Psychopathy is a disorder characterized by lack of empathy and remorse, antisocial behavior, increased tendencies towards aggression and anger, and blunted anticipatory fear. It is also dramatically over-represented in penal populations and especially among violent criminals.
The origins of psychopathy, even its very nature as a disorder, are widely debated. Importantly, it is not known whether psychopathy is treatable or not. While a recent proof-of-concept study published in PLoS ONE doesn’t address this directly, it does provide some evidence that self-regulation and what the authors call a “constructive learning process” can reduce some of the neurological correlates of psychopathy and predictors of violent behavior.
“Investigating brains and behavior of offenders, including those with psychopathy, is of special interest for us because the aim to establish effective treatments for offenders is closely linked to a reduction in the number and severity of offenses,” explained study author Lilian Konicar, the director of the ABC Brain Lab at the Medical University of Vienna.
“Secondly, we are aiming to shed light on the interplay between body, brain and mind, which is still an underrepresented approach in basic as well as in clinical research.”
One of the reasons the treatability of psychopathy is questioned is because attempts to treat psychopaths often simply result in them being better able to manipulate those around them. So-called “socialization” exercises merely make them more adept at using others, while incarceration and punishment don’t seem to have significant effects as a deterrent (as demonstrated by the recidivism that often accompanies violent psychopathy).
While the origins of psychopathy are disputed, and there is ongoing debate into its very nature, there do seem to be certain neurological and biological correlates associated with it.
One of these relates to “resting-state EEG activity,” more colloquially known as brainwaves. Certain brainwaves, like beta and theta waves, for example, have been associated with violence and aggression in other criminal and antisocial populations.
Likewise, a hallmark symptom of psychopathy is blunted electrodermal activity. In healthy individuals, physiological arousal (fear in the face of a stimulus, for example) is associated with a momentary increase in skin conductivity.
In the present study, both resting-state EEG activity and electrodermal activity were measured while severe criminals with psychopathy participated in tasks of self-regulation with neurofeedback. In such tasks, individuals are presented with a visual indicator of their brainwaves, and can thus train themselves to reliably increase or decrease the appearance of certain types.
These kinds of tasks have been used to study and even partially treat problems like ADHD, epilepsy and OCD by retraining the brain over a period of time.
The results of the study show that severe criminals with psychopathy were able to modulate their brain activity voluntarily. “Our results indicate that resting EEG patterns do change after EEG neurofeedback training, in terms of a significant reduction of slow frequency,” write the authors. Skin conductance was similarly affected, demonstrating that the effects of the training extended to the peripheral nervous system.
In fact, offenders with the highest scores on affective (emotional) deficits and highest total psychopathy scores exhibited the greatest reductions of slow-frequency brainwaves after neurofeedback training—most likely because they represented the greatest opportunity for change.
The findings indicate that “investigating the brains and behavior of offenders might result in an very effective approach for the reduction of offenses,” Konicar told PsyPost.
There are some important caveats to keep in mind, including lack of a control population (e.g., criminals of similar offenses without psychopathy) and the fact that the study is correlational in nature: no causal relationship can be drawn.
“The long-term effects of brain-training should be addressed in future studies with more offenders in multiple forensic institutions,” Konicar said.
Nonetheless, it is an important proof of concept, and demonstrates that neurofeedback approaches are indeed able to modify the brainwaves and other physiological characteristics associated with psychopathy. Whether this has any effect on the condition itself is a question of great interest, and will require a great deal more research to answer.
“Support for science is crucial for the development of society in total – not only regarding developments in industry or/and related to economic purposes, but also in regards to education, health, and well being, and in the long-run fostering scientific-informed decisions in regards to politics and justice,” Konicar added.
The article, “Balancing the brain of offenders with psychopathy? Resting state EEG and electrodermal activity after a pilot study of brain self-regulation training,” was authored by Lilian Konicar, Stefan Radev, Stefano Silvoni, Elaina Bolinger, Ralf Veit, Ute Strehl, Christine Vesely, Paul L. Plener, Luise Poustka, and Niels Birbaumer.