Science of the Spirit

2 + 2 = 4

Using brain scanners to detect violent criminals before they act - but what about psychopaths?


Do your genes, rather than upbringing, determine whether you will become a criminal? Adrian Raine believed so – and breaking that taboo put him on collision course with the world of science
In 1987, Adrian Raine, who describes himself as a neurocriminologist, moved from Britain to the US. His emigration was prompted by two things. The first was a sense of banging his head against a wall. Raine, who grew up in Darlington and is now a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, was a researcher of the biological basis for criminal behaviour, which, with its echoes of Nazi eugenics, was perhaps the most taboo of all academic disciplines.

In Britain, the causes of crime were allowed to be exclusively social and environmental, the result of disturbed or impoverished nurture, rather than fated and genetic nature. To suggest otherwise, as Raine felt compelled to, having studied under Richard Dawkins and been persuaded of the "all-embracing influence of evolution on behaviour", was to doom yourself to an absence of funding. In America, there seemed more open-mindedness on the question and, as a result, more money to explore it. There was also another good reason why Raine headed initially to California: there were more murderers to study than there were at home.

When Raine started doing brain scans of murderers in American prisons, he was among the first researchers to apply the evolving science of brain imaging to violent criminality. His most comprehensive study, in 1994, was still, necessarily, a small sample. He conducted PET [positron emission tomography] scans of 41 convicted killers and paired them with a "normal" control group of 41 people of similar age and profile. However limited the control, the colour images, which showed metabolic activity in different parts of the brain, appeared striking in comparison. In particular, the murderers' brains showed what appeared to be a significant reduction in the development of the prefrontal cortex, "the executive function" of the brain, compared with the control group.

Comment: The root confusion here is the failure to distinguish between violent criminals and psychopaths. Violent criminals make up a tiny fraction of psychopaths. Most psychopaths never physically harm anyone and thus remain 'sub-criminal', i.e. below the radar.

How full-time researchers still have not grokked this staggers the mind...

Light Saber

UK association of psychotherapists: No scientific basis for many psychiatric 'diagnoses'

British Psychological Society to launch attack on rival profession, casting doubt on biomedical model of mental illness

There is no scientific evidence that psychiatric diagnoses such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are valid or useful, according to the leading body representing Britain's clinical psychologists.

In a groundbreaking move that has already prompted a fierce backlash from psychiatrists, the British Psychological Society's division of clinical psychology (DCP) will on Monday issue a statement declaring that, given the lack of evidence, it is time for a "paradigm shift" in how the issues of mental health are understood. The statement effectively casts doubt on psychiatry's predominantly biomedical model of mental distress - the idea that people are suffering from illnesses that are treatable by doctors using drugs. The DCP said its decision to speak out "reflects fundamental concerns about the development, personal impact and core assumptions of the (diagnosis) systems", used by psychiatry.

Dr Lucy Johnstone, a consultant clinical psychologist who helped draw up the DCP's statement, said it was unhelpful to see mental health issues as illnesses with biological causes.

Comment: Ordinary people can be predisposed to schizophrenia due to their genetics, but yes, we largely side with the psychotherapists on this one: widespread schizophrenia and schizophrenic symptoms are the result of normal people breaking down in a society run by, for and of psychopaths.


Illusory correlations: When the mind makes connections that don't exist

Why do CEOs who excel at golf get paid more, despite poorer stock market performance?

To see how easily the mind jumps to the wrong conclusions, try virtually taking part in a little experiment...

...imagine that you are presented with information about two groups of people about which you know nothing. Let's call them the Azaleans and the Begonians.

For each group you are given a list of positive and negative behaviours. A good one might be: an Azalean was seen helping an old lady across the road. A bad one might be: a Begonian urinated in the street.

So, you read this list of good and bad behaviours about the Azaleans and Begonians and afterwards you make some judgements about them. How often do they perform good and bad behaviours and what are they?

What you notice is that it's the Begonians that seem dodgy. They are the ones more often to be found shoving burgers into mailboxes and ringing doorbells and running away. The Azaleans, in contrast, are a sounder bunch; certainly not blameless, but overall better people.

While you're happy with the judgement, you're in for a shock. What's revealed to you afterwards is that actually the ratio of good to bad behaviours listed for both the Azaleans and Begonians was exactly the same. For the Azaleans 18 positive behaviours were listed along with 8 negative. For the Begonians it was 9 positive and 4 negative.

In reality you just had less information about the Begonians. What happened was that you built up an illusory connection between more frequent bad behaviours and the Begonians; they weren't more frequent, however, they just seemed that way.


Experience leads to the growth of new brain cells

A new study examines how individuality develops.

The DFG-Center for Regenerative Therapies Dresden - Cluster of Excellence at the TU Dresden (CRTD), the Dresden site of the German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases (DZNE), and the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin played a pivotal role in the study.

