Thursday, May 31, 2012

Weak sense of self

A reader sent me this interesting lecture from Stanford Lecturer Kelly McGonigal about the neuroscience behind self-referential processing.  She sums up the main point of her argument thusly: "we carry the seeds of suffering in our own minds, primarily through the human mind's habit of carefully constructing and then rigidly defending a sense of self that is based on our preferences, our attitudes, our beliefs, and our personal stories and that it's this churning of the self machine that gives rise to so much of our daily suffering."

It discusses whether there is some way to have a self-awareness that does not engage the self-referential processing, i.e. an experiential self that is not based on the narrative of self-referential processing or the stories we tell ourselves, but rather is based on "the awareness of the constantly changing feelings, thoughts, and things going on in our environment".  The answer is yes, but only among people who are trained in meditation.  My personal experiences and anecdotal knowledge regarding sociopaths suggests to me that this would also include sociopaths, who naturally have a weak sense of self (see also here), and seem to experience self-awareness almost entirely as the experiential self, not the self-referential self (using her lexicon).

It's interesting too that this lecture was apparently given at a Buddhist conference.  I have never bothered to learn much about Buddhism, but people have frequently remarked here on how the sociopath's detachment from self and lack of anxiety regarding outcomes is what many Buddhists hope to accomplish in order to achieve Nirvana. And sociopaths just happen to be born that way.

Here's what the reader wrote:

There's 3 categories in the experiment:
1) non-meditators
2) recent meditators
3) experienced meditators

My understanding of what happens:
Category 1 feels the pain, then thinks "how long will this go on, why me? oh shit? get away, get away!"

Category 2 feels the pain and focuses on their breathing. They ignore the pain as best they can by focusing on something else. Meditation has given them the ability to concentrate, so they concentrate on something other than the pain.

Category 3 feels the pain and tries to feel and examine it as best they can. They are so busy doing that, moment by moment, they aren't thinking, "why me, how long will this go on" etc. because when they really focus on what they are sensing, as opposed to how things aren't how they would like it, they lose their sense of self.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The criminal element

A reader writes:

I discovered I was a sociopath only several days ago. It took me 30 years of self-introspection. Finding you site finally connected me to something. I'm not sure what it means exactly that I've finally been realized by myself, but it's calming. I am not a criminal and have rarely been involved with the law on any level. I also have no craving to break the law. I DO have a craving not to go to prison, so that's probably part of it. I do not wish to psychologically harm others, but I do. Why am I not a criminal? I fit every exact thought and description of a sociopath, yet I do not commit crimes.

I find myself wishing there was a person who could help study us without being motivated by the fact that they need to be scared of us and that sociopath = criminal.

My response:

I think that sociopaths naturally exploit what is easiest to exploit. If a sociopath was born on a farm, maybe he would become a farmer. If his parents were academics, maybe he would become a scholar. If he was born on skid row, he would probably become a criminal. He would recognize that he has a natural advantage in a particular world and try to exploit that natural advantage. I have never been interested in being a career criminal, but I also don't have the sorts of connections or advantages that would lend themselves for that type of life for me. Instead, it has been much easier for me to play the racket that is the highly intelligent, consultant type role. People want me to tell them what their problem is, and that is easy and interesting enough to engage me. There is no pull to break the law just because it happens to be the law -- I get no particular thrill from breaking a law, just from the inherent interest of the activity itself. If I do break the law, it just happens without regard to the law.

I also wish that there were more people studying so called successful sociopaths.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

On becoming a sociopath (female)

From a reader:
In terms of ASPD: I still am, to a degree, but I am much less inclined to that disorder than I was as a  child. For the high-functioning sociopath, it is mandatory for him to have a relationship with himself. He lacks any sort of internal social inhibition, and therefore, he doesn't automatically incorporate the majority ethics. As a kid, I was at my most impulsive. Until I came to develop a code rooted in reason, rather than guilt, I was all over the place. People take for granted "right" and "wrong,” and many don’t question the ‘why’ behind it until they are much older, because they may cruise along on autopilot with the common knowledge that stealing is bad, and that they feel bad. If the sociopath can't introspect, however, he'll grow into a dangerous criminal as he hits adulthood and gains the means. For the sociopath, he has to mature early in, or face possible legal consequences for the rest of his life.  Although being a female and a sociopath is unique, I am fortunate in this respect. If I were a man, there’s a great chance that I would not have made it.
I hate to sound sexist, but it’s the truth: men are typically stronger than women. At the age of eight, I was already fantasizing about sex crimes. I remember thinking, verbatim, that it wasn’t “enough to love. You have to rip apart.” For me, cuddling and kissing could only go so far before the emptiness sank in. The threshold was reached, and boredom stirred. A man, or woman, could satisfy with soft whispers and affection to a point. Then, to overcome that boundary, sadism came to play. The only way I felt that I could truly share something with another human being, was to torture and to push him over the edge. There was excitement in this, and my own brand of worship. I didn’t realize that my desire was abnormal. For a long time, I didn’t realize that others weren’t like me. I observed them, and I thought that we were putting on a show, and so I acted, too. I watched and waited, half-expecting an explosion as one of us broke. It never came. Every now and again, I saw them clearly and was slammed with questions. "Is this real?" I wanted to capture their faces, to make them look at me. I lived in denial.
Bottom line: I stayed out of prison because I lacked the brute muscles to kill, and the dedication to go through with plans (I had constructed a motif in my head). Twice, I snapped on human beings and did everything in my carnal power to injure them, craving their expressions, because the fear and shock filled up a void within me. It was a foreign substance, and, as such, I took it as a druggie. 
I was let down in my weakness. I didn’t go after children my age, but lashed out against men who I perceived as strong. I wanted the triumph of breaking them, and I fell short. It was humiliating to have revealed and lost. Thus, I retreated to my intellect, and became the cult-starter. I manipulated without touch, and although, in the end, the new approach could have proved even more dangerous than the corporeal given my structure, I was appeased by little stunts, and, thankfully, came to my senses before moving onto greater defeats. Honestly, I just grew up, and trust me when I say that if I had waited even another year, given the crowd that I had gathered, things would be different. I have formalized legal opinions now, and a definition for good and evil, but I don’t possess the faculty of remorse. I can regret: regret meaning, I can find the consequences of something not to my enjoyment, and I can wish that I had acted otherwise, but, if not caught, I don’t have remorse, in that I don’t feel guilt for doing what I see as justifiably illegal. Hence, my version of “right” and “wrong” revolves around what is good for me, psychologically. Unrestrained, I slip and intentionally perform acts which I reject, lawfully, when statistics suggest a lapse in capture, but I do try to avoid this more often than not, because, regardless of how good I am, it’s never surefire.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Choosing self-awareness

