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Inside a Psychopath’s Brain

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

How does a psychopath think?

How does a psychopath think?

How Do Psychopaths' Brains Work?

In 1983, 10-year-old Jeanine Nicarico was savagely murdered. She was taken from her suburban Chicago home in a crime that caused widespread fear and anger in the community.

According to Time Magazine, “residents slept a little better after police arrested Rolando Cruz, a street tough from a nearby town.” Even though convicted and sentenced to death, Cruz was innocent of the crime, and police admitted fabricating evidence against him.

It wasn’t until 2009 that the real murderer was identified when Brian Dugan pleaded guilty to killing Jeanine Nicarico. He had already been found guilty of two other murders and had collected a string of rape convictions during his 53 years of life.

Dugan was handed the death sentence for the murder of Jeanine Nicarco. Following the sentencing, DuPage County State’s Attorney Joe Birkett described Dugan as “amongst the worst of the worst . . . He chose to become who he is, a serial rapist and a murderer.”

Dr. Kent Kiehl of the University of New Mexico begs to differ from the learned counsel. In his view, Dugan did not choose to be a violent offender.

What I did is not such a great harm, with all these surplus women nowadays. Anyway, I had a good time.

— Rudolph Pliel, German serial killer

Psychopathic Behaviour: Not a Choice?

Dr. Kiehl has studied hundreds of psychopaths and uses the Hare Psychopathy Checklist to assess their level of dysfunction. The test measures such things as the inability to feel empathy or remorse, pathological lying, or impulsivity.

One of the people he has studied is Brian Dugan. In an interview with National Public Radio, Dr. Kiehl notes that the Hare test results give a score of between zero and 40: “The average person in the community, a male, will score about four or five. Your average inmate will score about 22. An individual with psychopathy is typically described as 30 or above. Brian scored 38.5 basically. He was in the 99th percentile.”

He cannot feel empathy and does not experience emotions.

BBC News quotes Dr. Kiehl as saying that Dugan “struggles to try and understand why people even care about what he did. Clinically, it is fascinating.” And Barbara Bradley Hagerty at NPR adds, “Kiehl says the reason people like Dugan cannot access their emotions is that their physical brains are different. And he believes he has the brain scans to prove it.”

I have no desire whatsoever to reform myself. My only desire is to reform people who try to reform me, and I believe the only way to reform people is to kill them. My motto is: Rob ’em all, rape ’em all, and kill ’em all.

— Carl Panzram, who claimed to have killed 31 people. Executed in Leavenworth Prison in 1930.

Mobile Brain-Scan Laboratory

To assess the brain function of psychopaths, Dr. Kiehl has acquired the latest brain imaging technology and has mounted it in a truck. This means he can take his mobile laboratory to maximum-security prisons to scan the brains of inmates with known psychopathic traits.

The BBC reports that examinations have shown Dugan’s brain has abnormalities in the para-limbic system; this is the “‘behaviour circuit’ of the brain, including brain regions known as the amygdala and pre-frontal cortex.” These are areas associated with processing emotions, and earlier studies have shown that brain injuries in these regions often cause the behaviour of people to change and to become anti-social.

In psychopaths, this failure to feel emotion is genetically determined, leading some defence lawyers to argue that someone should not be convicted and possibly executed for a condition they were born with and over which they have no control.

Some psychopaths have a failure to feel emotions due to differing brain functions.

Some psychopaths have a failure to feel emotions due to differing brain functions.

I will in all probability be convicted, but I will not go away as a monster, but as a tragedy.

— Joel Rifkin, convicted of murdering nine women.

Psychopathy: Not That Rare

According to Cognitive Policy Works, a behavioural sciences research centre, there are 70 million who exhibit psychopathic tendencies in the world. The incidence of the mental condition is roughly one in a 100, so that means there are 3.4 million people with psychopathic conditions in the United States.

The vast majority of these people never commit violent crimes. As Cognitive Policy Works explains, “These people are more likely to be risk takers, opportunists motivated by self-interest and greed, and inclined to dominate or subjugate those around them through manipulative means.” They are not necessarily serial killers of the John Wayne Gacy or Ted Bundy type.

Kevin Dutton is a psychology professor at Oxford University and co-author of The Good Psychopath’s Guide to Success (2014). He told The Telegraph that he wanted to put to rest the myth that all psychopaths are ax murderers: “I’d done research with the special forces, with surgeons, with top hedge fund managers and barristers. Almost all of them had psychopathic traits, but they’d harnessed them in ways to make them better at what they do.”

Going to the electric chair will be the supreme thrill of my life.

— Hamilton Howard “Albert” Fish, American serial killer, executed in 1936.

People such as Brian Dugan simply cannot grasp the horror and revulsion their crimes create in normal people. Dr. Kiehl says “Talking about his crimes, it’s like asking him what he had for breakfast.”

So, the big question is whether the current justice system can properly handle psychopaths. This brings us to the burgeoning field of neurolaw.

The MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Law and Science at Vanderbilt University says it is examining the intersection of criminal justice and neuroscience to:

  • determine “the law-relevant mental states of defendants and witnesses;”
  • assess “a defendant’s capacity for self-regulating his behaviour”; and,
  • assess “whether, and if so how, neuroscientific evidence should be admitted and evaluated in individual cases.”

As more is learned about the brains of psychopaths, challenges will come about the concept of culpability. Not guilty by reason of insanity, already a controversial notion in some quarters, may become more common. Then, society will have to grapple with how to deal with these profoundly disturbed people knowing it is almost impossible to cure them.

Bonus Factoids

  • Brian Dugan has not had his date with the executioner. In March 2011, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn abolished capital punishment in his state and Dugan’s sentence was changed to life in prison.
  • According to the British Broadcasting Corporation’s Quite Interesting, “The chairman of a company is four times more likely to be a psychopath than the doorman.”
  • John Wayne Gacy killed at least 33 teenage boys and buried most of them in the crawl space of his Chicago house. He said, “I should never have been convicted of anything more serious than running a cemetery without a license.”
  • The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is the American Psychiatric Association’s reference work for determining mental illness. It does not identify psychopathy as a disorder but uses the more general term “antisocial personality disorder.” The condition is on a spectrum ranging from mild to extreme.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2017 Rupert Taylor