Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Psychopaths: Some Metaphysics, Some Politics

One of the very first quotes I put up on this blog was back in May, 2006, and it was a quote about odd brainwaves a psychologist had found in people labeled as psychopaths: “…We Hadn’t Gathered Them From Aliens…”

Psychopaths are interesting because for many practical purposes they appear to be something very much like real life monsters. Psychiatrist Hervey Cleckley has written that psychopaths wear sanity like a mask.

There is no single test that can sort out psychopaths from normal people. Psychologists seem to agree, however, that if a professional has the opportunity to observe a person’s behavior over time, a psychopath almost always will be unable to disguise the dominance of their psychopathic tendencies.

Nobody knows what percentage of the population is composed of psychopaths. A common estimate today is that one percent of the population is made up of psychopaths. I believe this estimate is derived from studying prison populations and extrapolating to general populations. I’ve always wondered, however, if you could work backward and think conceptually: Psychopaths are, for many practical purposes, psychologically a different species of human being. One could say, perhaps poetically, that psychopaths are something like predators that view normal people as something like prey. In wild ecologies typical predator-to-prey ratios vary from twenty percent through forty percent predators. I strongly suspect that there is a larger percentage of psychopaths in the general population than the accepted number of one in a hundred. I strongly suspect someday research will document a ratio for psychopaths somewhere near the lower end of the wild predator-to-prey ratios. Perhaps something like one in ten.

Today I have two quotes related to psychopaths. There first is about the nuts-and-bolts of a psychopath’s brain. Scientists believe they have identified some physical differences between the brain of a psychopath and the brain of a normal person. The second is an old quote about politics. It was uttered in a purely political context and, in fact, it was spoken with a kind of pride. But hearing it in the context of psychopathology it sounds—to my ears—very much like what might be called a pseudo-ethical construct, or something like a mask that a psychopath might slip into, to disguise his impulsive, indulgent and essentially irrational behavior as something like normal behavior, something like reasonable behavior, something like human behavior.

Here is the metaphysics:

Psychopaths have brain structure abnormality

August 4, 10:52 AM • Meg Marquardt - Science News Examiner

Scientists have long searched for a biological basis for psychopathy, a behavioral disorder attributed to chronic immorality. While previous studies have found no clear evidence, Professor Declan Murphy of the Institute of Psychiatry at King's College London believes he has found an area of the brain that is decidedly different in a psychopath as compared to a normal person.

It is unsurprising that much of the research to date has focused on the amygdala (the part of the brain involved with emotions and aggression) and the orbitofrontal cortex (which deals in decision making). However, an unstudied area is the uncinate fasciculus (UF), a white matter region that connects the amygdala and the orbitofrontal cortex. While the UF may not have a direct behavioral role, its dysfunction may lead to abnormalities in the areas which it connects.

Using a precise form of MRI, Murphy studied the brains of those labeled as psychopaths who had been convicted of crimes ranging from manslaughter to repeated rapes. The imaging found “a significant reduction in the integrity of the small particles that make up the structure of the UF of psychopaths, compared to control groups of people with the same age and IQ. Also, the degree of abnormality was significantly related to the degree of psychopathy.”

When discussions turn to psychopaths and sociopaths, talk of criminal proceedings cannot be far behind. While the study was small and has not been repeated, the mind immediately wanders to a court room where MRI evidence is given to support the conviction of someone on trial for mass murder. The controversy of the topic is likely to be heated. Could a jury be convinced with biological proof that a person’s brain is marked with the brand of a psychopath?

That day, however, is probably far in the future. Dr Michael Craig, co-author of the study, stated, “If replicated by larger studies the significance of these findings cannot be underestimated. The suggestion of a clear structural deficit in the brains of psychopaths has profound implications for clinicians, research scientists and the criminal justice system.”

This research was published in Molecular Psychiatry.

Here is the politics. This is two paragraphs excerpted from a very long essay:

Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush

Published: October 17, 2004, The New York Times, Magazine

... In the summer of 2002, after I had written an article in Esquire that the White House didn't like about Bush's former communications director, Karen Hughes, I had a meeting with a senior adviser to Bush. He expressed the White House's displeasure, and then he told me something that at the time I didn't fully comprehend -- but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency.

The aide said that guys like me were ''in what we call the reality-based community,'' which he defined as people who ''believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.'' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ''That's not the way the world really works anymore,'' he continued. ''We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.'' ...

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