This blog is an interesting resource directed specifically at those with narcissistic personality disorder.  I have always sort of assumed that narcissists are by their nature unaware of their self deception.  However, the author appears to be a self-aware narcissist.  Not only that, he posts advice to other narcissists about how to choose self-awareness themselves.  I think it's actually good advice for everyone, and is especially helpful in understanding how to deal with irrational or self-deceived people:

One big problem narcissists have is that they perceive people (including themselves) negatively. This is part of being out of touch with reality. Suppose you act like a jerk. In order to feel good about yourself, you convince yourself others have it coming to them, by distorting reality. Or you’ll goad others so that they’ll retaliate, allowing you to convince yourself that others are the bad guys.

The solution is to act on your good impulses so you have no need to self-justify:

To the extent you have impulses to be helpful or nice to others or yourself, you should try to carry out the impulses. E.g. if you see someone that needs help and you think, “I should help,” you really should. The reason: if you don’t, you’ll find a way to blame the other person so that you can feel you did the right thing by not helping. You’ll see that person negatively. As before, you may even goad them into attacking you, so that you can feel better about yourself.

The solution is simple: when around other people, pay attention. If you have an impulse to help them, do it. Do this again and again. If you forget and catch yourself not paying attention, just start over.

He also recommends zen meditation and some other interesting advice about how to recognize and process feelings of shame.  And more specifically about cultivating self-awareness:

Try to develop a friendly curiosity about yourself. Somehow you got to the present without paying much attention. Now is a good time to start paying attention. Try to notice your thoughts. Try to feel whatever you feel. Watch yourself making judgments. See how you spend your time. The key here is the attitude. You aren’t studying yourself coldly. You are, in a friendly way, trying to observe what you do. The reason is that “friendly” is less-threatening than “cold”. You are more likely to see all aspects of yourself if you observe yourself with friendly curiosity.
Pay attention to things as you act. That way after the fact, you’ll be able to look back and remember what happened. The goal is to get away from reacting and instead become someone that acts deliberately.
The neat thing here is that you get to catch yourself deluding yourself. You are routinely lying to yourself. You’ve got the chance to catch yourself and watch it happen.
The alternative to self-awareness is being asleep and living a life of self-delusion and misery.

This post about self-deception is also very interesting, in which he cites this article (see also this book):

Humans are invested in seeing themselves as ethical creatures. We want to believe in the rightness of our own conduct, to see our lives as a series of mostly well-intentioned decisions. And it appears that we'll go to great lengths to feel that way, even if it means warping our own sense of morality to suit our needs.

This is why I don't want people to feel indebted to me.  I have narcissists and other self-deceived people in my family, circle of acquaintances, and group of business associates.  Those type of people cannot stand to feel indebted to someone else -- it goes against their own sense of self worth.  So what they will do is try to make up a story in which they are not really indebted to me, perhaps because what I gave them was not really worth much, or perhaps by imputing some sort of ulterior motive to me.  Or maybe they might imagine a story in which I am really just paying them back for something that I have long been ungrateful for.  Whatever the means, the purpose is always the same: to make them feel like they are in the right, even if it means convincing themselves that I am in the wrong.  It is not at all worth it to me, so I am very careful to preemptively downplay anything I might happen to do for them.

I have to say that I hate self-deceived people.  Sometimes they email me or I see them commenting on posts.  I wonder if they realize how obvious they are.  Maybe they can, in the way that we sometimes suspect we have bad breath but can never really be sure.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Song: I get a kick out of you

I was absentmindedly singing this song to myself the other day and thought, this is actually pretty accurately a sociopathic perspective.  I get obsessed with people sometimes just because I get a kick out of them, and there aren't a lot of things that do that thing for me.  Of course I will not let that person go (at least not easily) as long as I continue to get that kick from them.  It should be flattering to the other person, but I can also see how it could be creepy and threatening.

My story is much too sad to be told,
But practically ev'rything leaves me totally cold.
The only exception I know is the case
Where I'm out on a quiet spree
Fighting vainly the old ennui
And I suddenly turn and see
Your fabulous face.

I get no kick from champagne.
Mere alcohol doesn't thrill me at all,
So tell me why should it be true
That I get a kick out of you?

Some get a kick from cocaine.
I'm sure that if I took even one sniff
That would bore me terrific'ly too,
Yet I get a kick out of you.

I get a kick ev'rytime I see
You're standing there before me.
I get a kick though it's clear to me
You obviously don't adore me.

I get no kick in a plane.
Flying too high with some guy in the sky
Is my idea of nothing to do,
Yet I get a kick out of you.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Fictional sociopaths: Don't trust the B in Apt 23

A reader sent me this article about a new television show.  From an article entitled: "Chloe From Don’t Trust The B In Apt 23 Could Be The Sociopathic BFF You Always Wanted":

Never in my life did I think I would actively pursue a sociopathic roommate that makes my life more challenging and more dangerous on a weekly basis. But after watching Don’t Trust The B in Apartment 23 this season I’m adding it to my list of “people I want in my life.”

There’s something magnetic about her character Chloe. Something that makes you root for her even after she does the unthinkable. Like taking in a foster child to use as a personal assistant or secretly selling June’s baking videos to a sexual festish site to make rent money. And yes, by the end of every episode she learns a lesson about morals and human decency. But never quite the right lesson.

