Patrick Sylvers, of the University of Washington, working with Patricia Brennan and Scott Lilienfeld of Emory, suspected that psychopaths may suffer from a deficit in "preattentive processing" -- the constant, automatic scanning of one's surroundings that takes place outside of conscious awareness. Theoretically, if children lack this basic cognitive machinery, they would never learn to decode normal signs of danger, and without this acquired fear, they would fail to socialize into adults with conscience.I hadn't heard the term pre-attentive processing, so I looked at the Wikipedia article for it and wasn't surprised to see that it is also associated with those on the autism spectrum. Apart from that, I still am not quite sure why the lack of preattentive processing would cause attentional problems. Presumably it's because certain things never even show up on the sociopath's radar, so of course they would never consciously/attentively register them?
The scientists gave the boys a visual test that measures unconscious emotional processing. Specifically, they wanted to see if the test subjects, compared with normal boys of the same age, were slower to become aware of fearful faces that were flashed rapidly -- so rapidly that they were not registered by the conscious mind. If so, this would be evidence that the troubled boys are not automatically assimilating threatening cues in their world. They also flashed happy, disgusted and neutral faces for comparison.
The results, reported online in the journal Psychological Science, were clear and provocative. Indeed, they comprise the first evidence ever that kids with psychopathic traits have a significant deficiency in their automatic, unconscious processing of certain cues -- especially fear cues, but also cues for disgust. Fear and disgust are closely related in the primitive mind, and the findings suggest that these troubled kids have a fundamental impairment in recognizing -- "in the blink of an eye" -- any kind of social danger. So perhaps the childhood roots of Hannibal Lecter's murderous personality lay not in fearlessness itself, nor even in his conscious thought processes, but rather in his general social cluelessness.
The subject area is ripe for exploration. If this is a primary causal factor in sociopathic behavior, can this be treated? For instance, the wiki article suggests that by consciously focusing on particular tasks, preattentive processing will improve for information related to those specific tasks. How do preattentive processing defects relate (if at all) to sociopath/autistic supersensitivities or the concept of hyperfocus? Is it like how paraplegic people have super strong arms to compensate for the lost use of their legs? And on a more personal level, could this explain why my learning curve is shaped like an exponential function instead of a gradual increase, i.e. extremely flat at the beginning then sloping steeply up?
As I've said before, I really relate to the attentional theories for sociopathy, I'm very curious to see where this new research leads us.
A quick word on the who wrote the blurb -- this is the guy who advocates in his book that people force more thoughts out of their subconscious and into the conscious mind, something that I have always done both naturally and explicitly. You almost wonder if this guy is not a sociopath himself, or at least has trained himself to see the world more sociopathically. By the way, if you're interested in becoming similarly more sociopathic, Amazon tells me there are a slew of reading options including (according to one reviewer): THE ART OF CHOOSING, THE INVISIBLE GORILLA, THE HIDDEN BRAIN, PREDICTABLY IRRATIONAL, or MISTAKES WERE MADE (BUT NOT BY ME)
The abstract for the paper is here.
The abstract for the paper is here.