By | March 28, 2008 12 Comments

The Moral Brain

Scientists are actively working on solving the mystery of what is different about the brains of people who have traits of sociopathy/psychopathy. Notice that I say “traits” because virtually none of the studies only include subjects who score above 30 on the PCL-R. These studies then by definition are about sociopathic traits and not psychopathy (see my post from last week). When I first realized that I had to understand sociopathic traits in order to properly raise my at-risk son, I studied the traits and organized them according to what I understood about human motivation and the organization of the brain. In my opinion, sociopathic traits form three categories, I call The Inner Triangle. The Inner Triangle consists of Ability to Love, Impulse Control and Moral Reasoning. To read more about the Inner Triangle visit The Inner Triangle.

Moral Reasoning is more than just logical thoughts about moral questions. Moral Reasoning has an emotional component that some how blends with the thinking component to produce moral judgments. Scientists studying the brain basis of Moral Reasoning have to figure out how thoughts and emotions can come together. This is the classic “hard problem” of psychology because the thinking and feeling parts of the brain are separate yet somehow work together in a coordinated way to produce moral consciousness and an experience of Self. (To see a general discussion of the “hard problem” visit

One of the leading researchers into the “hard problem” in the United States is Dr. Jordan Grafman at the National Institutes of Health. We are lucky because two researchers from Brazil Jorge Moll and , Ricardo de Oliveira-Souza, recently collaborated with Dr. Grafman’s group to work on the “hard problem” with respect to Moral Reasoning. Together, they developed a theory of Moral Reasoning they call the Event-Feature-Emotion Complex Framework (EFEC). The theory is explained in their paper, The Neural Basis Of Human Moral Cognition (Nature Reviews of Neuroscience, 2005).

Briefly, the theory discusses how perceptions of an event, motivation and learned rules become one in our mind. This happens through a process called “binding.” During binding areas of the brain become activated together. The neurons in these areas show a synchronous electrical rhythm during binding. One idea is that perhaps this binding is disordered in people with sociopathic traits.

When Dr. Jorge Moll returned to Brazil he went to work applying the EFEC theory to psychopathy. In a recent paper, Psychopathy as a disorder of the moral brain: Fronto-temporo-limbic grey matter reductions demonstrated by voxel-based morphometry, he reports his findings of diminished grey matter in the brains of 15 people referred to him for evaluation of sociopathic traits. Only a couple of these subjects were actually “psychopaths.” Diminished grey matter was found these subjects in all the regions which subserve moral cognition in the EFEC framework. There was a correlation between the number of sociopathic traits and the degree of reduced grey matter. The only pitfall to the study was that half of the subjects also had substance use disorders in addition to sociopathic traits.

The problems with Ability to Love and Impulse Control that are central to sociopathy have received much attention. The Moral Reasoning deficits which are just as important, are not discussed as much so I was glad to see this paper. On the other hand I want to tell you what this paper does not indicate.

The finding of diminished grey matter in the brain moral reasoning network is not proof of cause and effect. It is also not proof that the moral reasoning problems seen in sociopaths are permanent. Disuse of a system in the brain causes shrinking of that system. The brain shrinking can occur fairly rapidly in areas that are not used. Similarly when neurons fire they release growth factors that serve to strengthen connections and grow more connections. This change in brain function with use is called plasticity.

I did a search of “grey matter” AND “plasticity” in Pubmed the scientific data base of The National Library of Medicine. I found countless examples of plasticity in the amount of grey matter measured by MRI. Use of the brain leads to increases in grey matter! Disuse, in conditions like depression leads to loss of grey matter. So we don’t know if the grey matter changes in sociopaths are due to disuse of the moral brain. Anyone who has lived with a sociopath knows they do not use their moral brains much.

Although I am realistic about the amount of change and growth “sociopaths” as a group show-very little. I don’t think it does humanity much good to be completely hopeless about a group of people who may comprise 10-15 percent of our young and middle aged adults. If we want to say Dr. Hare’s psychopaths are hopeless then perhaps that is OK because these are 1% of our population. BUT many, many people have significant sociopathic traits. We have to thoroughly explore how we can treat sociopathy.