It’s like if Danny Tanner lectured DJ Tanner about the evils of smoking cigarettes and she turnd to binge drinking instead. Chloe listens and Chloe comprehends and Chloe interprets the lesson in her own way. It’s magical and it’s slightly wrong and it’s something you rarely see on TV. And that’s exactly what makes it so refreshing.

How cool is it that there’s a female character on television who puts herself first. She may not always put herself first at the right time or in the right situations, but she always puts herself first. She knows what she wants and she does what she needs to do to get it done. Yes, she has moments where she tires to help June and James.

But if it comes down to her happiness or theirs, she’ll choose her happiness any day of the week. That’s what probably what makes her a sociopath, but it’s also what makes her some kind of backwards role model for women who are so used to pleasing everyone else in their lives.

After watching so many characters on TV like June, who are go-getters sacrificing their youth to acheive their career dreams, it’s so wonderful to see a character just enjoying her life. A character who exemplifies selfishness in its human form and reminds us that it’s okay to look out for yourself. It’s okay to care about yourself more than you care about others.

I confirmed this with my friend, that with regard to being friends with a sociopath, "the pros outweigh the cons."

Friday, May 25, 2012

Sociopaths, loss, and fungibility

I have been thinking about loss recently. I have always thought that I treat people as being more fungible than they are used to being treated. I once warned a friend that i was likely to use her up like a paper napkin and dispose of her. I have always understood what a "friend of convenience" meant to me, and treated those people accordingly. I am unable to care for those people unconditionally. The kindness I show them is directly proportional to the value they have to me.

When I was younger, I was as quick to make "friends" with inanimate objects as they were real people. One particular "friend" has stuck with me through the years. He is as valuable to me as most actual friends, and perhaps even some family members. I lost him once and was able to reclaim him only through hard work, brilliant problem solving, and luck. Since then I have been very careful with him, until recently. I was scheduled for a long trip and wanted my friend to come along, but was worried for his safety. I started searching for a substitute on the internet and chanced upon his twin available for sale. When substitute friend came in the post, he looked different, and I still favored my old friend. Quickly, though, the two have become surprisingly interchangeable. Whatever my faults, I have always considered myself a rather loyal person by nature (Cancerian?), but here I was discarding a lifelong friend for someone who just fit nicely into the mold. But am I so different from empaths? One of the empaths in my life said the following about loss:
"One of the saddest things about death is that the world does go on, and you feel like that devalues the person that they were. Eventually even we move on, we fill the void that was left with other people. We have to, it's human nature."
However, she admits that void fillers won't ever be perfect. She remembers particularly her mother losing her parents, how painful that was, and how she was never able to find that type of relationship again, not like she expected to.
"People come in and out of our lives a lot. That's the nature of the beast. For some reason in our culture, only family sticks around, and even then certain family members will drift apart."
Death has never made me sad, maybe I because I've never cared that much about anyone who has died. I have lost people in other ways and been sad, but am I really sad for their loss? Or am I upset that they have left me? Angry at myself for failing to keep them around?

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Learning to be sociopathic (part 2)

My reply:

I do think that it is possible to learn to be more sociopathic. I frequently have people from the former Eastern Bloc who write to me and tell me that it seems like everyone in their country is sociopathic. I have visited other countries -- Vietnam, Egypt, Israel, the Netherlands, etc. -- that seem more naturally sociopathic than others. I think people who are raised in abusive situations become almost bilingual in the language of ASPD (if not necessarily sociopathy). And of course everyone can be trained to kill, if pushed to it.

I was actually thinking of how we train our mind to think in particular ways.  For example, I went to a graduate school with a particular philosophical bent.  Today I met someone else who went to the same school and caught up on a recent project that has been keeping me very busy.  I was surprised how easy it was to explain it to him.  I would start a sentence and he would finish it for me.  When I started telling him about a follow up project, I only had to begin giving him the premise and he immediately understood everything.  I was so charmed by the exchange because it reminded me of how pervasive that mentality is that we share.

In contrast, recently I have been trying to learn a new method of analysis and so I talk with people who come from a completely different discipline from mine.  It's so interesting hearing the way they see problems -- the things that interest them and their biases and blindspots are so different from my own.  Sometimes I see them making small errors, but it's actually hard to explain to them because they are, after all, blindspots and some people get so attached to a particular viewpoint.

I always tell people sociopathy is really only a competitive advantage just because its incidence is low.  It's like being left handed in certain sports like boxing.  There is nothing inherently better about left handedness over right handedness.  It's just that people are used to defending against the right handed, not the left.

I have also heard from people who have been raised by sociopathic parents who say that they also grow up bilingual in the language of sociopathy.  I think that is ultimately where most people will end up in their lives, at least the smart ones.  It's good to see things from different perspectives.  

Learning to be sociopathic (part 1)

A reader asks:

I’d like to raise a topic that I don’t believe has been discussed in full depths on your blog as of yet. I think it’s fair to say in all probability that ‘sociopaths’ can’t learn how to be ‘empathetic’, but can ‘empaths’ learn how to be ‘sociopathic’?

I first stumbled across your blog around 18 months ago, and I really was mesmerised. I scrolled through the pages until I had read every single blog post. Identifying similarities in the traits you discussed with my own. At last I had found the answer, I’d found who I was; I finally knew why I had always felt so different from other people. And it was that online epiphany that changed my life. The struggle I once had with myself; the internal fight I had every day to decipher which decisions to make was no longer there. I no longer undertook the mundane task of choosing between my impulses and what society had told me was ‘the right thing to do.’

I quickly learnt the advantages of manipulation, and I loved it. I manipulated the people around me, not because I wanted the things that they offered, but because I loved the thrill. The constant excitement of just seeing how much you can get out of people, while still having them worship the ground you walk on. On the occasional days I didn’t have evening company; I’d sit in the nearby orchard alone and think about the things I had accomplished, laughing for hours to myself at how ridiculously blind people really are. As crazy as it sounds, to me at that moment, I was God.

Since that initial epiphany all those months ago, a lot has changed in my life. I’ve achieved everything I could have only dreamt of before. I’ve made a successful business from nothing, climbed to the top of the social ladder, and married the girl I’ve been fascinated by since the age of 12. Yet I can’t help but ask myself, at what cost?

