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10 Fascinating Findings About the Criminal Brain

Take a look inside the criminal mind ... literally.


Celebrities: they’re just like us! OK, you think, I buy that, they just have more money.

Criminals: they’re just like us! Wait, really?

Just how “normal” is the criminal mind? We all look alike on the outside, but is there something inherently different on the inside about those who commit vicious acts? Below, we pick criminals’ brains … literally. We think you’ll be interested in our findings.


1.You can differentiate the brain of a psychopath from a “normal” brain.

Examining scans of criminals who were supposed psychopaths, they have low levels of activity in a certain brain region called the orbital cortex, which helps to regulate emotions and impulses and “also plays a role in morality and aggression”. A recent study examined brains of people with antisocial personality disorder, characterized by having “no regard for right and wrong” and violating laws and rights of others. Brain scans of these people showed an average 18% reduction in volume of the middle frontal gyrus.

2. The male brain has a killer gene.

About about 90% of killers in America are male. And about 30% of males – compared to 9% of females – have a form of the MAO-A gene often called the “warrior gene” because of its association with violence.  That gene has been found to impair “their ability to deal effectively and pro-socially with stressful situations”.

3. How psychopaths put on the “mask of sanity.”

Researchers found that psychopaths used the past tense, dysfluencies like “uhs” and “ums”, and subordinating conjunctions like “because” and “so that” more often. This indicates psychological detachment, allows time for the person to gather thoughts (or lie), and creates a sense of logic, respectively. Psychologists call these speech patterns “putting the mask of sanity on.”

4. When it comes to the development of a criminal, nature and nurture are at play.

Studies have shown that the combination of that MAO-A “warrior” gene and a history of child abuse “increases one’s chances of being convicted of a violent offense by more than 400%.” Researchers are quick to point out that having this gene or experiencing trauma as a child does not automatically make someone a criminal, but increases vulnerability.

5. The criminal brain is not underdeveloped, but developed in a different way than the average person.

Not all criminals are Dumb Criminals, though they make poor – or despicable, rather – decisions. Where did the breakdown in rational decision-making happen? Scientists have linked it to the experience of trauma, especially in childhood. Abuse, deprivation, lack of nurturing, etc. leads to trouble in regulating emotions and “executive function”, or the ability to “process information to draw and make conclusions.” On the 10-point Adverse Childhood Experiences scale, about 33% of Americans score zero, 3% score higher than four, and only one person in 1,000 scores nine or more. It’s not a surprise that criminologists find that a number of murder suspects scored a nine or above.

6. The criminal’s “seat of emotion” is deformed.

A 2009 study of the brains of psychopaths found deformations in a part of the brain called the amygdala, which is “the seat of emotion”. This may help to explain the lack of empathy and remorse they display. Another study noted that it’s not that psychopaths lack empathy as much as it is a voluntary activity. For most people, “empathy is the default mode”, but for those with psychopathic tendencies, they can turn it on like a switch to manipulate others. “You’re four times more likely to find a psychopath at the top of the corporate ladder than you are walking around in the janitor’s office,” said leading psychologist Robert Hare.

7. Once a criminal mind, always a criminal mind.

What about people who were once criminals, but have changed their ways? Do their brains change too? No, it appears. The psychologist on a study comparing the two said that while you can differentiate a criminal from a non-criminal, “none of these brain regions distinguish chronic and remitting offenders.”

8. Serial killers are surprisingly social.

According to the FBI, “The majority of serial killers are not reclusive, social misfits who live alone.” In fact, many are employed, married, and have families. For example, Robert Yates was a U.S. Army National Guard helicopter pilot, married with five kids. He also killed 17 prostitutes and buried one in his own yard. The infamous BTK killer, Dennis Rader, was president of his church and a Boy Scout leader. They can “blend in so effortlessly, they are oftentimes overlooked by law enforcement and the public.”

9. The rate of sociopathy in the world is as high as 4%.

Not to be alarmist, but they’re out there. The rate of sociopathy in the global population is estimated to be as much as 4%, according former Harvard clinical psychologist, Dr. Martha Stout. While that percentage might not sound like much when it comes to your chances of winning a bet, this translates to one out of every 25 people.

10. Suspects often use the amnesia defense.

Sixty-five percent of suspects who undergo psychiatric examination claim amnesia, according to the FBI. In some cases this is due to alcohol or drugs, but in some cases it is a lie. When suspects deny committing the crime, investigators are instructed to ask questions like: “Why do you think whoever did this selected this victim?” and “What do you think should happen to the person who did this?” to probe further into the suspect’s mind.

One question comes out of all this research: If neuroscience allows us to pinpoint traits of violent criminals, can we – and should we – do anything to stop them in advance? Tell us what you think in the comments.

This article was first published on Crime Feed.

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Photo: Wikimedia Commons