24 Jun

I recently finished reading a book about psychopaths and I’ve decided they’re a bit like cars. When my dad bought a car I would notice that model of car in a way that I never had before, I mean, I knew they existed but I’d never noticed them like that. I would see hundreds, everywhere I went they jumped out at me; in motion, parked, in car yards, at great distances, there they were en masse seemingly outnumbering all other models and makes. And now I see psychopaths everywhere.
Every second person causes me to think: “Hey, you might be a psychopath.” Displays of shallow affect, callus disregard, Grandiose Self-Worth – things that before seemed annoying and unfortunate now seem evidence of a malfunctioning brain. A brain that doesn’t feel empathy. Literally doesn’t care; doesn’t suffer a flinch or a wince or a moment, just a moment of reconsideration.

These brains are hardwired differently, their amygdale doesn’t behave in the same way non psychopathic amygdale’s do. When those ‘normal’ brains see photos of: A Dog, A Field of Poppies, A Brand New Home, The Entrails of a Woman, A Kitten, their brains upon viewing the mutilated female send sharp neural signals into the amygdale that produce sensations of fear, aversion and sadness. Psychopathic brains do not.
Jon Ronsons’ book The Psychopath Test tells the story of psychopaths from back before their brain functions revealed them as peculiar. Ronson’s journalist style has been critized as being too solipsistic but it’s his interest that moves the story along. So where a more conservative journalist might focus on one aspect and hit it hard Ronson follows his nose from Bob Hare Psychopath Test seminars to the headquarters of the British Scientologist’s anti psychiatry sect. He delves into the endless mishaps and ill-guided, yet often well intentioned, psychiatric practice then into the home of persecuted Haitian despot Toto Constant who strangely shows Ronson, with some pride, his collection of fast food chain plastic toys.

I had read Ronson’s earlier book Men Who Stare at Goats and was recently reminded of Ronson whilst listening to a This American Life podcast about psychopaths where they read an excerpt of Ronson hunting corporate psychopaths, his theory being that they’d likely be lurking at the top turning business deals with no remorse. Think: Patrick Bateman. And from the moment I started reading I was emphatically unwilling to stop.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of psychopathy is how interested everyone is in it, it’s not just me. Peoples eyes literally light up at the mention of a non fiction book dealing with psychopaths. I suspected mine glowed a little too. I mean here is a subset of society (roughly 1% out there among us) who’s most outstanding features seem to imply that the presence of a devil and evil itself might not actually be as unreasonable as us secular folk think. Sure it’s not biblical really considering that it’s scientific evidence that brought them onto our radar but I can’t help but think that the interest in psychopathy stems from a desire for biblical drama (think: recent vampire craze) – one where an unstoppable force of evil  hides out amongst us, willing, at no reasonable provocation, to tear us limb from limb. Oh the excitement!
Reading the book from the safe confines of my bed gave me a thrill reminiscent to how I’d feel when I was little and playing Murder in the Dark – though granted there was no ‘Psychopath’ card handed out mandating that instead of tapping a victim on the shoulder you had to rape and slash them. So the stakes were lower, but the vicarious thrill distinctly similar.

Aside from the obvious fascination with what a lack of empathy makes someone capable of, Ronson also looks into the field of psychiatry. Whilst shaking it firmly he causes some very troubling truths to tumble free. For instance the manual used to diagnose mental illness, The DSM, is made up of suggestions given and agreed upon in a caucus like setting.  Under the aegis of a one Robert Spitzer in 1980 it went from a list of 182 disorders in a 134 page booklet to having 265 diagnostic categories in a 494 page long tome. What this means, in essence, is that people were far more likely to be found mad in 1980 (and now, for that matter) then they were in the preceding years.
Spitzer’s logic was born out of a desire to remove as much human diagnostic error from the process of psychiatry but what it did was make the world’s population seem severely mentally deranged. And then of course came the pharmaceutical companies. One of the more troubling aspects of this being the high rate of diagnosis in children who are behaving like children but who can now be justifiable medicated for that. That’s not to discredit the large number of people who do have a mental disorder and need it addressed but honestly, how fucked.

So now I see psychopaths, unnecessarily diagnosed people and Scientologists like i used to see BMW’s. But what’s more rewarding about this new form of ESP is that I got it from reading one of the funniest, fastest moving, widest ranging books I’ve picked up since Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things. But more on that later.

Oh and check to see if you’re a psychopath here: Psychopath Test to save me some time.


One Response to “Psychopaths”

  1. holly June 26, 2011 at 6:04 pm #

    wow, can i borrow this book..

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