I’m going to be the first here to admit, I was a fake. I honestly don’t even know if ‘sociopaths’ even exist. But from the definitions found on this blog, I knew I wasn’t one, even if I liked to believe I share the same traits. At the time of finding your blog, I was in a low place, I had no friends, and I didn’t have a good job. My life was worthless and meant nothing. Then via reading the posts on this blog and finding fake similarities within myself, I was able to willfully delude myself into the belief that my life could mean something. That I could be who I wanted to be, do anything I wanted to, and most importantly just not care what others thought (which had always been what had held me back from achieving beforehand.) So I consciously learnt how to act like a sociopath, and how to shake off (dilute) the remorse and guilt for my negative actions towards others. It got easier and easier, and day by day I got better at it. It really was exhilarating; the most amazing internal experience of my life. Did I learn how to be a sociopath? But now I sit here wondering if I can ever get back what I lost in that pursuit? Will I ever feel my own empathy as I did before? And if I could, would I even want to?

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Seduction 102: Eye contact

When I am trying to seduce someone, there are myriad different adjustments I make in my demeanor and manner of speech, but I actually think the effect of all of those combined pale in comparison to one single behavior--sustained eye contact.  I noticed this a couple years ago.  I was sitting across the table from my target but we were talking about the most banal things--hypoglycemic indexes or something far from love/seduction.  To change it around, I decided to just stop talking so much and instead sustain eye contact.  It worked like a charm.  It felt like I was staring into the target's soul, at least that is what I was told after a steamy midafternoon hook-up.

I was reading this seduction coach's blog: "Your Amygdala Doesn't Want You to Find Love." She references the book Linchpin: Are you Indispensable?" by Seth Godin, writing:

Halfway through the book is a chapter entitled The Resistance. The Resistance is Godin's name for your amygdala, also known as the lizard brain. It's not just a concept, it's a real organ -- it's a couple of squishy things sitting atop your spine. Millions of years ago, your lizard brain was responsible for your survival -- it told you to be afraid of predators, to keep a low profile, to eat when you needed sustenance, to ensure your safety at all costs. Back then, it was useful. Today, it still does those things, but it's utterly antiquated, because our social evolution happens far faster than our physical and neurological evolution. Biologically, we are still programmed to operate as though we are living in a 100-person tribe with lots of sabertooth tigers hiding in the bushes, even though that's not even remotely what our world looks like today.

In the working world, the contributions of our lizard brain manifest themselves in a desire to play it safe, to hide at our desks, to do whatever it takes not to attract the attention of our superiors (the amygdala hates attention, as attention is a threat to safety).

And specifically about eye contact:

[L]et's remember that the amygdala is even afraid of eye contact that gets too intense. Godin describes a zoo in Rotterdam that gives out special glasses to visitors so that the gorillas won't think they're being looked in the eye and freak out. Considering that intense eye contact is one of the defining characteristics of a romantic relationship (in fact, psychologist Arthur Arun describes it as perhaps one of only a few prerequisites for love -- full article here), it's easy to see why we get the impulse to run away. "The amygdala resists looking people in the eye, because doing so is threatening and exposes it to risk," Godin writes. "Eye contact, all by itself, is enough to throw your lizard brain into a tizzy. Imagine how scary it must be to set out to do something that will get you noticed, or perhaps even criticized."

It's scary, but there is something about fear that is so compelling!  BBC Science discusses interesting research on the effect of eye contact on people's perception of intimacy:

New York psychologist, Professor Arthur Arun, has been studying the dynamics of what happens when people fall in love. He has shown that the simple act of staring into each other's eyes has a powerful impact.

He asked two complete strangers to reveal to each other intimate details about their lives. This carried on for an hour and a half. The two strangers were then made to stare into each others eyes without talking for four minutes. Afterwards many of his couples confessed to feeling deeply attracted to their opposite number and two of his subjects even married afterwards.

I believe that sustained eye contact is one of those seduction tricks that is so effective that almost every sociopath seems to use it.   I believe that it is so common, in fact, that it is what people are referencing when they make comments about a sociopath's "lizard stare" or ant other observations or judgments related to a sociopath's eyes.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Psycho and proud?

Newsweek reports on the neurodiversity "craze":
I met [Will] Hall one night at the offices of the Icarus Project in Manhattan. He became a leader of the group--a "mad pride" collective--in 2005 as a way to promote the idea that mental-health diagnoses like bipolar disorder are "dangerous gifts" rather than illnesses. While we talked, members of the group--Icaristas, as they call themselves--scurried around in the purple-painted office, collating mad-pride fliers. Hall explained how the medical establishment has for too long relied heavily on medication and repression of behavior of those deemed "not normal." Icarus and groups like it are challenging the science that psychiatry says is on its side. Hall believes that psychiatrists are prone to making arbitrary distinctions between "crazy" and "healthy," and to using medication as tranquilizers. . . .

Just as some deaf activists prefer to embrace their inability to hear rather than "cure" it with cochlear implants, members of Icarus reject the notion that the things that are called mental illness are simply something to be rid of.
Too true.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Song: I know you won't

My friend listens to this when she's feeling overwhelmed by her daddy issues.  I feel like it is such a classic victim song.

I know you don't mean to be mean to me
'Cause when you want to you can make me feel like we belong
Lately you make me feel all I am is a back-up plan
I say I'm done and then you smile at me and I forget
Everything I said
I buy into those eyes
And into your lies

You say you'll call, but I know you
You say you're coming home, but I know you
You say you'll call, but I know you won't
You say you'll call, but I know you won't

I wish you were where you're supposed to be
Close to me
But here I am just starring at this candle burning out
And still no sound
Of footsteps on my stairs
Or your voice anywhere

You say you'll call, but I know you
You say you're coming home, but I know you
You say you'll call, but I know you won't
You say you'll call, but I know you won't

You say you'll call, but I know you
You say you're coming home, but I know you
You say you'll call, but I know you won't
You say you'll call, but I know you won't

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Sociopaths in literature: East of Eden's Cathy

Probably the most prototypical sociopath portrayal in literature is Cathy from Steinbeck's East of Eden.
I believe there are monsters born in the world to human parents. Some you can see, misshapen and horrible, with huge heads or tiny bodies; some are born with no arms, no legs, some with three arms, some with tails or mouths in odd places. They are accidents and no one's fault, as used to be thought. Once they were considered the visible punishment for concealed sins.

