Two and a half things about claiming victimhood and neural wiring.


This post is about brain wiring that may explain why psychopaths claim a perpetual state of victimhood.

Here’s the latest Charlie Sheen recording, and to the extent one can believe what’s in the tabloids, Mr. Sheen’s main complaint seems to be that he is treated unfairly:

Mr. Sheen’s remarks (again, to the extent they are true and accurate) are instructive: he voices his lack of compassion for others (about whom he will not think once they leave his beautiful home, they, having no talent, and he, having vast amounts of talent, having been parasites off of him essentially), and his over-compassion for himself, primarily in being falsely accused of being addicted and therefore being treated unfairly, and in being righteous and just about seeking to be restored to his popular TV show.

Psychopaths claim to be perpetual victims.  If one plays victim poker with a psychopath one always loses: “I have a cold”  versus “I’ll see your cold AND raise you perpetually injured ego.” (The way you play victim poker in a normally dysfunctional household or workplace is to claim bigger victimhood thereby getting temporarily indentured servitude or at least sympathy: “I have a cold” “I see your cold and raise you bronchitis” “I see your cold and bronchitis and raise you a pair of  parking tickets”"I win, I have a urethral catfish.”)

Now, clearly psychopaths (and probably those suffering from addictions) have brain wiring and other organic issues.  Although the brain is plastic and changeable, having psychopath behavior and the wiring that goes with it is largely involuntary, and one cannot control this much more than one can control, say, lactose intolerance.  Wrap one’s head around the concept that the way in which one thinks is largely a matter of biology rather than free will (apparently, given Occam and the law of parsimony, and all of that) is a tough one but, it seems to be the case that where one lacks the biological machinery, one simply cannot think thoughts that require that biological machinery.  Even the most diabolically intelligent psychopaths are like a nefarious Watson programmed to enjoy power and not love. They simply don’t have the circuits.

If one’s optic nerves are diseased, one cannot “will” sight. One cannot “will” compassion when one does not have the wiring.

The question is, much like a blind person compensates with other senses, where one lacks such wiring for compassion, is there compensation in other areas?

I think yes:  the psychopath brain doubles down on the wiring for justice.

A recent paper points to two separate neural systems, one for caring (or compassion as we understand it), and the other for justice.  We hypothesize that psychopaths, or perhaps those afflicted with addictions, really have two and a half: the system for justice is doubled, perhaps to compensate for a diminished system for compassion.

Here’s an interesting diagram proposing neural circuits for caring and then justice (Cáceda R, James GA, Ely TD, Snarey J, Kilts CD, (2011)  Mode of Effective Connectivity within a Putative Neural Network Differentiates Moral Cognitions Related to Care and Justice Ethics. PLoS ONE 6(2): e14730. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0014730)


Figure 1. Model of brain regions involved in moral cognition: the frontal pole (yellow),  rostral anterior cingulate cortex (red),       left  superior temporal sulcus (green),         and precuneus/ posterior cingulate cortex (blue).                                                                              Effective connectivity within a hypothetical    neural network involved in the implicit recognition of moral issues (FP: frontal pole; rACC: rostral anterior cingulate cortex; STS: left posterior superior temporal sulcus; PCC: precuneus/posterior cingulate cortex). Circles highlight significant path coefficients. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0014730.g001

Lots of studies show brain regions that are active/inactive in psychopaths — but it seems that the connecteome among those regions is key. The functional connectivity among brain regions characterizes the way in which one processes judgments, in terms of caring about another (an emotional-empathic response) or judging the fairness of another (judging).

Looking at the above figure, if one squints and sort of takes a general overall view, the circuits for justice look like they’re in areas that are just fine in the psychopath — but the circuits for caring are in areas known to have psychopathic disconnects. So we wonder if the a psychopath overcompensates in the justice circuit.

The wiring for caring goes polarly toward the frontal lobes, like the orbito frontal portions — winding through  the pSTS (empathic response) and FP (self-knowledge) circuit. These are the wobbly in a psychopath. Psychopaths have shakey  uncinate fasciculus (on the right side) , between the limbic system and the frontal lobes. That could explain why psychopaths understand that other people think things (in that they have acute social awareness), but they just don’t care.

And so we were interested in the image above because psychopaths seem to have an overactive sense of justice — they always feel slighted, and always seek revenge. The image above (just eyeballing it) looks like the justice network is in the areas thought to be more or less intact in the psychopath –  it looks like the justice network is predominantly on the left side, not the right side (where the damaged white matter is).  See the direction of the red arrow, from the ACC (rule violation/rule-based learning/emotional regulation)).  From the Summary:

. . .Care reasoning was characterized by a functional equilibration between pSTS (empathic response) and FP (self-knowledge) information processing. Yet justice reasoning was characterized by pSTS activity that was driven by FP (self-perspective) and ACC (rule violation/rule-based learning/emotional regulation) responses.

Contrast the psychopath selective white matter compromise with a recent report showing widespread white matter compromise in individuals diagnosed with autistic spectrum disorder. Perhaps in psychopaths the white matter related to the compassion circuit is selectively impaired, resulting in a doubling down of the justice loop, for neural overcompensation.

Why this would be the area selectively for such compensatory mechanism, we don’t know. We do have our anecdotal observations that fit this theory.

Take the psychopath typical raging narcissistic ego:  is it really a proxy for an overactive justice -circuit?

With psychopaths, someone has always wronged them.  A particularly ironic form of this is in the Madoff tapes,

. .. “Everybody on the outside kept claiming I was a sociopath,” Madoff told [his therapist] one day. “I asked her, ‘Am I a sociopath?’ ” He waited expectantly, his eyelids squeezing open and shut, that famous tic. “She said, ‘You’re absolutely not a sociopath. You have morals. You have remorse.’ ” Madoff paused as he related this. His voice settled. He said to me, “I am a good person.”. . .

Consider this for 10 seconds: Mr. Madoff feels like he was treated unjustly for being called a sociopath.  The irony is so thick you could bundle it and sell off the tranches.

In thinking about this more, an overactive justice circuit, an under-active compassion circuit and, additionally, no parking brake on the perseveration areas could tee up that explanation for revenge stalkers that we’ve been pondering. We though it was OCD-like.  Psychopaths can really work themselves into a steam over perceived slights — and, like an elephant who never forgets, they don’t forget, although they can be prone to drug or alcohol binges to try to forget. Increased response perseveration and reduced cortical thickness in the orbitofrontal and anterior temporal regions is reported to be more highly correlated in individuals with psychopathy than in healthy-comparison subjects.  The psychopath algebra is  perseveration + justice-o-meter set too high = seek revenge for decades.

Evolutionarily, perhaps the wiring for fairness is more archaic, after all, getting one’s fair share seems more directly tied to survival than the indirect messiness of the altruism/self interest dance.  In terms of populations, there is some karmic justice is that –  psychopathic megalomaniacal dictatorial kleptocrats are now faced with millions of people whose wiring for fairness just became turbo charged.