The Psychopath: Emotion and the Brain
I have always been interested in trying to figure out what drives “psychopaths” to do the “crazy” things they do. I’ve also always feared watching scary movies because, the majority of the protagonists are really scary individuals who kill consistently without feeling guilt or remorse. It just so happens that I enjoy watching crime solving shows because it interests me how deeply thought out some murders can be and how one person has the capability to plan sick scenarios on how to kill their victims. I came across this book, The Psychopath: Emotion and the Brain, and automatically thought it would be the perfect book that will explain to me how and why psychopaths are defined as psychopaths. This book made me realize that those examples from the media have some realistic background, but are yet only portraying the over exaggerated examples of psychopathic behavior, and leave out the fact that a larger percentage of society has psychopathic tendencies than we would like to think.
The book addresses these five main questions in a clear way that allows you to go in-depth, into the real issues that are causing this behavior. The main questions are: what is psychopathy? Are there psychopaths amongst us? What is wrong with psychopaths? Is psychopathy due to nature or nurture? And can we treat psychopaths? It is pointed out in this book that there is a difference between an anti-social person presenting ant-social behavior from a psychopath with anti-social behavior. The main difference in the two is that the anti-social person continues to present themselves as caring and emotionally affected by hurting people they care about. Whereas, an anti-social person with psychopathic tendencies lacks the ability to fear any pain, guilt or remorse after hurting anyone; they are capable of hurting people, children, animals whether any of these people are close to them or not. This fact makes them much more dangerous than anti-social people because anti-socials have a limit to the pain they can cause other people, the majority of their faults are theft and violence but nonetheless still present emotions of care, love or respect. Psychopaths for this matter, not only have aggressive violent behavior towards material objects, private property, but also to living things such as people and animals.
At the very beginning of the book, the reader is presented with four examples of anti-social clients separated into two groups: children anti-social and adult anti-social. In each group there is one person who is just anti-social and the other whom is anti-social presenting psychopathic tendencies. In the first psychopathic example, the boy of 11 years of age presents no guilt or pain in having hurt animals or of almost killing one of his classmates, instead he laughs it off and says that he would have continued if he had not been stopped. In the second example, an adult man in jail is incarcerated for having had many delinquent records but also having had killed someone. This man presents no guilt in having killed the person, and sub-sequentially pleads not guilty for his trial even though he was guilty and he is going to be in jail for the rest of his life.
As we studied in class, most things in life are a construction of the brain. Emotions are a construction of the brain created through our experiences. Just the same, being able to read other people’s emotions is a construction of a brain, but has a specific organ in the brain that helps us with this function; the amygdala is responsible for this function. It just so happens that this book describes the reason why psychopaths are incapable of having emotions is because there is a dysfunction in their amygdala. The amygdala’s main role is to deal with processing memory and emotional reactions. The following excerpt is the summary in the book that explains this idea:
“The amygdale influences the behavioral expression of basic emotional reactions. It influences the level of the startle reflex by priming the subcortical basic threat circuitry as a result of activation by conditioned stimuli. In addition, it allows conditioned stimuli to come to elicit unconditioned responses. Failures in these functions in individuals with psychopathy are strongly indicative of pathology within the amygdala” (Blair 117).
This, in turn, explains why psychopaths have little or no reaction to other people’s pain. Their brain doesn’t have the functional capability of reading those emotions of others and thus feel no remorse when they see someone crying and screaming. This picture is frightening because popular culture doesn’t take the time to explain what is going on with these people and insist on portraying them as inhuman criminals. Effectively they are criminals with no apparent care for others, but this book explains that this phenomenon is not always a conscious act of criminality. Rather, the brain has no way of coding the difference between right and wrong or guilt and pain. We are told that these people know what they are doing and actually enjoy killing or hurting others, explaining why many of them turn into what popular culture known as “serial killers”.
The book was reader friendly because it guides you through the steps of learning, from the basic vocabulary through the deeper scientific definitions, theories and cases that have been studied. In addition to the step-by-step guide, the book also provides summaries after difficult information is presented that could possibly confuse the reader. Also, each chapter ends with a conclusion that summarizes what has been learned in the chapter. It is a great source for those who want to learn about the “criminal mind” of the psychopath. However, at times I felt that the vocabulary being used was too much of an expert writing. I felt like it was meant only for professionals of this field to read because they know the vocabulary; but it is hard to keep up with the “scientific lingo” if you are not an expert on this subject. Overall, I enjoyed this book because I gave me the details that I needed to learn more about this topic that has always interested me.
Blair,James, Mitchell, Derek, and Blair, Karina. The psychopath: emotion and the brain. Malden, MA : Blackwell Pub., 2005.