And just as there are physical monsters, can there not be mental or psychic monsters born? The face and body may be perfect, but if a twisted gene or a malformed egg can produce physical monsters, may not the same process produce a malformed soul?

Monsters are variations from the accepted normal to a greater or a less degree. As a child may be born without an arm, so one may be born without kindness or the potential of conscience. A man who loses his arms in an accident has a great struggle to adjust himself to the lack, but one born without arms suffers only from people who find him strange. Having never had arms, he cannot miss them. Sometimes when we are little we imagine how it would be to have wings, but there is no reason to suppose it is the same feeling birds have. No, to a monster the norm must seem monstrous, since everyone is normal to himself. To the inner monster it must be even more obscure, since he has no visible thing to compare with others. To a man born without conscience, a soul-stricken man must seem ridiculous. To a criminal, honesty is foolish. You must not forget that a monster is only a variation, and that to a monster the norm is monstrous.

It is my belief that Cathy Ames was born with the tendencies, or lack of them, which drove and forced her all of her life. Some balance wheel was misweighed, some gear out of ratio. She was not like other people, never was from birth. And just as a cripple may learn to utilize his lack so that he becomes more effective in a limited field than the uncrippled, so did Cathy, using her difference, make a painful and bewildering stir in her world.

There was a time when a girl like Cathy would have been called possessed by the devil. She would have been exorcised to cast out the evil spirit, and if after many trials that did not work, she would have been burned as a witch for the good of the community. The one thing that may not be forgiven a witch is her ability to distress people, to make them restless and uneasy and even envious.
. . .
Even as a child she had some quality that made people look at her, then look away, then look back at her, troubled at something foreign. Something looked out of her eyes, and was never there when one looked again. She moved quietly and talked little, but she could enter no room without causing everyone to turn toward her.

She made people uneasy but not so that they wanted to go away from her. Men and women wanted to inspect her, to be close to her, to try and find what caused the disturbance she distributed so subtly. And since this had always been so, Cathy did not find it strange.

Cathy was different from other children in many ways, but one thing in particular set her apart. Most children abhor difference. They want to look, talk, dress, and act exactly like all of the others. If the style of dress is an absurdity, it is pain and sorrow to a child not to wear that absurdity. If necklaces of pork chops were accepted, it would be a sad child who could not wear pork chops. And this slavishness to the group normally extends into every game, every practice, social or otherwise. It is a protective coloration children utilize for their safety.

Cathy had none of this. She never conformed in dress or conduct. She wore whatever she wanted to. The result was that quite often other children imitated her.

As she grew older the group, the herd, which is any collection of children, began to sense what adults felt, that there was something foreign about Cathy. After a while only one person at a time associated with her. Groups of boys and girls avoided her as though she carried a nameless danger.

Cathy was a liar, but she did not lie the way most children do. Hers was no daydream lying, when the thing imagined is told and, to make it seem more real, told as real. That is just ordinary deviation from external reality. I think the difference between a lie and a story is that a story utilizes the trappings and appearance of truth for the interest of the listener as well as of the teller. A story has in it neither gain nor loss. But a lie is a device for profit or escape. I suppose if that definition is strictly held to, then a writer of stories is a liar -- if he is financially fortunate.

Cathy's lies were never innocent. Their purpose was to escape punishment, or work, or responsibility, and they were used for profit. Most liars are tripped up either because they forget what they have told or because the lie is suddenly faced with an incontrovertible truth. But Cathy did not forget her lies, and she developed the most effective method of lying. She stayed close enough to the truth so that one could never be sure. She knew two other methods also -- either to interlard her lies with truth or to tell a truth as though it were a lie. If one is accused of a lie and it turns out to be the truth, there is a backlog that will last a long time and protect a number of untruths.
. . .
Nearly everyone in the world has appetites and impulses, trigger emotions, islands of selfishness, lusts just beneath the surface. And most people either hold such things in check or indulge them secretly. Cathy knew not only these impulses in others but how to use them for her own gain.

It is quite possible that she did not believe in any other tendencies in humans, for while she was preternaturally alert in some directions she was completely blind in others.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Fear of the unknown

Regarding why empaths seem so wary of sociopaths, a theory from a reader:

So I pretty much boiled down why I think empaths are afraid of sociopaths.

It's the fear of the unknown.

Let me explain.

When I was at the zoo a few years ago, I casually asked a zoo keeper why the giraffes don't choose to escape. They don't put up a fence high enough to prevent the giraffes from simply walking out of the enclosure. All there is a little ditch and a tiny wall. The zoo keeper explained to me that the reason the giraffes never leave is because they can't see what's in the ditch. Since they don't know what would happen if they tried to step over it, they choose to stay in their enclosure instead.

This is pretty good analogy for humans and death.

If God were to go “After life you get to be in heaven and it's perfect,” to everyone after they were born, people would throw themselves off of cliffs as soon as they were able to walk.
The reason people generally don't run around killing themselves is because they have no idea what happens after death.

So how does this relate to sociopaths? 

People eventually  had to come up with unspoken rules that would prevent people from hurting each other. Not because they cared about the other people, but because they didn't want to be killed themselves. They didn't want to face the unknown.

And thus we have “empathy” which is really just the fear of something that has happened to someone else either affecting you or happening to you. 

What's really scary to an empath about sociopaths is that they have no idea what they're going to do next. Their thought process is completely foreign, since empaths have always functioned with, well, empathy. 

Even if you explain how a sociopath thinks to an empath, they're still a little bit afraid. They have no idea what a sociopath will do, or maybe do to them, because they do not function under the normal silent rules humanity came up with. The sociopath's thought process is still relatively unknown to the empath. 

