The Null Device

This time, the bumps are on the inside

New advances in neural imaging are shedding light on what makes a psychopath a psychopath:
In a landmark 1991 E.R.P. study conducted at a prison in Vancouver, Robert Hare and two graduate students showed that psychopaths process words like “hate” and “love” differently from the way normal people do. In another study, at the Bronx V.A. Medical Center, Hare, Joanne Intrator, and others found that psychopaths processed emotional words in a different part of the brain. Instead of showing activity in the limbic region, in the midbrain, which is the emotional-processing center, psychopaths showed activity only in the front of the brain, in the language center. Hare explained to me, “It was as if they could only understand emotions linguistically. They knew the words but not the music, as it were.”
Today, Kiehl and Hare have a complementary but complicated relationship. Kiehl claims Hare as a mentor, and sees his own work as validating Hare’s checklist, by advancing a neurological mechanism for psychopathy. Hare is less gung ho about using fMRI as a diagnostic tool. “Some claim, in a sense, this is the new phrenology,” Hare said, referring to the discredited nineteenth-century practice of reading the bumps on people’s heads, “only this time the bumps are on the inside.”
But the problem is that “psychopathic behavior”—egocentricity, for example, or lack of realistic long-term goals—is present in far more than one per cent of the adult male population. This blurriness in the psychopathic profile can make it possible to see psychopaths everywhere or nowhere. In the mid-fifties, Robert Lindner, the author of “Rebel Without a Cause: A Hypnoanalysis of a Criminal Psychopath,” explained juvenile delinquency as an outbreak of mass psychopathy. Norman Mailer inverted this notion in “The White Negro,” admiring the hipster as a “philosophical psychopath” for having the courage of nonconformity. In the sixties, sociopathy replaced psychopathy as the dominant construct. Now, in our age of genetic determinism, society is once again seeing psychopaths everywhere, and this will no doubt provoke others to say they are nowhere, and the cycle of overexposure and underfunding will continue.
One researcher is doing research on prison inmates (a population in which psychopathy is greatly over-represented, as one might expect) using a brain scanner and tests reminiscent of the Voigt-Kampf test in Blade Runner, measuring their responses to moral questions non-psychopathic individuals would respond to viscerally.
The fMRI machine started up with a high-pitched whirring sound. I began to see photographs. One was of a baby covered with blood. I thought first about the blood, then realized the circumstances—birth—and rated the moral offense zero. A man was lying on the ground with his face beaten to a bloody pulp: I scored this high. There was a picture of Osama bin Laden. I scored it four, although I felt that I was making more of an intellectual than a moral judgment. Two guys inadvertently butting heads in a soccer game got a zero, but then I changed it to a one, because perhaps a foul was called. I had considered deliberately giving wrong answers, as a psychopath might. But instead I worked at my task earnestly, like a good fifth grader.

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