found that the cohort had anticipated the unpleasant second tones. But the kids who became criminals showed a complete lack of anticipation at age three.
One of those researchers was Adrian Raine, a small, sprightly psychologist with curly graying hair who’s considered the world’s leading researcher in neurocriminology. A professor in the University of Pennsylvania’s departments of criminology, psychiatry and psychology and author of the best-selling textbook The Psychopathology of Crime, he’s made a career of studying evildoers, especially psychopaths. “There are 20 different characteristics of psychopaths,” Raine, 58, says in his crisp British accent—he hails from County Durham and did his graduate work at the University of York. “But the underlying one is lack of emotion. Psychopaths don’t experience feelings the way we do.” The experiment with the kids was a simple version of Pavlovian conditioning: “You put the headphones on them and give a warning tone, and then a blast of loud music—since you can’t give three-year-olds electrical shocks.” Raine sounds a little disappointed by this. “Normal kids learn what’s coming and begin to sweat. Kids who go on to become criminals show no conditioning at all.”
What happens with kids who lack a fear response, Raine explains in his workaday office at Penn—it’s decorated only with plastic models of brains and some brightly colored MRI images—is that they never connect behavior with punishment: If you whack your brother, Mom yells at you. If you hurl ramen noodles at Dad, you get a swat on the rear. “We think this awareness and concern about punishment stops most of us from committing crime,” Raine says—in other words, it’s what makes us feel guilty, so we’ll play by society’s rules. “But if you’re not concerned with the consequences, you’ll just commit the crime.”
The brain is an incredibly complex organ. Parts depend on other parts to function; areas are entwined and re-entwined. But increasingly, Raine’s research has come to focus on the amygdala, a small almond-shaped area that governs emotions, especially anxiety, fear, empathy and remorse. The amygdalas of psychopaths show an 18 percent volume reduction from those of the rest of us. “They have one, but it’s shrunken,” Raine explains.
There are other differences in the brains of psychopaths—lots of them. They have less gray matter in the prefrontal cortex, which regulates impulse control and decision-making. They’re more likely to have a developmental brain defect, cavum septum pellucidum. They metabolize glucose differently in some regions. The area that processes rewards, the striatum, is enlarged. There’s debate in the scientific community over whether such changes are the cause or the result of psychopathic behavior. Raine is convinced they’re the cause. “Humans are like a jigsaw puzzle,” he says. “You need all the pieces locked into position. We have a destiny. Some people are dealt a bad hand; some are born with a flush.”
As it happens, we’re right in the midst of a psychopathic moment. The TV series Dexter stars a serial killer. We flocked to see Tilda Swinton agonize over her psycho son in We Need to Talk About Kevin; we lapped up the New York Times Magazine’s recent cover story on a Florida family’s struggles with their nine-year-old, Michael, who really—really—wants to kill his brother. What’s brought psychopathy to the fore is largely the groundbreaking research Raine has done on criminal brains. The MRI in particular, he says, allows scientists to see in real time what goes on when a psychopath views disturbing photos or contemplates a moral dilemma, compared with the rest of us.
The difference between a psychopath and a run-of-the-mill criminal is one of scale. Psychopaths commit lots of crimes. They don’t grow out of it; they simply get better at it. As one study notes, they “manipulate other people to their own ends, commit premeditated crime, and remain unaffected by their appalling deeds.” While the incidence of psychopathy in the general population is close to one percent, it’s 15 to 35 percent in U.S. prison inmates. And it’s estimated that psychopaths commit as much as 65 percent of all crime—a tiny minority among us creating massive waves of chaos and dread. Raine’s field, “neurocriminology,” looks at how brain structure may cause psychopathy—and how we might test for such brain-structure abnormalities.
We’re used to thinking of criminal behavior as a conscious choice made by people just like us who decide to break bad. What, though, if Raine is right? What if there really is a mark of Cain, and psychopaths are victims of their biology? How would that affect how we view them—and how we should?