So for an empath, trying to understand a sociopath is kind of like the giraffe trying to see what's in the ditch. You can kind of tell what's down there, but because you don't really know what, you'd prefer to stay away.

I hope that makes sense. 

-Thoughtful empath

Empaths, see also this post for the answers to some of these questions. 

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Cultivating luck

Sociopaths are known for being charming, but they also seem to lead a charmed life.  I have had such unusual success in my profession that people often wonder what exact deal had I made with the devil and whether he is still looking for business partners.  It's not that I am not qualified, I am (but that is another story heavily influenced by luck).  It's more that my profession is one of those that is heavily influenced by luck.  I happened to have had a truly unique idea and was lucky enough to have been able to act upon it.  I do acknowledge that it was a lucky break, but there were also things I did to make my own luck.  Similarly, this was an interesting article in the Telegraph from psychologist Richard Wiseman about some of his research on what distinguishes the lucky from the less fortunate:

Take the case of chance opportunities. Lucky people consistently encounter such opportunities, whereas unlucky people do not. I carried out a simple experiment to discover whether this was due to differences in their ability to spot such opportunities.

I gave both lucky and unlucky people a newspaper, and asked them to look through it and tell me how many photographs were inside. On average, the unlucky people took about two minutes to count the photographs, whereas the lucky people took just seconds. Why? Because the second page of the newspaper contained the message: "Stop counting. There are 43 photographs in this newspaper." This message took up half of the page and was written in type that was more than 2in high. It was staring everyone straight in the face, but the unlucky people tended to miss it and the lucky people tended to spot it.

Personality tests revealed that unlucky people are generally much more tense than lucky people, and research has shown that anxiety disrupts people's ability to notice the unexpected. In one experiment, people were asked to watch a moving dot in the centre of a computer screen. Without warning, large dots would occasionally be flashed at the edges of the screen. Nearly all participants noticed these large dots.

The experiment was then repeated with a second group of people, who were offered a large financial reward for accurately watching the centre dot, creating more anxiety. They became focused on the centre dot and more than a third of them missed the large dots when they appeared on the screen. The harder they looked, the less they saw.

And so it is with luck - unlucky people miss chance opportunities because they are too focused on looking for something else. They go to parties intent on finding their perfect partner and so miss opportunities to make good friends. They look through newspapers determined to find certain types of job advertisements and as a result miss other types of jobs. Lucky people are more relaxed and open, and therefore see what is there rather than just what they are looking for.

My research revealed that lucky people generate good fortune via four basic principles. They are skilled at creating and noticing chance opportunities, make lucky decisions by listening to their intuition, create self-fulfilling prophesies via positive expectations, and adopt a resilient attitude that transforms bad luck into good.

He then talks about how he wondered if those principles could be learned by the unlucky:

One month later, the volunteers returned and described what had happened. The results were dramatic: 80 per cent of people were now happier, more satisfied with their lives and, perhaps most important of all, luckier. While lucky people became luckier, the unlucky had become lucky. 

Other "lucky" traits that seem particularly prevalent in the sociopath community: mixing up routine and remaining optimistic.  And it wasn't explicitly stated, but I think being willing to take risks often makes someone seem lucky.  It's like the pickup artist community -- if you play enough numbers, you're bound to have one pay out.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Nurture trumping nature

I have posted before about James Fallon, neuroscientist, University of California, Irvine, professor, psychopath expert, and successful psychopath (?) before.  I thought this video was worth posting as well because it targets more the personal experience of what his family thinks about who he is and his childhood was instrumental in Jim not developing into a killer, despite his brain and genetic predispositions.

6:55: His mother tells him about how Lizzie Borden is a cousin of his.  On one line of his family there were at least 16 murderers.

7:54: He decides to check the brain scans and DNA of his family members for the brain signatures and genes linked to psychopathy.  He discovers everyone is normal except for him, who has the brain scan signature of a killer and all of the genetic markers predisposing to impulsivity, violence, etc.

10:05: Reaction from his family "I knew there was always something off.  It makes more sense now."  "Everything that you would want in a serial killer he has in a fundamental way."  "It was surprising but it wasn't surprising."  "He's always had a standoffish part to him."

11:00: Jim is honest with himself "I have characteristics or traits, some of which are . . . psychopathic." he gives the example of how he could blow off an aunt's funeral.  "I know something's wrong, but I still don't care."

11:40: Why wasn't he a killer?  "Whether genes are triggered or not will depend on what happens in your childhood."

12:28: "It turns out that I had a unbelievably wonderful childhood."

I think this is an interesting and accurate portrayal of what a high functioning psychopath might look like.  I think people expect to see very obvious differences, but frequently they're not obvious or they're not really visible.  It's like this response from Jennifer Kahn, author of that NY Times Magazine article on psychopathic children, when asked about whether the child's behavior was more or less extreme than she expected:

I think I expected Michael to be more immediately extreme. When I arrived, he was on his good behavior, but he did get extreme later in the night. Something that Waschbusch said he struggles with is that it is hard to define what is prepsychopathic behavior and what is behavior caused by a different kind of problem — it does tend to cross different diagnoses. It wasn’t the screaming or fits or slamming the toilet seat that struck me; it was the calculated coldness and the flip between emotional states. But I had expected it to be more obvious. When I entered the house, of course, I was thinking of adult psychopaths who have led criminal lives for decades, which is normally how they come to our attention. I was maybe expecting a child version of that, but of course that’s kind of ridiculous. Even among adult psychopaths, that would be a small minority.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Different moral universes

A psychologist argues that American conservatives and liberals come from different moral universes:
Jonathan Haidt is hardly a road-rage kind of guy, but he does get irritated by self-righteous bumper stickers. The soft-spoken psychologist is acutely annoyed by certain smug slogans that adorn the cars of fellow liberals: "Support our troops: Bring them home" and "Dissent is the highest form of patriotism."

"No conservative reads those bumper stickers and thinks, 'Hmm — so liberals are patriotic!'" he says, in a sarcastic tone of voice that jarringly contrasts with his usual subdued sincerity. "We liberals are universalists and humanists; it's not part of our morality to highly value nations. So to claim dissent is patriotic — or that we're supporting the troops, when in fact we're opposing the war — is disingenuous.

