National Geographic : 2018 Jan
the science of good and evil 131 have this double whammy of having parents who are perhaps less well equipped for many of the parenting tasks, are less good at empathizing, less good at regulating their own emotions.” the firefighters tried desperately to save the six Philpott children from their burning house in Derby, England, in the early hours of May 11, 2012. But the heat and smoke were so intense that only one of the kids was alive when rescuers finally made their way upstairs where they had been sleeping. That boy, too, perished two days later in the hospital. The police suspected arson, based on evidence that the fire had been started by pouring gasoline through the door’s mail slot. Derby residents raised money to help the chil- dren’s parents—Mick and Mairead Philpott—pay for a funeral. At a news conference to thank the community, Philpott was sobbing and dabbing his eyes with a tissue that remained curiously dry. Leaving the event, he collapsed, but Derbyshire’s assistant chief constable, walking behind, was struck by the unnaturalness of the behavior. Eighteen days later, the police arrested Philpott and his wife. Investigators determined that they had set fire to the house with an accomplice to frame Mick’s mistress. A court found all three guilty of manslaughter. Philpott’s faking of grief and his lack of re- morse are among the characteristics that define psychopaths, a category of individuals who have come to embody evil in the popular imagination. Psychopaths have utter disregard for the feelings of others, although they seem to learn to mim- ic emotions. “They really just have a complete inability to appreciate anything like empathy or guilt or remorse,” says Kent Kiehl, a neuro- scientist at the Mind Research Network and the University of New Mexico who was drawn to studying psychopathy in part because he grew up in a neighborhood that was once home to the serial killer Ted Bundy. These are people who are “just extremely different than the rest of us.” Kiehl has spent the past two decades exploring this difference by scanning the brains of prison inmates. (Nearly one in every five adult males in prison in the U.S. and Canada scores high in psychopathy, measured using a checklist of 20 criteria such as impulsivity and lack of remorse, compared with one out of every 150 in the gener- al male population.) Using an MRI scanner installed inside a trac- tor trailer, Kiehl and his colleagues have imaged more than 4,000 prison inmates since 2007, mea- suring the activity in their brains as well as the size of different brain regions. Psychopathic criminals show reduced ac- tivity in their brain’s amygdala, a primary site of emotional processing, compared with non- psychopathic inmates when recalling emotion- ally charged words they were shown moments earlier, such as “misery” and “frown.” In a task designed to test moral decision-making, re- searchers ask inmates to rate the offensiveness of pictures flashed on a screen, such as a cross burning by the Ku Klux Klan or a face bloodied by a beating. Although the ratings by psycho- pathic offenders aren’t that different from those by non-psychopaths—they both recognize the moral violation in the pictures—psychopaths tend to show weaker activation in brain regions instrumental in moral reasoning. Based on these and other, similar findings, Kiehl is convinced that psychopaths have im- pairments in a system of interconnected brain structures—including the amygdala and the or- bitofrontal cortex—that help process emotions, make decisions, control impulses, and set goals. There is “basically about 5 to 7 percent less gray matter in those structures in individuals with high psychopathic traits compared to other in- mates,” Kiehl says. The psychopath appears to compensate for this deficiency by using other parts of the brain to cognitively simulate what really belongs in the realm of emotion. “That is, the psychopath must think about right and wrong while the rest of us feel it,” Kiehl wrote in a paper he co-authored in 2011. When aBigail Marsh, a psychologist at Georgetown University, was 19, her car skidded on a bridge after she swerved to avoid hitting a dog. The vehicle spun out of control and finally came to a stop in the fast lane, facing oncoming traffic.