Vol. 1, No. 1-2 , 1995, Page 4


Now-oriented thinking-making decisions with no regard to their consequences-is a hallmark of criminals, who kill on impulse or steal "just for the fun of it." New research by Antoine Bechara et al. shows that now-oriented thinking also is a common symptom of people with injuries to a specific area of the prefrontal cortex.

The researchers designed a card-selecting task that required subjects to weigh long-term risks and benefits. Control subjects found the task easy, but subjects with damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex made card choices with "high immediate reward, but severe delayed punishment."

Their performance, the researchers say, is "comparable to their real-life inability to decide advantageously, especially in personal and social matters [in which] an exact calculation of the future outcomes is not possible and choices must be based on approximations." The researchers found that their subjects "are generally insensitive to future consequences, positive or negative, and thus their behavior is always guided by immediate prospects, whatever they may be."

Antonio Damasio, who participated in the research project, suggests that people with prefrontal cortex damage can form mental representations of future outcomes, but that these are not "marked" with a negative or positive value. He suspects that "developmental" sociopaths-those whose problem behavior starts very early in life, and does not result from known injury or illness-may have a similar defect.

The symptoms of "developmental" sociopaths are more severe than those of people with prefrontal cortex injury; this makes sense, Damasio says, because the second group has benefited from years of normal development.


"Insensitivity to future consequences following damage to human prefrontal cortex," Antoine Bechara, Antonio Damasio, Hanna Damasio, and Steven W. Anderson, Cognition, 50:7, 1994. Address: Antonio Damasio, Department of Neurology, University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, Iowa City, IA 52242.

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