"It just pisses people off."

The University of Virginia scholar views such slogans as clumsy attempts to insist we all share the same values. In his view, these catch phrases are not only insincere — they're also fundamentally wrong. Liberals and conservatives, he insists, inhabit different moral universes. There is some overlap in belief systems, but huge differences in emphasis.
. . .
As part of . . . early research, Haidt and a colleague, Brazilian psychologist Silvia Koller, posed a series of provocative questions to people in both Brazil and the U.S. One of the most revealing was: How would you react if a family ate the body of its pet dog, which had been accidentally run over that morning?

"There were differences between nations, but the biggest differences were across social classes within each nation," Haidt recalls. "Students at a private school in Philadelphia thought it was just as gross, but it wasn't harming anyone; their attitude was rationalist and harm-based. But when you moved down in social class or into Brazil, morality is based not on just harm. It's also about loyalty and family and authority and respect and purity. That was an important early finding."
. . .
Haidt went to work for Richard Shweder, a cultural anthropologist at the University of Chicago who arranged for his postdoc fellow to spend three months in India. Haidt refers to his time in Bhubaneshwar — an ancient city full of Hindu temples that retains a traditional form of morality with rigid cast and gender roles — as transformative.

"I found there is not really a way to say 'thank you' or 'you're welcome' (in the local language)," he recalls. "There are ways of acknowledging appreciation, but saying 'thank you' and 'you're welcome' didn't make any emotional sense to them. Your stomach doesn't say 'thank you' to your esophagus for passing the food to it! What I finally came to understand was to stop acting as if everybody was equal. Rather, each person had a job to do, and that made the social system run smoothly."

Gradually getting past his reflexive Western attitudes, he realized that "the Confucian/Hindu traditional value structure is very good for maintaining order and continuity and stability, which is very important in the absence of good central governance. But if the goal is creativity, scientific insight and artistic achievement, these traditional societies pretty well squelch it. Modern liberalism, with its support for self-expression, is much more effective. I really saw the yin-yang."
. . .
[A] range of ethical systems have always coexisted and most likely always will.
. . .
Haidt . . . concluded that any full view of the origins of human morality would have to take into account not only culture (as analyzed by anthropologists) but also evolution. He reasoned it was highly unlikely humans would care so much about morality unless moral instincts and emotions had become a part of human nature. He began to suspect that morality evolved not just to help individuals as they competed and cooperated with other individuals, but also to help groups as they competed and cooperated with other groups.

"Morality is not just about how we treat each other, as most liberals think," he argues. "It is also about binding groups together and supporting essential institutions."
. . .
"I think this is terribly important," he says. "People are not going to converge on their judgments of what's good or bad, or right and wrong. Diversity is inherent in our species. And in a globalized world, we're going to be bumping into each other a lot."
So are sociopaths weird because we have no moral compass while everyone else has some kind of different moral compasses? Or are we just weird because we do have a sense of "morality," but we would just never think to call it that, associate it with random emotions, and/or try to enforce it on everyone else...

Monday, May 14, 2012

Kid sociopath

Quite a few people emailed me this NY Times article that has hit the most emailed: Can you Call a 9-Year-Old a Sociopath?"  Here are selections (the article is quite long, but an engaging read):
  • “We’ve had so many people tell us so many different things,” Anne said. “Oh, it’s A.D.D. — oh, it’s not. It’s depression — or it’s not. You could open the DSM and point to a random thing, and chances are he has elements of it. He’s got characteristics of O.C.D. He’s got characteristics of sensory-integration disorder. Nobody knows what the predominant feature is, in terms of treating him. Which is the frustrating part.” . . . . Following a battery of evaluations, Anne and Miguel were presented with another possible diagnosis: their son Michael might be a psychopath.
  • Currently, there is no standard test for psychopathy in children, but a growing number of psychologists believe that psychopathy, like autism, is a distinct neurological condition — one that can be identified in children as young as 5.
  • “If they can get what they want without being cruel, that’s often easier,” Frick observes. “But at the end of the day, they’ll do whatever works best.”
  • “This isn’t like autism, where the child and parents will find support,” Edens observes. “Even if accurate, it’s a ruinous diagnosis. No one is sympathetic to the mother of a psychopath.”
  • “As the nuns used to say, ‘Get them young enough, and they can change,’ ” Dadds observes. “You have to hope that’s true. Otherwise, what are we stuck with? These monsters.”
  • “They’re not like A.D.H.D. kids who just act impulsively. And they’re not like conduct-disorder kids, who are like: ‘Screw you and your game! Whatever you tell me, I’m going to do the opposite.’ The C.U. kids are capable of following the rules very carefully. They just use them to their advantage.”
  • Their behavior — a mix of impulsivity, aggression, manipulativeness and defiance — often overlaps with other disorders. “A kid like Michael is different from minute to minute,” Waschbusch noted. “So do we say the impulsive stuff is A.D.H.D. and the rest is C.U.? Or do we say that he’s fluctuating up and down, and that’s bipolar disorder? If a kid isn’t paying attention, does that reflect oppositional behavior: you’re not paying attention because you don’t want to? Or are you depressed, and you’re not paying attention because you can’t get up the energy to do it?”
  • Most researchers who study callous-unemotional children, however, remain optimistic that the right treatment could not only change behavior but also teach a kind of intellectual morality, one that isn’t merely a smokescreen. . . . “I try to tell him: You’re here with a lot of other people, and they all have their own ideas of what they want to be doing. Whether you like it or not, you just have to get along.”
  • “I’ve always said that Michael will grow up to be either a Nobel Prize winner or a serial killer.”

Some of these selections are regarding a clinical study/camp for these youngsters.  That was probably the most entertaining part--seeing how they interact with each other.

  • The study had a ratio of one counselor for every two children. But the kids, Waschbusch said, quickly figured out that it was possible to subvert order with episodes of mass misbehavior. One child came up with code words to be yelled out at key moments: the signal for all the kids to run away simultaneously.

