Kent Kiehl: The 'Big Data' of criminal minds in New Mexico

“[One prison inmate] had killed his girlfriend because he thought she was cheating on him,” Carla Harenski told John Seabrook in a profile in the New Yorker. “He was so charming about telling it that I found it hard not to fall into laughing along in surprise, even when he was describing awful things.”

This is the weird, fascinating world of psychopaths. These are individuals with no human emotion, or remorse. And while they often perceive others’ feelings they simply don’t care or relate. They’re often very fun, extremely manipulative, above averagely intelligent and are almost always male. They have no fear of any consequences and tend to commit crimes.

The stereotype of the psychopath is familiar from books and films. Yet this is just a tiny fraction of the story. And Kent Kiehl, who had his interest peaked by growing up down the road from infamous serial killer Ted Bundy, has spent his career building a true profile of these individuals using the latest technology.

“We have collected MRI [brain scan] data from over 3000 [prison] inmates,” says the Professor of Psychology, Neuroscience and Law at The University of New Mexico. This is part of his work to “establish the world’s largest database of brain data from incarcerated population”. It includes males, females, youths, sex offenders, and forensic psychiatrics, and places a big emphasis on psychopaths. 

“I don’t have a final number in mind [for the size of the database],” he continues “but at our current rate we should hit 25,000 before I retire.” Kiehl is currently in his 40s and has the long term aim of “improving” the treatment and/or management of “high-risk offenders”.

The use of technology sets Kiehl apart from other colleagues, especially his heavy reliance on brain imaging. He has been using MRI scans for decades, quickly became irked by the geographical limitations of this big clunky kit and utilised his first bespoke Siemens portable brain scanner in January 2007.

“The mobile MRI has been upgraded twice in the last five years,” he tells us. “We originally collected whole brain images in 4x4x5mm resolution every two seconds. The latest upgrade allows us to collect whole brain images at 3x3x3mm resolution every 350 milliseconds.  It’s a huge increase in spatial and temporal resolution - and a 40x increase in disk space. It’s a truly amazing development in MRI technology.” 

In the professional world there has often been a lot of mixed perspectives on the use of technology for psychology. Kiehl believes that this is an instrument like any other. A main component of psychology is assessment and “neuroscience tools, including MRI technology” are just another way that psychologists can analyse “brain attributes” he says. 

“You can use functional MRI technology to measure brain activity while doing continuous performance tests,” he adds. Any scientific test is just an attempt to measure the brain as well as possible but he believes that “MRI data is the closest to the ground truth”.

“[The] long and short of it is that brain data is just another tool for psychologists to use to assess” and test their theories. As present this data is still mostly being used to confirm existing thought - “at least in my group” – rather than as a means to substantiate new ideas.

Last Summer Kiehl brought out a book, “The Psychopath Whisperer: The Science of Those Without Conscience”, which detailed his years of investigation based on extensive personal interviews, psychometric tests and brain scans. He stresses a lot of work goes into cataloguing mental illness like schizophrenia and people sometimes overlook psychopaths because they are harder to treat. Yet the more we understand, the easier it will be to predict behaviour and manage these people more effectively.

Technology will always form a useful part of this. “Eventually we hope to image neural currents [which] measure which neurotransmitters are associated with problems in forensic populations,” he says.  

Traditionally psychopaths are measured on a sliding scale of zero to 40 with people in the upper echelons demonstrating the most chilling, extreme traits. To provide some context: the average North American man scores four, Kiehl told Scott Barry Kaufman in a podcast at the start of the year. Realistically you would not want to have any close involvement with anyone who scored a 10 or higher.

This is especially interesting because it crosses into the socially acceptable “Dark Triad” of psychopath-like characteristics that typically make up workplace bullies and other – often successful but highly unpleasant - elements in society. Kiehl did not have anything specific to say around this scale. Yet he did conclude:

“We have not tried to quantify bullying, but we have found that the ultimate bully - someone who kills someone else - do differ from their peers in brain structure.” This is likely to become increasingly obvious as more data becomes available.


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