Updated 07 August 2014

How do psychopaths get the way they are?

Scans of psychopaths’ brains show there's no activity in the fibres that connect the frontal lobe and the limbic system. In addition there's often abnormal activity in the limbic system.

Around the age of three or four children develop the ability to deceive and the ability to empathise. While telling white lies or hurting others are part of growing up most children feel guilty about misbehaving – except for those with aggressive and antisocial personality disorders.

In people with these disorders research indicates there may be a faulty connection between the deep, emotional brain (the limbic system) and the thinking part of the brain (the frontal lobe). This means the rational part of the brain can't exercise its normal control over strong emotions such as fear and aggression. It may well be the reason why things that make normal people afraid or sad have no effect on psychopaths.

Scans of psychopaths’ brains show there's no activity in the fibres that connect the frontal lobe and the limbic system. In addition there's often abnormal activity in the limbic system.

Unless these malfunctioning parts of the brain can be properly wired together – which is basically impossible – impulsiveness, lack of control and emotional abnormalities will continue to turn psychopaths into high-speed vehicles with ineffective brakes. It's still unclear whether these abnormalities are caused by traumatic experiences during childhood, coupled with the absence of understanding adults, but what we do know is that the seeds of psychopathic crime are sown early in life.

Read: Fear deficit a harbinger for psychopaths

Can they be treated?

There are scientists who believe they're slowly getting closer to understanding psychopaths, thanks to new research tools such as brain scans and psychological tests.

Let's say it becomes possible to identify a psychopath before he or she can cause grievous bodily or emotional harm. What then?

Conventional treatments such as group therapy just make psychopaths worse and seem to train them in manipulating people and faking emotions. Some neurologists believe a drug could be developed to adjust the brain chemicals of psychopaths.

In Sweden spinal taps carried out on imprisoned criminals suggested psychopaths may have an imbalance of the brain chemicals serotonin and dopamine. If drugs can be used to manage the emotions of people suffering from depression and anxiety, science may be able to give emotions to people who lack them.

But even if it were possible for psychopaths to receive the gift of emotions they'll still have an inherent lack of morality. Giving them emotions won't necessarily teach them what's right and wrong.

“l don't think it's possible to treat them – not now, not ever," Professor Watkins says. "Morality comes from one's upbringing and environment but also from genetics. It’s never a pure thing. A psychopath in prison once told me, ‘A leopard cannot change its spots but it can learn to live with them.’ How manipulative is that?"

Read: The biology of bluffing uncovered

How can I protect myself?

There are many people with psychopathic traits in society even though we only know about those who commit crimes. While scientists are keenly researching treatments and may even be talking about cures there’s absolutely nothing that can be done about the faulty wiring in the brain of psychopaths– they can’t be reformed or taught right from wrong and they can’t be given emotions or a conscience.

All we can do to protect ourselves is to look out for "red flag” behaviour, especially when we come into contact with charmers and pathological liars. There’s nothing you can do to change that person. It may be time to walk out of your marriage or to stop telling your child that school bullies are simply a fact of life.

Be thankful you’re blessed with the gifts of a conscience, emotions and love, even though they may sometimes cause you heartache. It's the ability to experience honest emotions that distinguishes you from a psychopath.

Read more:

Inside the mind of a monster Who psychopaths really are 
Does the law protect us against psychopaths
How psychopaths get the way they are 
Fear deficit is a harbinger for psychopaths
Assessment tools are useless in psychopathsPsychopaths have faulty brain connections
MRIs show why psychopaths don't feel your pain 

Reviewed by Professor Tuviah Zabow, former head of forensic psychiatry at the University of Cape Town and Valkenberg Hospital. 

By Romi Boom

Image: Lightning strikes brain from Shutterstock


Read Health24’s Comments Policy

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.

Live healthier

Lifestyle »

E-cigarettes: Here are five things to know

E-cigarettes have become hugely popular in the past decade, but a rash of vaping-linked deaths and illnesses in the US is feeding caution about a product that's already banned in some places.

Allergy »

Ditch the itch: Researchers find new drug to fight hives

A new drug works by targeting an immune system antibody called immunoglobulin E, which is responsible for the allergic reaction that causes hives.