When writing Driven to Do Evil, I contemplated the problems of evil in our world. It seems that people who do evil fall into two separate categories: 1)Those who have a developmental lack of moral emotions and 2) those who have empathy/guilt. Yes people who have guilt and empathy do evil! Probably most of the evil in our world is done by people who have the capacity for guilt and empathy. These people do evil because they are able to suppress their guilt and empathy while doing their evil deeds. This suppression likely leads to shrinkage of the moral brain if it is repeated.

I ask you all, which is worse, evil done by a person who suppresses his/her own guilt and empathy to harm another, or evil done by a person who has never in his/her adult life experienced guilt or empathy? Isn’t it worse when we suppress our moral emotions in the service of greed and power. Who is to say that this life pattern of suppression is not the cause of sociopathy in most? Just a question”¦

Important addendum: A friend just sent me this link: Compassion-something you can learn through meditation. The areas of the brain mentioned in this article are those discussed by researchers in the Moral Brain, namely the Insula. This research addresses the question of plasticity in the Moral Brain. Link to original Scientific Article

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Liane, very interesting article. So the old saying “use it or loose it” is meant for the upper part of our body. Go figure! It makes sense that if you don’t use the moral part of grey matter that it shrinks. That’s true of all of the brain? So as long as we keep learning we keep growing. Of course!
I feel the worst kind of person is the one who sets out to hurt another, knowing that he/she is doing wrong. I always believed that people have the right and can make choices. But until I met my bad man i had never thought that they could be so sinister. To appear so good, helpful, righteous on the outside and to be so polar opposite on the inside. I was completly bewildered by the whole relationship.
I’m so glad to have my eyes opened. It’s just a shame we have to go through something like this to become aware of the evil that is out there.
As far as the S is concerned the more they cross over the line the easier it gets for them. I believe that’s true for anyone. They have to have a screw loose to begin with to not only consider it but to actually do it. I still shake my head in disbelief. I truly feel they have a svengali power over their victims. At the time i was involved with my bad man i really felt helpless & hopeless.

Ox Drover

Liane, it seems to me the basic question is “which came first, the chicken or the egg” as far as the lack of gray matter in certain areas.

Did the lack of gray matter cause the traits, or did the not using that part of the brain cause the lack? Or, do they have anything to do with each other at all?

Maybe a study of young children randomly picked and their brains checked for amount of gray matter, and then following them to see which ones in adult life turn out to have psychopathic traits might answer this question.

The studies of identical twins raised apart seems to suggest a BIG genetic component however and that the LACK (of whatever it is) came first, since if I remember correctly if one twin is psychopathic there is an 80% chance the other one will be as well.

As far as FOREVER hopeless, I don’t buy into that, because look how far medicine has come in treating bi-polar, schizophrenia, depression, etc. in the last 20 years.

However, I do think the neurochemical and brain lacks, or other problems need to be rigorously studied so that there CAN be a treatment at some point in time. I’m not sure what the rate of depression is (% wise) that should be treated in the general population, but we know that most of them are NOT treated, but the ones that are treated are able to live so much better lives. Ditto Bi-polar etc.

Unfortunately many people who have SERIOUS mental illnesses are never diagnosed and never treated, and many of the ones who are diagnosed REFUSE treatment.

Prior to my husband’s aircraft crash I had noticed seasonal affect in myself (from December through March) and a very low dose of medication for those months alleviated the symptoms (in my case just being cranky) After the crash, I have taken antidepressant medication, at first a very high dose, and now am down to a moderate dose, but every trial to decrease the dose from there results in an emotional melt down and the return of deep depression in which I am not functional at all.

I fully believe that my brain has been CHANGED by the trauma of the aircraft crash and the subsequent PTSD so that I will have to take antidepressant medication the rest of my life. Oh, well…big deal. When I was working with depressed patients though, many times they would take the medicine until they felt better and then quit–wind back up in my office crying and very depressed, wanting to deny that medication could help them because of the STIGMA of being on psychotropic medications. The analogy I used with them was that it was a chemical imbalance like diabetes and they wouldn’t be ashamed to take insulin or pills for their diabetes. That helped some people to see the analogy but not all.

Cost of medication is another issue, I don’t have insurance that pays for my antidepressant medication, and fortunately it has gone generic, but it is still expensive and I have to pay out of pocket for it and price is also dose related.

I would “sell plasma” to get it, but other people do not put that value on their medicine and would not sacrifice other things in order to buy the medication. In some cases, the other “things” they might have to “sacrifice” to buy the medication would be to “sacrifice” EATING.

