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A Philosopher Studies the Brains of Psychopaths

Walter Sinnott-Armstrong

Mental health is a focus of national dialogue in the wake of mass shootings around the country. What makes people kill, seemingly without remorse?

Walter Sinnott-Armstrong investigates psychopaths. These are people lacking empathy, possessed of grandiose self image and dedicated to a parasitic life style. These and a host of other characteristics define the psychopath.

“Many people have some of these traits,” said Sinnott-Armstrong, a professor of philosophy at Duke University, during an interview on the State of Things. “The thing about psychopathy is it’s a perfect storm.”

Sinnott-Armstrong studies the brains of psychopaths with sophisticated equipment, searching for damage.

“We want to know whether that damage leads them to make abnormal moral judgments,” Sinnott-Armstrong said.

Theories about the motivations that drive psychopaths vary. Sinnott-Armstrong says there are two main hypotheses: either they don’t see what’s wrong with their behavior, or they do see and just don’t care.

The origins of psychopathy are mysterious.  While the debate continues to rage over whether psychopaths learn their behavior or are born with it, new evidence is beginning to point to a biological explanation.

“It looks like they’re just not born with the equipment to learn the rules the way normal people do,” Sinnott-Armstrong said.

If true, this could lead to therapies which could reactivate malfunctioning portions of the brain and restore moral structure to psychopathic behavior.

Shawn Wen joined the staff of The State of Things in March 2012 and served as associate producer until February 2014.
Longtime NPR correspondent Frank Stasio was named permanent host of The State of Things in June 2006. A native of Buffalo, Frank has been in radio since the age of 19. He began his public radio career at WOI in Ames, Iowa, where he was a magazine show anchor and the station's News Director.