Some time ago, I discussed the question of whether Sherlock Holmes could be classed as a psychopath based on his behavior in the stories. In pursuing this question a little more, I came across an article in the Encyclopedia of Mental Disorders that elaborated on how psychopathy manifests itself.
People who are psychopathic prey ruthlessly on others using charm, deceit, violence or other methods that allow them to get with they want. The symptoms of psychopathy include: lack of a conscience or sense of guilt, lack of empathy, egocentricity, pathological lying, repeated violations of social norms, disregard for the law, shallow emotions, and a history of victimizing others.
Robert Hare was one of the leaders in studying this and developed a 20-point psychopathy checklist and you are a given a score of 0, 1, or 2 for each so that your score can range from 0 to 40. The article says that “A prototypical psychopath would receive a maximum score of 40, while someone with absolutely no psychopathic traits or tendencies would receive a score of zero. A score of 30 or above qualifies a person for a diagnosis of psychopathy. People with no criminal backgrounds normally score around 5. Many non-psychopathic criminal offenders score around 22.”
The twenty items are:
glib and superficial charm
grandiose (exaggeratedly high) estimation of self
need for stimulation
cunning and manipulativeness
lack of remorse or guilt
shallow affect (superficial emotional responsiveness)
callousness and lack of empathy
poor behavioral controls
early behavior problems
lack of realistic long-term goals
failure to accept responsibility for own actions
many short-term marital relationships
revocation of conditional release
Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) the scoring must be done by highly trained professionals so kids, don’t try this at home. Still, it gives an interesting breakdown of the elements that constitute psychopathy.
The Chronicle of Higher Education recently had an interesting article by Cambridge University research psychologist Kevin Dutton about trying out something called Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) that can lower the electrical activity in that part of the brain that generates feelings, and thus transform one into a psychopath.
Dutton interviewed Hare who said that he thought that as a society there has been an increase in psychopathy. Dutton says Hare’ pessimistic view is supported by other studies that show “college students’ self-reported empathy levels… have been in steady decline over the past three decades” while “during this same period, students’ self-reported narcissism levels have shot through the roof.” He quotes researcher Sara Konrath who says that “Many people see the current group of college students, sometimes called ‘Generation Me’ as one of the most self-centered, narcissistic, competitive, confident, and individualistic in recent history.”
I tend to take these kinds of sweeping generalizations with a pinch of salt, especially when one cannot point to clear reasons as to what caused such major changes.
Psychopathy correlates with lack of empathy but sometimes this detachment can be a good thing, when the situation calls for you to disregard the feelings of others in order to get the job done. his can come in very useful for people who are frequently in situations which require a high-level of calm detachment despite the criticality or danger involved or who face a crisis. As Dutton says,
In fact, in any kind of crisis, the most effective individuals are often those who stay calm—who are able to respond to the exigencies of the moment while at the same time maintaining the requisite degree of detachment.
Now, one of the things that we know about psychopaths is that the light switches of their brains aren’t wired up in quite the same way as the rest of ours are—and that one area particularly affected is the amygdala, a peanut-size structure located right at the center of the circuit board. The amygdala is the brain’s emotion-control tower. It polices our emotional airspace and is responsible for the way we feel about things. But in psychopaths, a section of this airspace, the part that corresponds to fear, is empty.
In the light-switch analogy, TMS may be thought of as a dimmer switch. As we process information, our brains generate small electrical signals. These signals not only pass through our nerves to work our muscles but also meander deep within our brains as ephemeral electrical data shoals, creating our thoughts, memories, and feelings. TMS can alter the strength of those signals. By passing an electromagnetic current through precisely targeted areas of the cortex, we can turn the signals either up or down.
Turn down the signals to the amygdala, of course, and you’re well on the way to giving someone a psychopath makeover.
Dutton describes a highly decorated British Special Forces soldier Andy McNab who agreed to have his brain activity compared with his. When they were both were suddenly confronted with a gruesome situation on a screen, McNab’s brain activity in this region suddenly shut down below its normal baseline, as if he had no feelings, to a level that the experimenters had never seen before. Meanwhile Dutton’s shot through the roof, like a normal person.
Dutton was then treated with TMS, which he says was a creepy feeling since it seemed like he was giving control of his brain to someone else and was acting involuntarily in response to stimuli provided by the experimenter. In some ways, it felt like the effects of drinking alcohol
The effects aren’t entirely dissimilar. An easy, airy confidence. A transcendental loosening of inhibition. The inchoate stirrings of a subjective moral swagger: the encroaching, and somehow strangely spiritual, realization that hell, who gives a s—, anyway?
There is, however, one notable exception. One glaring, unmistakable difference between this and the effects of alcohol. That’s the lack of attendant sluggishness. The enhancement of attentional acuity and sharpness. An insuperable feeling of heightened, polished awareness. Sure, my conscience certainly feels like it’s on ice, and my anxieties drowned with a half-dozen shots of transcranial magnetic Jack Daniel’s. But, at the same time, my whole way of being feels as if it’s been sumptuously spring-cleaned with light. My soul, or whatever you want to call it, immersed in a spiritual dishwasher.
So this, I think to myself, is how it feels to be a psychopath. To cruise through life knowing that no matter what you say or do, guilt, remorse, shame, pity, fear—all those familiar, everyday warning signals that might normally light up on your psychological dashboard—no longer trouble you.
After he had received the treatment, he was tested again and this time his response was even more psychopathic than McNab’s.
I am not sure what lessons to draw from this but it was an interesting and somewhat creepy look at how we can tickle our brains to change our personality.