While I agree that the likelihood of Dr. Hare’s examples of habitual criminal Ps “changing” is very poor, I haven’t seen much example of people with P-traits in the general population doing much “changing” either from either life experiences or punishment.

I applaud you very much for spending the time and effort you have done, and the research and learning, in how to parent your own child who has a psychopathic father. I had a son who was VERY ADHD and I spent probably an equal amount of time learning every thing that was written about ADHD children and methods of treatment and parenting. I ended up raising a man who is a productive member of society and well liked and of whom I am VERY proud. He isn’t perfect, and he still has some ADHD tendencies, but he has learned to work around them to succeed in life.

I have seen the differences in the methods of parenting that other parents of ADHD children do and in my own, and I think that mine is superior–only because I did not let him use his “problem” as a crutch to excuse his impulsive behavior. I still required that he study, and that he behave in a polite manner to others. There were times he required literally minute to minute supervision in order to achieve this, but he eventually learned to control his own behavior and to self monitor. I chose not to give him ritalin which was the only drug available at the time, and put him on the Feingold diet, which research has shown doesn’t work well, but I followed the diet 100% and for my son it DID work.

I do believe (no scientific evidence to back it up) that even if a child had a hypothetically “totally” genetic psychopathic brain, that they could still by good parenting stand a better chance of not becoming criminal at the very least…they might still be lacking empathy etc. but they might at least be more functional in society and not TOXIC to others. They might learn how to control their behavior in more socially acceptable ways. Which would not only be a benefit to society at large but to them and their families as well.

Families who enable the psychopath’s early behavior don’t do them any favor…but at the same time, sometimes kids who are not enabled don’t turn out much better as adults.

My ADHD son has the ability to love, my P son does not. My ADHD son has impulse control, and my P son does not control his mean impulses, but he is not “impulsive” by meaning he does things quickly without much thought—he in fact, gives a great deal of thought and planning to executing his psychopathic impulses. Moral reasoning is totally lacking in my P son where my ADHD son has good moral reasoning.

I guess if my ADHD son has any major faults it is setting boundaries, and for that I will take responsibility, because I didn’t always set appropriate boundaries either, but we are both learning appropriate boundary setting even at this late stage.

Thank you for sharing this interesting information about Ps. I’m glad that research is being done, and that this web site and many others are here on the net for those of us who have interacted with them, or have them in our families can learn and heal. God bless and I pray for both you and your son.



I love your posts, they are so insightful. This was a good article, food for thought…or the gray matter, in this case!


Hello all, Oxdrover, STN, LilOrphan, Free. Im home now. Had the surgery which was tough. Im not out of the woods yet, but through that phase. Whew. And I missed you all and thought about you all. Thank you all for your support.

Ox Drover

Wow, Beverly, good that you are home now. All surgery is tough, but I think that you are in a “good place” about all this and that will help you recover faster.

Peggy, thanks for the compliment–sometimes I wonder though if I am all that “insightful” why I didn’t “get it sooner” LOL

I know that it doesn’t matter what “label” you put on them, the behavior is TOXIC–but still I am curious about how the brain (in general) works. I guess that is my science background in wanting to know how things work.

Seeing all the pieces go together like one of those 1000-piece picture puzzles so that you can get the total picture is nice, but unfortunately, there are a bunch of scientific pieces still to be discovered on these things, but science is getting there just like it did with depression, bi-polar and a lot of other things. The great part too, is that they are finding medications that will mostly control the symptoms on so many things so that people can live a much better life with medication.

Of course there is still some “stigma” attached to medications, and I have a sweet little friend who is so depressed she can hardly get out of bed and some fool told her that it is “reactive” depression (and it may be) but that it would NOT respond to medication, only self talk. Ugggggh! And she is old enough that she thinks “real depression” makes her crazy or mentally unbalanced so she won’t even consider medication.

She is in the age group where taking medication (70s) was a big stigma. Hopefully this will change but that kind of social thinking change takes a long time to accomplish. I’m not sure it will help her if it ever does change. I think her mind is made up so I shut up.

I am just happy that psychopharmaceuticals help me. LOL and that I have found a dose I tolerate well and that works well, and am very resigned to take it the rest of my life. I KNOW what kind of melt down and deep dark depression I get when I get off it or reduce the dose any more. I don’t just get “cranky” like I did with seasonal affect disorder in the winter time when because of my job I got NO sunlight, I really go to the bottom below the whale poop and sit and cry, without any external trigger.