The adult brain continues to grow with the challenges that it faces; its changes are linked to the development of personality and behavior. But what is the link between individual experience and brain structure? Why do identical twins not resemble each other perfectly even when they grew up together? To shed light on these questions, the scientists observed forty genetically identical mice that were kept in an enclosure offering a large variety of activity and exploration options.

"The animals were not only genetically identical, they were also living in the same environment," explains principal investigator Gerd Kempermann, Professor for Genomics of Regeneration, CRTD, and Site Speaker of the DZNE in Dresden. "However, this environment was so rich that each mouse gathered its own individual experiences in it. Over time, the animals therefore increasingly differed in their realm of experience and behavior."

New neurons for individualized brains

Each of the mice was equipped with a special micro-chip emitting electromagnetic signals. This allowed the scientists to construct the mice's movement profiles and to quantify their exploratory behavior. The result: Despite a common environment and identical genes the mice showed highly individualized behavioral patterns. They reacted to their environment differently. In the course of the three-month experiment these differences increased in size.


Social connections drive the 'upward spiral' of positive emotions and health: People who have higher vagal tone tend to be better at regulating their emotions

People who experience warmer, more upbeat emotions may have better physical health because they make more social connections, according to a new study published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

The research, led by Barbara Fredrickson of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Bethany Kok of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences also found it is possible for a person to self-generate positive emotions in ways that make him or her physically healthier.

"People tend to liken their emotions to the weather, viewing them as uncontrollable," says Fredrickson. "This research shows not only that our emotions are controllable, but also that we can take the reins of our daily emotions and steer ourselves toward better physical health."

To study the bodily effects of up-regulating positive emotions, the researchers zeroed in on vagal tone, an indicator of how a person's vagus nerve is functioning. The vagus nerve helps regulate heart rate and is also a central component of a person's social-engagement system.

Comment: Learn more about the many benefits of stimulating the Vagus Nerve:
Brain, heart and gut minds
Vagus Nerve Controls Intestinal Inflammation
Stimulating the vagus nerve: Memories are made of this
Polyvagal Theory, Sensory Challenge and Gut Emotions
Research Shows Vagus Nerve Stimulation Can Help Reorganize Brain
The Neurobiology of Grace Under Pressure: 7 habits that stimulate your vagus nerve and keep you calm, cool, and collected

Also, to accrue the benefits of vagus nerve stimulation, try out the exercises of the Éiriú Eolas breathing and meditation program.


Nerve stimulation for severe depression changes brain function

© Brain Stimulation 2013
PET scans of patients successfully treated with vagus nerve stimulation show marked increases in cerebral glucose metabolism after 12 months of treatment (bottom image, red/orange area in yellow circle) in parts of the brainstem thought to be critical in depression. In nonresponders, glucose metabolism decreased in the same brain region (top image, blue/green area in yellow circle).
For nearly a decade, doctors have used an implanted electronic stimulator to treat severe depression in people who don't respond to standard antidepressant therapy.

Now, preliminary brain scan studies conducted by researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis are beginning to reveal the processes occurring in the brain during stimulation and may provide some clues about how the device improves depression. They found that vagus nerve stimulation brings about changes in brain metabolism weeks or even months before patients begin to feel better.

The findings will appear in an upcoming issue of the journal Brain Stimulation and are now available online.

"Previous studies involving large numbers of people have demonstrated that many with treatment-resistant depression improve with vagus nerve stimulation," says first author Charles R. Conway, MD, associate professor of psychiatry. "But little is known about how this stimulation works to relieve depression. We focused on specific brain regions known to be connected to depression."

Conway's team followed 13 people with treatment-resistant depression. Their symptoms had not improved after many months of treatment with as many as five different antidepressant medications. Most had been depressed for at least two years, but some patients had been clinically depressed for more than 20 years.

Comment: There is no need to get an implanted electronic device to stimulate your vagus nerve. You can do it naturally and without surgery! For more information check out the Éiriú Eolas program at


Looking for evidence that therapy works

© Lars Leetaru
Mental-health care has come a long way since the remedy of choice was trepanation - drilling holes into the skull to release "evil spirits." Over the last 30 years, treatments like cognitive-behavioral therapy, dialectical behavior therapy and family-based treatment have been shown effective for ailments ranging from anxiety and depression to post-traumatic stress disorder and eating disorders.

The trouble is, surprisingly few patients actually get these kinds of evidence-based treatments once they land on the couch - especially not cognitive behavioral therapy. In 2009, a meta-analysis conducted by leading mental-health researchers found that psychiatric patients in the United States and Britain rarely receive C.B.T., despite numerous trials demonstrating its effectiveness in treating common disorders. One survey of nearly 2,300 psychologists in the United States found that 69 percent used C.B.T. only part time or in combination with other therapies to treat depression and anxiety.

C.B.T. refers to a number of structured, directive types of psychotherapy that focus on the thoughts behind a patient's feelings and that often include exposure therapy and other activities.

Instead, many patients are subjected to a kind of dim-sum approach - a little of this, a little of that, much of it derived more from the therapist's biases and training than from the latest research findings. And even professionals who claim to use evidence-based treatments rarely do. The problem is called "therapist drift."


