Inside The Criminal Mind: 10 Fascinating Findings About The Brains Of Criminals

Criminal brains

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’ll 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.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Go deeper inside a world of murder and corruption. Watch Hand of God on Amazon Prime.

  • Mega_tron

    Some of this is pretty silly. Sociopathy does not preclude serial murder no matter the percentage of society. Most sociopaths just make really bad friends and partners.

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    • IvanRider

      Or spambots, as can be observed in this thread.

  • Mark Bacdafucup

    all serial killers are sociopaths but not all sociopaths are serial killers

    • Susette Brott

      of course not all sociopaths are serial killers. they come in many shapes and forms of abnormality. i think it can be agreed upon that sociopaths the release and non release of certain chemicals found in the brain along with mis-shappend lobes and other characteristics of abnormality in their brains. they have no feelings of remorse,guilt sympathy,, empathy or any other emotions or feelings that leave them feeling sorry, guilty, remorseful or the disbielf of what has just transpired at the hands of themselves. instead they disassociate,cause a mental gap to be made to keep that connection torn apart as if they had nothing to do with what went on or simply not care. they honestly find nothing wrong with what has just went on, they feel pleasure as with sexual sadist having the feeling of performing an actual act of pleasure. the same chemical released during sexual acts we experience ourselves is released into their brain causing a form of euphoria which will usually surpass the feeling of a normal (as we know it) result of pleasure. sometimes they will experience a sense of power and being indistructable which will override any feelings of doing wrong. others may feel a sense of what they did was bad but are unable to process properly leading them to believe theyve done something wrong and will try again to get that good feeling to cement what theyve done is ok, not weird and horrific. then the enormous waves of pleasure and satisfaction hit them like waves from the ocean, now only to be driven by the wanting of that feeling again and again its never enough similiar to a drug addict always searching for that 1st incredible indescribable high that can never be obtained again. in all we live in a f…… up world where things of this nature are not handled as they should be due to our empathy sympathy and feeling the sadness that this person had a bad childhood.instead of sending our emotions down the proper channels to the victims and families. not all the nurturing or therapy in the world will change or help this not medications not shock etc…we need to look at it for what it is monstrutive horrific unthinkable and unaccepted in the world we live in..why bed, feed and clothe them? they deserve the same compassion and caring they feel for others, especially those theyve wronged. leave our empathey and caring and need to help those who do need it and will benefit from it. we clean whats dirty we nurture our children we love our pets we love those who deserve to be loved,why waste our time trying to help those who dont? we protect ourselves from other things that bring us harm we have HAZMAT CDC etc security systems car alarms means of protecting ourselves so why not keep those away who are intent on hurting us. let them run on an island with others similar to themselves hunt and be hunted by those around them that sounds fair. we learn as children life isnt fair, we learn as we grow life isnt fair but we can certainly even out the playing field its called consequences and justice as it should be following through, not giving up and setting precedents that are not just and in between but actually seen through and completed as planned send a powerful message not doing so shows our weakness and further proves life isnt fair. which do u choose?

  • Jara Matthews

    RIVETING QUESTION.
    if we were to observe a young boy had a serial killers mind… what should we do? I say observe.
    Has there ever been someone with a killer brain who didnt act out on it?

  • mechelle bennett

    If it were possible to nip it in the bud with a premptive strike I suppose it would be worth a shot but our current way of thinking as a society doesn’t really allow anyone to be subjected to a proceedure (I’m assuming it would be some kind of proceedure administered by a professional) if they don’t want to but if it were possible to avoid tragedy and the psychopath wanted to be. “fixed”, why not try? Serial killers wreak so much havoc and destroy so many lives that if a treatment were available it should never be completely off the table just because it violates 1 sicko of his right to be a sicko, however, I do not think anything can be done to a psychopathic brain to fix it. diagnosing these people before they offend is pretty much dooming them to their fate. So much more study needs to be done.

  • Darlene LaPointe

    How is this silly? If you’ve ever read any of Hare’s books, you’d realize that even “noncriminal” psychopaths can leave a lot of damage in their wake.

  • Rita Palmeiro

    Until we can see into the future, which I have read the military and some people can, we won’t know for sure if someone is going to commit a crime, all we can do is suspect by what they have already done in the past and their threats should be taken seriously.

  • IvanRider

    #8: No wonder I was always treated so horribly in college. I am reclusive, agoraphobic at times, and had difficulty being comfortable around women. Just wanted to take them out for coffee or something though, not kill them. Yet, they all thought I was Dahmer. Now I know why: unfair stereotypes.

    • Heather Erickson

      The article said most sociopaths are NOT reclusive….

  • Heather Erickson

    I don’t think it’s ever fair to judge someone on their biological make-up. If someone happens to have a sociopath’s brain, than we can let them know and offer treatment and therapy, but I don’t think we can force the issue if they choose to ignore it.

  • dmarcel

    Stop them in advance….? Like… considering them guilty before doing anything bad…. And what about neuroscientist James Fallon, who while studying brain scans to search for patterns that correlated with psychopathic behavior, found
    that his own brain fit the profile??

    Check his book, “The Psychopath Inside” or this article: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/the-neuroscientist-who-discovered-he-was-a-psychopath-180947814/?no-ist

  • Melanie Wood

    Well “Bundy” was both a “Sociopath” and a “Psychopath”.

  • Melanie Wood

    It is really too bad they never did a Scan of “Dahmer’s” Brain when he was alive. They did stuumdy it after death but found NO ABNORMALITIES! A Scan when they go into their particular “Mode” would BE THE MOST TELLING AND INTERESTING!