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Thursday, February 7, 2013

Tales of a transitory psychopath 2

I don't know if you know this but if you're normal, you have amygdala areas in your brain. These control your emotions and fears and when suppressed, allow you think with ruthless logic untroubled by almost anything else; just your own survival.

   It seems that's what kicked in when I faced that tricky situation on the motorbike. I've heard several similar stories (some mentioned in comments by readers of Part 1) and you may well have experienced the same lack of fear on your own behalf or for others. Suppression of response to its signals allows you to ignore anything else except for the best way to tackle the task at hand.

   The amazing thing is this; in some people, that spot in the brain doesn't respond to anything. They have few if any fears about personal safety, they think with utter calm, and they have no conscience. All they know is that they have an objective, and nothing else matters.

   These are true psychopaths. They do very well in the military for special ops and in matters where a conscience would get in the way.

   Some psychopaths can be serial killers, but few are. The words often are used interchangeably and they should not be. Serial killers are probably psychopaths, but they are a sub-group. Some of those we regard in society as great achievers have strong psychopathic tendencies. They're going to achieve their goal no matter what it takes and who gets hurt. Sexual predators are also a stark example. Their amygdala area is vastly underused.

   All people with emotions are on the psychopathy scale somewhere. Some of us can damp it down almost to nothing for limited periods, and others can't at all. They're the ones most likely to panic in an emergency.

   I was given a reference by Mark Colvin to a fascinating article about a Cambridge researcher named Kevin Dutton who spent some time with an British military officer with this quality of no amygdala response. His daredevil life must be beyond the understanding of most of us. The article documented some of his actions. To most of us, they are unimaginable.

   Dutton allowed an experiment to be performed on his brain, where the amygdala was dampened down electromagnetically so that he could experience what it was like to be a psychopath – for twenty minutes or so. It was, he said, to be "suddenly locked down into a hypnotically deep code red of extreme and ruthless focus."

   In tests demanding skill, logic and daring, he performed far beyond anything he'd been capable of before. From that brief experience, he knew what it was like to 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.

Leaving aside the fact that the true psychopath doesn't have a conscience, it shows yet again what the brain is capable of when it can switch these responses on and off. It happened again to me when I had that first seizure, and even more when Tracey answered the phone from the neurosurgeon in Newcastle telling us that my tumour was highly malignant.

   I remember that feeling of switching off emotions. All I said to Tracey was, "What's the way we deal with this? What are the steps we take now?"

   That was it.

   For most of the time since, it's been that way. It's not courage or anything like that. It's just that I'm one of those people, probably like you, who doesn't always collapse in a screaming heap when there's an emergency. 

    Well, not yet anyway. This is going to be tested much more severely.

Afterthought: I should have said when I first posted this that the amigdala in Tracey's brain must be flipping on and off constantly, which, I must say, has been enormously to my benefit.
October 22, 2012
"Psychopathy's Double Edge"
By Kevin Dutton [Original brain image, adapted by me.]
psycho 1 | psycho 2


  1. You are FABULOUS! That was my thought when reading this while remembering what you are currently going through.

    Psychopath, hmm. I am clearly not one, since I react with extreme emotion to every, everyday situation, much to my continual exhaustion.But once I was in a canoe on a river with a child in my charge, and we were swept away. Even at the time I was pleased with my calm, logical reactions. I 'saved' us.

    So interesting. Isn't the human mechanism extraordinary. Yes, we become calm when in extremis. That is survival, when there is no room for hysterics. At least, I hope so.Perhaps this is the 'higher self' taking charge, rather than the ego driven drama king :) of the 'small self'.

    Yes, I'll go with that hopeful thought. Though a psychologist would argue it away ,probably.

    Julie M xx

    1. Pretty sure it's not too uncommon. I have the strongest feeling that women have the greater capacity to switch it on and off as required. What do you think?

  2. Whew!! Glad to know that I am not a psychopath of the dangerous kind. I guess that crying at La Traviata and suffering nervous tension when the podiatrist cuts my toenails (I can't reach them!) are saving graces.

    This has been an interesting phenomenon to explore. In some ways a regret, in other ways a relief, to know that I am not alone.



  3. It seems my inner psychopath leapt to life when Carl had his heart attack. I was ruthlessly methodical, getting everything done, emotions under control. And then I dreamt that myself and a male companion locked a 5 year old girl in a room behind a large glass window. The child cried deeply and with abandon as we walked up the street, leaving her behind the glass, alone.

    That dream disturbed me, so later, I practised an Active Imagination exercise in which I imagined myself back in the dream. I went into the room where the child was. She was still crying. She looked at me and threw an enormous tantrum on the floor. I said, "Who do you think you are, Linda Blair?" She calmed down. I took her hand and we walked out of the room and up the same street I had previously walked.

    I see now that my silenced amigdala, represented by the male figure (repressed emotions, heightened logic) imprisoned my inner child. A necessary act at the time, but not a satisfactory long term solution to difficult problems. After the Active Imagination exercise I dreamt that a dry dam with a cracked bottom suddenly errupted in clear, clean, sweet fresh water and overflowed its banks.

    1. Wow! Is Active Imagination the same as Lucid Dreaming? I seem lately to remember just enough about my dream to know I'd like to recall it.

    2. Active Imagination and Lucid Dreaming are very different. In Lucid Dreaming you are awake in your dreams. You know you are dreaming and therefore you can act with conscious volition in your dreams. You can talk to dream characters, change the nature of the dream, fly, whatever you want.

      I haven't had a significant lucid dream for years, but while I was doing lucid dream training about 15 years ago, I got quite good at it. Problem was the excercises during the day were taking up too much of my time, so I gave it away.

      Active Imagination is a meditation technique developed by Carl Jung. You are fully awake while practising. It allows access to the subconscious processes of your mind that give rise to dreams and fantasies.

      For accessing and further understanding dream material, you sit quietly, keeping an aspect of the dream in mind. You then follow that aspect back into the dream, as far as you can remember, allowing you to ask questions of dream characters, witness what else might arise out of the dream material, and basically interact with the dream, allowing further meaning and memory to arise.

      You can do the same with imaginative material, following images or feelings back to their subconsious source. Or, you can just sit quietly and allow whatever arises to arise. When an image comes up, you can focus on that image and allow it to "speak" to you.

      Basically, in AI you suspend your conscious, literal, logical, ego-focused mind and allow the unconscious to speak to you in the language it knows best -- images, intuitions, feelings, symbols.

    3. Plain old meditation's looking good. :) Thus my limited knowledge of Jung is exposed. He makes good sense in aspects of Indian philosophy but I won't go into it here.

  4. I picked up ages ago from somewhere the idea that amygdala are almond shaped. I've no idea why I'm slightly disappointed to discover (judging by your diagram) that they are not. I wonder if it is my non-almond shaped amygdala that are responsible for my disappointment at their non-almond shape

    1. In the article, the amygdala were described as peanut shaped. Does this make you feel any better? It may just be a case of mixed nuts. Or packet.

    2. There is clearly some mysterious attraction to nuts when humans try to describe their own minds (and of course, as I remember every time I put on my bicycle helmet - the brand is something like 'Nutcase' - that also extends to the brain's container)

  5. I'd rather have an almond brain than a peanut brain. I'll stick with the almonds.


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