With the medication I am happy, reasonable, and rational, and have more energy to do things (though I did have the tick fever last summer which put me physically down) but even that is recovering and I am gaining physical strength each day and increasing my exercise, sleeping better, etc. and LAUGHING A LOT. After the years of stress since my husband died, and the P-attacks, etc. I almost feel “manic” I am so up and happy. I can’t remember when I was mad last, and the last time anyone “hurt my feelings” was when my medication was low because I was out of state and thought I could temporarily reduce the dose so I wouldn’t have to get it refilled out of state—DUH, never NEVER do that again! Live and learn.

I am taking care of my house, care what it looks like, cooking good meals instead of just “grabbing something to eat” to keep from totally starving. Socializing more, working on some hobby projects, taking care of my business (selling off unneeded assets) and just in general doing things and enjoying life!

Still probably spend more time here than I should, but when I rest between jobs or in the evening instead of TV come here. At least I am learning things and maybe sometimes giving someone else some insight with my ramblings. But I am not RE-feeling the pain any more. And I think that is a great sign as it is only recently I realized that I was NOT re-feeling the pain.

I’m also working on setting appropriate boundaries and reading stuff on the Internet and also ordering books on that, on spirituality, Christianity, and usually read two or three of those a week as well. In the total picture of my life now, I think I have made a great deal of progress and continue to find new insights as well.

Beverly, I’m so sorry that you have been so ill and have undergone surgery. You sound like a very brave, strong person. I wish you the very best of luck for a speedy recovery. Love & hugs to you. x


Hi Free, thank you so much and ((((hugs and xxx’s)))) to you too. Trying to keep busy and my spirits up for the next phase of treatment. I went into surgery so depleted from the trauma with the N, but I got through it. Sometimes, I can hardly read what people like you have been through here as it pains me too much. So forgive me if my writings are brief.

Dear Marie, thank you for your kind wishes. I am a strong person, but the brunt of what I have taken over the last two years (not only with exN but a whole collection of other events) has been overwhelming, like going through a terrible storm. But I have lots of support from friends and I count many of the people on here as my invisible friends also. You are all amazing people. ((((hugs)))) to

Ox Drover

Dear Beverly,

If you don’t feel like writing anything except “I’m okay” or “it’s the pits” that’s fine, we just want to know you are still fighting like we know you can.

You are in my prayers daily for your comfort and recovery! Glad you have good support through this “storm”–one wave at a time. (((hugs))) and prayers.

Dr. Leedom-
You asked which would be worse. I think it would be the absence of developed moral reasoning. Both my mother and daughter fit this catagory. I saw my daughter at a very early age struggle with giving appropriate responses to any given situation. Instead of the spontaneity of youthful innocence, she would tell a well calculated lie. As she got older she made no attempt at giving appropriate responses. My mother has always been this way, too. She would repeat lines from the old movies of the 40’s, 50’s as a means of moral reasoning. Neither one attaches emotionally to their words or actions. They respond-always-with a fabrication to fit the situation. They are dangerous, toxic women who will not change because they cannot. Something is seriously missing from them and has been from birth.

My 12yr. old grandson fits the repressed empathy/guilt category. I see him tortured with wanting to do the right thing, but gives in to his repression. His way of dealing with the fall out of his actions is to go into a silent, repressed rage mode that can last for days at a time. Until the problem has passed and he knows he will not be held accountable for his actions. When I raised him for a year, I made headway with him. I could reason with him. I was able to stop his silent rages with the plain truth, focusing on the innocence of a 12 yr. old. He began to allow himself to “hear” me. I would not accept his lies (which he does a lot). I built up his self esteem with kindness,love, firm boundaries and blunt honesty. I thought then and I do now that he can be saved from the fate of having grown up with my daughter and mother. Both of them are what they are and always will be. They teach him to lie, cheat, manipulate and con his way through life. It wasn’t a bed of roses during that year with him. It was tough going, emotionally hurtful.I had to fight continuously against the control his mother and my mother have over him. They hated seeing him happy. Chaos is their only way of life. But I saw him like the wild, willful untouched, deeply afraid deaf cattle dogs I foster. Under the fear of the unknown/unheard beats a heart of real love and compassion. When shown love, patience and gentleness with a firm hand, after a time, my grandson responded in kind.

