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Neurons as art, by painter and neuroscientist Gregg Dunn


When the psychopath I was involved with discarded me, he was enraged. With a voice full of anger and contempt, he shouted, “You bore me! I’m done with you!”

I was shocked and deeply distraught that my self-professed soulmate would discard me, and with such vitriol, when I had done nothing wrong. I felt as if I’d been violently shoved off the edge and into a dark abyss. I was falling deep into the darkness, when suddenly a thought brought my headlong dive to a screeching halt:

Why would he—or anyone—become enraged because they were bored? Rage might be appropriate if I’d done something terrible, but just because of boredom? Really?

I was perplexed. But that moment passed, and I resumed my freefall.

I didn’t know it at the time, but my former ‘soul mate’ was jonesing for some dopamine.

More neuron art, artist unknown


Dopamine is a brain chemical associated with feelings of euphoria, motivation, desire, craving and addiction. In the last blog post, Rhonda Freeman, PhD, explained how dopamine affects psychopaths when they’re pursuing us. She says that although they are capable of being genuinely excited and stimulated in the beginning, what they’re feeling is an intense dopamine high. While a dopamine high is natural for all of us at the start of a new relationship, people with psychopathy have a dopamine reward system that’s on overdrive. In addition, since they’re natural manipulators they can’t be exposed to someone and not take advantage of them, so they “groom” the object of their desire for future use. When their dopamine crashes because the relationship isn’t new and stimulating anymore, they blame and devalue their partner.

Just how hyper-reactive is a psychopath’s dopamine reward system?

In 2010, researchers at Vanderbilt explored the connection between dopamine and psychopathic behavior. David Zald, associate professor of psychology and psychiatry, said “These individuals appear to have such a strong draw to reward — to the carrot — that it overwhelms the sense of risk or concern about the stick.” Part of the study involved giving amphetamines to both psychopathic and non-psychopathic test subjects, which led to the discovery that in response to the drug, the brains of the psychopathic subjects released FOUR TIMES as much dopamine as the non-psychopathic ones!

Zald went on to say, “It may be that because of these exaggerated dopamine responses, once they focus on the chance to get a reward, psychopaths are unable to alter their attention until they get what they’re after.” He said their anticipation or motivation for reward overwhelms any other concerns.

It sheds some light on the big question of why psychopaths behave the way that they do. Their intense reward-seeking motivation consumes their attention wholly until they have fulfilled their desire.


A vintage neuron doodle


Athough psychopaths have an exaggerated dopamine response when seeking a reward, they  have an abnormally low level of dopamine in general. Without strong stimulation (and the dopamine that goes with it), they feel bored, empty and restless. They’re also low on serotonin, a neurotransmitter that promotes feelings of contentment.

“Need for stimulation/proneness to boredom” is one of the items on the PCL-R, a test used to evaluate a person for psychopathy. Psychopaths require intense stimulation to get their dopamine high and when the object of their desire isn’t shiny and new anymore, they’re simply not stimulating enough to give the psychopath the high they need. Since they aren’t capable of attachment, when the intense newness of the relationship wears off there’s no incentive to continue the relationship.

The search for an intense dopamine high—and the relief from the intolerable sense of bored emptiness they feel without it—drives an ever-repeating cycle of idealize, devalue, discard. Their lives are a continual, relentless pursuit of stimulation intense enough to give them the dopamine they need to feel exhilarated and alive.

Tree branches look like neurons, don’t they?


It seems to me that when psychopaths become bored, they also become boring; and it’s no surprise, since their excitement and engagement has ended. They believe we’re the cause of their boredom and blame us for it, but if my psychopathic ex knew what was really going on, he would have said “I’m bored! But it’s not you, it’s me and my hyper-reactive dopaminergic reward system.” 

They got our dopamine flowing, too. Many of us were head-over-heels in love with them, at a soul mate level. That takes a lot of dopamine! When a person falls in love twelve parts of the brain release euphoria-inducing chemicals, including dopamine and adrenaline, that create the same euphoric feeling as cocaine, according to researchers from Syracuse University. 

In neorotypical humans (like us), falling in mad, passionate love often turns into attachment; a bond forms that keeps a couple together long-term. But psychopaths are not capable of attachment (or love), so when their “mad love” takes a nosedive along with their dopamine, there is nothing left for them. We, however, did become attached, and we know all too well how that turned out.

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(not a neuron)


Now you have a neuroscientific explanation of why psychopaths behave the way they do. Their faulty dopamine reward system is a big part of that. In addition, researchers have said that there are at least 17 different factors that affect the frontal lobes, amygdala, and the associated communication pathways within the brain to produce the neurological pattern of the psychopath. This ever-growing body of scientific evidence should make one thing clear: the crazy, inexplicable and maddening experience you had with a psychopath was not your fault. Understanding how a psychopath’s brain works not only helps to resolve self-blame, but can go a long way in resolving our doubt and confusion.

How dopamine affects behavior: The neuromodulator of exploration: A unifying theory of the role of dopamine in personality (2013)

The study featured in this post: Mesolimbic dopamine reward system hypersensitivity in individuals with psychopathic traits

Other studies on dopamine and psychopathic behavior:

Two dopamine receptor genes (DRD2 and DRD4) predict psychopathic personality traits in a sample of American adults (2013) 

New evidence for an association between the CSF HVA:5-HIAA ratio and psychopathic traits <

CSF studies in violent offenders¶I. 5-HIAA as a negative and HVA as a positive predictor of psychopathy(2001) “This seems to link the outward-directed aggression of psychopathy to serotonergic hypofunctioning and high dopamine turnover, which might account for disinhibition of destructive impulses.”

Dissociable Effects of Serotonin and Dopamine on the Valuation of Harm in Moral Decision Making “… suggesting a direct and specific influence of serotonin and dopamine on the valuation of harm… “

Dopaminergic stimulation increases selfish behavior in the absence of punishment threat

Set‐shifting and sensitivity to reward: A possible dopamine mechanism for explaining disinhibitory disorders

Behavioral genetics in antisocial spectrum disorders and psychopathy: A review of the recent literature 


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