Friday, November 7, 2008

So, How Big is Your Amygdala?

So what is a psychopath anyway? For most of us, say the word and the Charlie Manson’s, the Hannibal Lector’s, the Jack the Ripper’s spring to mind. Tough to argue that these characters definitely do qualify. Clinically, it’s a tad more complicated though than donning a goalie’s mask when you own a carving set and no skates; or firing up the latest version of your Stihl MS 460 and waiting for the next, naïve, car load of unsuspecting teenagers to roll into the front yard. There’s that penchant for telling porkies; for picking fights – just to pick a fight; for generally finding yourself on the questionable side of the bars – the steel ones, not the fun ones; for sporting an emotional ‘body temperature’ somewhere between cold and frozen – that would be conscienceless; for having the capacity to sustain relationship somewhere between a junk yard dog and a hooker (without the heart) . . . to mention a few of the more endearing features.

I recently attended a symposium conducted by one of the more renowned researchers in this field, Robert Hare, as I searched for interesting ways to spend my summer vacation – and do the regular upgrading that allows me to distinguish these folks from those of us in the general population. (Not everyone carries a loaded assault rifle and dresses in Goth or army fatigues.) Bob has not only identified the twenty, cardinal features that single out likely candidates; but has managed to demonstrate some rather interesting differences in the way these characters’ brains work when presented emotionally charged material. In a nutshell, it amounts for your average psychopath to reacting (at a cortical level) in about the same way whether you’re looking at Rembrandt or road kill. (Seen No Country For Old Men yet?)

But the truly telling feature is the absence of a little, very human feature called ‘empathy’. The everyman definition of empathy goes something like: ‘the capacity to understand and identify with another’s perspective; to experience the same feelings as another; putting oneself in another’s shoes’ . . . and so on. A slightly more discerning element is ‘the ability to accurately discriminate the emotional state / response of another (to one’s actions)’. And Bob has tossed us another curve in his most recent book, Snakes in Suits. These folks are not only walking around amongst us – but are so good at insinuating themselves into our good graces, are so superficially attractive to us that we actually welcome them, admire their 100 watt smiles, and are impressed by their firm hand shakes.

As is so often the case, Lynn’s eloquent homilies trigger lots of thought for me – just not always the bright and sunny ones. Her deconstruction of the metaphoric meanings of ‘salt’ – in particular, the “you may be the only gospel your neighbour reads” closing – really stuck with me; and sure enough, reflections on not only how we speak and conduct ourselves, whatever our best intentions might be – but also how these words and actions are perceived by those on the receiving end; how we are experienced by others, began to boil and bubble.

So what does all this have to do with the closet Ted Bundy’s lurking in the narthex? Well, in making this connection, partly it’s helpful to be inside the mind of a psychologist whose charge it is to spot and tag such specimens – although Nicola’s forever pointing out that “not everyone thinks like you!” (I can only assume that the unexpressed parenthetical is – “and a good thing, too”.) At the risk of being a bit too reductionist, a view commonly held (and seemingly supported by Hare’s research) is that ‘psychopaths are born, not made’. This is certainly not to say that this is strictly a nature (vs. nurture – you know, the genes we walk around with vs. the families that ‘brung us up’) issue. But essentially, the brain is subtly different in structure – and therein lies the root of many of those nasty little predispositions I’ve listed above. And that would include the capacity for empathy and it’s extension; namely our capacity to monitor the impact of what we say and do and to ‘read’ the impact these words and deeds have on those around us.

In short, if we accept the teachings of these extremes in behaviour, some of us can ‘see’ what we’re saying and the potential good (or ill) it might engender; and some of us can’t – all a function of the hard wiring we bring to the task. Some of us get stuck in the ‘rightness’ of our perspective and are really unable to get past the content of our ‘personal gospel’ (that our neighbours are reading). And some of us are better equipped to ‘take the temperature’ of the exchange, let go of the content to an extent, and adjust our ‘message’ – largely predicated on the reactions of that vulnerable and under-read neighbour. Some of us are pure teachers (in Lynn’s metaphor, the ‘book’ on this subject or that), secure in the knowledge that what we’re sharing and how it’s framed is, well, just what is. Some of us are endowed with a capacity to attend – in our empathic model, to listen to our words, our gospel and appreciate not just its message, but its impact, its reception. All a function of a little structure buried deep in our brain and one most of us would struggle to spell, much less pronounce: the Amygdala.

So as we venture ‘out there’, as Lynn homilized, as we carry our particular gospel to those next door, two blocks over, or beside us on the bus, let us be mindful of, let us be sensitive to – to the extent we are able – the ‘what’ we pass along and most particularly the ‘how’ we are heard. We forego, ignore, or are simply insensitive to the latter at our peril, alienating where we most wish to foster; disaffecting those we most wish to include. For we may indeed be the only gospel our neighbour reads.

David Howard

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