Friday, May 28, 2010

A theory of psychopathy

One previous explanation for psychopathic tendencies has been a reduced capacity to make inferences about the mental states of other people, an ability known as Theory of Mind (ToM). On the other hand, psychopaths are also known to be extremely good manipulators and deceivers, which would imply that they have good skills in inferring the knowledge, needs, intentions, and beliefs of other people. Therefore, it has been suggested recently that ToM is made up of different aspects: a cognitive part, which requires inferences about knowledge and beliefs, and another part which requires the understanding of emotions.
 The study compared the ability to understand emotional aspects of other's minds in known psychopaths, people with damage to the frontal lobes, people with other kinds of brain damage, and normals. Psychopaths and people with damaged frontal lobes showed the same pattern of impairments.

I've known a few psychopaths over the years. They're scary. And it could be that it's just an organic dysfunction of the frontal lobes. Of course, I've long presumed that it was some organic thing in the brain.

So if it's a brain condition they are born with, we can no more hold it against them personally than we can hold it against someone that they are gay, or left-handed, or short, or conservative, or militaristic. But we don't have to let them hurt us. Psychopaths being evil is no more just a set of behaviors than being gay is. It's deep in their selves.

This leads to an idea I find repugnant. Suppose we find a brain signature that identifies psychopaths with 100% accuracy at birth. What do we do with these cute little babies who will grow up to rape and pillage society? Do we drown them at birth? Do we send them to live on an island with other psychopaths? Do we make them wear a scarlet P? Or maybe a GPS ankle bracelet? Do you track them in school and give them extra counseling? Some sort of psychotherapy?

Or worse, suppose the test identifies them with 2% false positives and 2% false negatives. If you do any of the above,  you're ruining 2 out of a hundred kids.

Or as a child care provider, you find out the biter in the toddler room was identified in the test, what do you do? How do you treat a kid that you know has a 98% chance of being evil? Or even a 50% chance?

Our only hope is for science to find the specific deficits and a way to ameliorate them. I wonder what inhaled oxytocin would do to psychopaths. Or inject empathy stem cells into their frontal lobes.

No comments:

Post a Comment