Children brought up by two parents are more intelligent - because they develop more brain cells

© Randy Faris/ Corbis
Being with both parents in the earliest years of life leads to a child developing more brain cells
Children who are brought up by two parents grow up to be cleverer than those raised by just one person, new research suggests.

Being with both parents in the earliest years of life leads to a child developing more brain cells, the scientists believe.

However, the benefits vary between the sexes.

Being brought up by both parents causes boys to have better memory and learning functions.

By contrast, it causes girls to develop improved motor co-ordination and sociability.

It is believed that babies with two parents tend to get more attention and more stability, and that they are less likely to suffer emotional distress in the first years of life.

This leads to greater brain cell production - for boys it is grey matter brain cells that develop and for girls it is white matter brain cells.

The researchers from the Hotchkiss Brain Institute (HBI) of Calgary University, in Canada, studied mice and experimented by creating one parent and two parent family groups.

They then measured the offspring's brain cell development from birth to adulthood.

Adult mice with the highest number of brain cells turned out to be those who had been brought up by two parents rather than one.

Eye 1

Brain scans can identify psychopaths even in childhood because they have no empathy when seeing people in pain

Some psychopaths display disturbing symptoms from a young age, such the main protagonist in Lionel Shriver's book We Need to Talk about Kevin.
Brain scans can be used to identify children who may be potential psychopaths, new research has shown.

Scientists have found that certain areas of a psychopath's brain showed a reduced activity in response to images of others in pain.

The regions affected are those known to play a role in empathy, the ability to relate to other people's feelings.

Scientists say the patterns could act as a marker to single out children at a risk of becoming adult psychopaths.

A total of 55 boys aged 10 to 16 were assessed in the study.

Of these, 37 met the criteria for children with 'conduct problems' (CP) according to questionnaire answers provided by parents and teachers.

CP children display a plethora of antisocial traits including aggression and dishonesty.

Like the central character in Lionel Shriver's novel We Need to Talk About Kevin, they can be callous and cruel.

Youngsters with conduct problems are not likely to follow in Kevin's footsteps and commit a school massacre, but the research findings suggest at least some could grow up to be psychopaths.

Comment: Psychopathy is genetic, therefore one cannot "grow up to be a psychopath". This point should be emphasized, especially when it comes to children' diagnosis and misguided attempts to "cure" psychopathy. It's important to note, that psychopathy can be both categorical and dimensional. That is, there are types and gradations of psychopaths. Martha Stout makes this pretty clear in The Sociopath Next Door. Some of them can be very covert, some can be "raging" mad dog types, others can be pitiful/poor me game players, etc.

Or, there can be individuals who are not psychopaths who react psychopathically when triggered because that is the kind of programming they have from their upbringing and exposure to pathological behavior. In that case, it is not really a psychopath, but rather a sociopath/ a "situational psychopath" who can also be described as a secondary psychopath.

Read the following books to learn more on the topic:

Political Ponerology - A Science on the Nature of Evil Adjusted for Political Purposes by Andrzej M. Lobaczewski.
The Mask of Sanity by Hervey Cleckley, M.D.
Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work by Paul Babiak, Ph.D., and psychopathy expert Dr Robert D. Hare.

'Our findings indicate that children with conduct problems have an atypical brain response to seeing other people in pain,' psychologist Professor Essi Viding from University College London said.

'It is important to view these findings as an indicator of early vulnerability, rather than biological destiny.


Persistent pain after stressful events may have a neurobiological basis

© UNC School of Medicine
This is the study's senior author, Samuel McLean, M.D., M.P.H., University of North Carolina School of Medicine.
A new study led by University of North Carolina School of Medicine researchers is the first to identify a genetic risk factor for persistent pain after traumatic events such as motor vehicle collision and sexual assault.

In addition, the study contributes further evidence that persistent pain after stressful events, including motor vehicle collisions and sexual assaults, has a specific biological basis. A manuscript of the study was published online ahead of print by the journal Pain on April 29.

"Our study findings indicate that mechanisms influencing chronic pain development may be related to the stress response, rather than any specific injury caused by the traumatic event," said Samuel McLean, MD, MPH, senior author of the study and assistant professor of anesthesiology. "In other words, our results suggest that in some individuals something goes wrong with the body's 'fight or flight' response or the body's recovery from this response, and persistent pain results."

The study assessed the role of the hypothalamic-pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis, a physiologic system of central importance to the body's response to stressful events. The study evaluated whether the HPA axis influences musculoskeletal pain severity six weeks after motor vehicle collision (MVC) and sexual assault. Its findings revealed that variation in the gene encoding for the protein FKBP5, which plays an important role in regulating the HPA axis response to stress, was associated with a 20 percent higher risk of moderate to severe neck pain six weeks after a motor vehicle collision, as well as a greater extent of body pain. The same variant also predicted increased pain six weeks after sexual assault.