My grandson is a product of his environment. All environments can be changed and thankfully, so can he. (The catch 22 here is doing so with the given situation. Doing battle with my mother and daughter, defusing their control over him would take everything I have and much more than I have would be needed.) I think these kids/adults can and do change as long as they are taken out of their environments. Begin again within a structure where honest behavior is real & undenied-being taught that it truly counts in life. Sociopaths see any new situation as a means to an end for their need to destroy. Its simply a new game for them and they have no desire to stop-can’t stop. Repression is taught, becomes learned behavior but it can be reclassified. I live in hope that it can.


A very interesting post. Something that has simulated my “gray matter” and would need to research this more.

“Dr. Grafman’s group to work on the “hard problem” with respect to Moral Reasoning. Together, they developed a theory of Moral Reasoning they call the Event-Feature-Emotion Complex Framework (EFEC). The theory is explained in their paper, The Neural Basis Of Human Moral Cognition (Nature Reviews of Neuroscience, 2005).”

One main issue concerning a “sociopath” is the lack of concern(s) of the cause and effect theory. That they will in fact make the same mistakes over again but also expect (if in fact they do?) different results. Or maybe they just don’t care what the “effect” and or outcome of their actions will bring about. This social dilemma seen to have little or no effect on their choices when it comes to deceive, manipulate and control events and or people. Having a sense of a moral and social cause and effect keeps me in a check and balance system. Something that I myself seen lacking in some people with a personality disorder, i.e. sociopath. EFEC, very interesting in deed! Thank you for the information.

Ox Drover

BTW, welcome, James.

YOu are right, the lack of awareness (right word?) of the cause and effect reasoning does seem to be lacking and to me very confusing that though they can be extremely bright, like my son (scored in 99th percentile) never the less the things he did that got him caught were so elementary that a 5 year old could have done a better “cover up” to have not gotten caught.

My son, and other psychopaths I have known, don’t seem to learn a thing from sanctions, even long periods of time in prison. In Dr. Anna Salter’s book on “Predators” (psychopaths and other sexual predators) she says that their fantasy life seems to keep on changing, maturing, etc. while they are in prison such that she thinks that this fantasy of how things will be when they get out continues to influence them and that the only benefit to putting them in prison is that they are deprived of a civilian victim pool.

She had one chapter on how inmates seduce staff for sex and other illegal activities as a “game” that is actually more fun than the sex or the items and contraband that they obtain. I agree with her that prison is actually only an “advanced degree course” at tax payer expense in depravity and amoral behavior. From what I have observed in my P-son over the years, the things he has told me, etc. (he even seduced a female major–and I met her—it was very obvious that there were “sexual sparks flying” between them. I find it incomprehensible that a young, successful, married woman would risk going to prison to have sex with an inmate, but apparently this is a fairly COMMON thing in prisons in general. In interviews with prisoners, Dr. Salter had them explain exactly how they acheived this—then they started trying to same tactics on her, even after they had told her how they did it. DUH!?!

Interesting book on the thinking and behaviors of psychopaths and others. Gave me a great deal of insight I think. Mentioned some tings that I had noticed about my son’s behavior but really couldn’t put any significance to before reading the book.


The thing about CRAZY is he does’nt think there is anything wrong with him. He would never get treatment or take medication for his ability to manipulate the world. He loves that he has this “gift” and why would he need to be treated? Anyone who says he needs treatment is a “hater” they are just jealous. Why would he want to feel badly for things that he does when he does’nt have to now. One time CRAZY told me that he could kill someone and it would’nt bother him one bit. I was thinking for protection purposes and stated sure for self defense. He said,”no… I could kill anyone.” Honestly, at the time I thought…”wow, maybe he should have been in the military.” I never thought of it again until CRAZY put his gun to MY head. One day I told him as I stood in front of him that I could smell his soul rotting and he laughed and said “I don’t have one!” He is well aware of who he is and likes it. He gets insulted in front of other people if he is called out on it not because he cares but because other people will think its bad and he can’t continue to manipulate them if they don’t like him. He would never get treatment for having a forked tongue if the the tongue is what pays his bills,gets him all the ladies, and gives him the ability to manipulate everyone…..

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