And this little vixen:

  • Charming but volatile, L. quickly found ways to play different boys off one another. “Some manipulation by girls is typical,” Waschbusch said as the kids trooped inside. “The amount she does it, and the precision with which she does it — that’s unprecedented.” She had, for example, smuggled a number of small toys into camp, Waschbusch told me, then doled them out as prizes to kids who misbehaved at her command. That strategy seemed particularly effective with Michael, who would often go to detention screaming her name.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Quote: oversimplifying

There is a tendency, considered highly rational, to reason from a narrow set of interests, say survival and procreation, which are supposed to govern our lives, and then to treat everything that does not fit this model as anomalous clutter, extraneous to what we are and probably best done without. But all we really know about what we are is what we do. There is a tendency to fit a tight and awkward carapace of definition over humankind, and to try to trim the living creature to fit the dead shell.
We inhabit, we are part of, a reality for which explanation is much too poor and small.

--Marilynne Robinson

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Are sociopaths better than empaths?

I don't actually think that sociopaths are superior to empaths.  Unlike some (most?) people, I haven't formed a mental hierarchy of types of humans from sociopaths down to aspies, or empaths down to sociopaths, or any other sort of arrangement based on value to society or dominance or anything else.  We're different, yes, and some of those differences are strengths and some of them are weaknesses and some of them are strengths in one situation and weaknesses in another.

When I studied music seriously, I spent a lot of time practicing orchestral excerpts.  Excerpts are specific to a particular instrument, e.g. french horn or flute.  They are passages from the standard repertoire that either feature the instrument prominently or are particularly challenging to play.

In music there are basically two types of technical difficulty: (1) idiomatic but intricate passages and (2) deceptively simple passages that, due to the inherent weaknesses of the instrument, are still quite challenging.  The former are passages that play to the strengths or unique features of the instrument, for instance double or multiple stopping on a string instrument, glissandos on a harp, diatonic runs in the key of a woodwind instrument.  These passages showcase the instrument at its very best and can make even an average player look like a superstar.  The latter are passages that often were written by a composer without considering the particular difficulties of the instrument.  They may require awkward alternate fingering to be performed successfully.  They may be in a bad range of the instrument or require complicated breathing or sticking.  They are not a vehicle for showing off, rather they are an attempt to mask the awkwardness created by vulnerabilities of the instrument.

I have intentionally avoided using the word "flaw" to describe the instruments.  The truth is that no instrument is perfect.  Instrument designers have improved upon the originals and they continue to make small improvements, but inherent in the idea of there being a "better" range, there must be a worse range.  To make one passage easier to play, you must consequently make another hypothetical passage harder.  There's nothing to be sad about.  But when it comes to empaths talking about how sociopaths are an evolutionary mistake or sociopaths talking about how empaths are idiots it sometimes reminds me of how trombonists try to argue that their instrument is the best because they can tune to the exact pitch or string instruments arguing their instrument is the best because they can sustain a note for forever.  I find those sorts of arguments to be quaint and in a way that reflects a particularly small view of the world.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Say it loud! I'm S and I'm proud!

A question from a reader:
Do most sociopaths know they are sociopaths, do narcissists know they are narcissists? Under what circumstances would a sociopath reveal himself? same question as to narcissists?
My response:
Sociopaths know that they are different, though they may not necessarily be familiar that the label "sociopath" applies to them. Narcissists tend to be self-deceived, so they think that they are the same as everyone else, just better.

When I was told by a friend that there was a label for people like me and it was called "sociopath," I actually willingly accepted the diagnosis. I knew I didn't have the same emotions as everyone else, I knew I had a weak sense of empathy, I knew I was different, and it wasn't something that I struggled with ever. I feel like narcissists deny deny deny when they are confronted with their identity. They are so self-deceived, though, that it is probable that they don't even recognize the signs of narcissism in themselves.

I don't think a narcissist would ever reveal himself, mainly because he probably doesn't think there is anything to reveal. For sociopaths I think revealing oneself is sort of like revealing a secret identity for a superhero -- generally not a good idea, but sometimes unavoidable. I have revealed myself to close friends (not all, only the ones who would be accepting), and on rare occasions to people whom I suspect to be sociopaths themselves. For instance, I have only once revealed myself to someone I had just met, but it was obvious from our conversational topics that if he weren't a sociopath, he was something akin to it. Even so it was a delicate dance of "how much do you think you empathize with others?" "Do you think manipulation is an appropriate tool for social encounters?" "Does anyone ever ask you if you are a sociopath?" Even from the people who are accepting of who I am, a lot of them can't believe that I am a sociopath, or they sort of pretend I'm not by imagining emotions or empathy where there are none. My parents are that way. I am high-functioning and take pleasure in being exceptionally considerate, so it is not too difficult to believe that I am normal. Bjust because most of me seems good doesn't mean I don't have any sociopath-flavoured bad in me.
There's another good response here:
I'm sure a sociopath realizes that they are "different" from normal people, in the sense that they do not comprehend normal emotional responses and connections. I would assume they don't understand why this is unless they recognize the signs through their own research or if someone tells them.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Psychopath brains differ even from ASPD

Reuters reports on how the brains of psychopathic criminals show distinctly less grey matter in the areas of the brain important for understanding the emotions of others.  These differences in brain structure were different even from other criminals who were diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder (ASPD).  Other interesting selections from the article:

  • Damage to these areas is linked with a lack of empathy, a poor response to fear and distress and a lack of self-conscious emotions such as guilt or embarrassment.
  • Research shows that most violent crimes are committed by a small group of persistent male offenders with ASPD. . . . Such people typically react in an aggressive way to frustration or perceived threats, but most are not psychopaths, the researchers wrote in a summary of their study, which was published in the Archives of General Psychiatry journal.
  • There are clear behavior differences among people with ASPD depending on whether they also have psychopathy. Their patterns of offending are different, suggesting the need for a separate approach to treatment.
  • "We describe those without psychopathy as 'hot-headed' and those with psychopathy as 'cold-hearted'," Blackwood explained.

I love that distinction between "hot-headed" and "cold-hearted."  I'm going to have to start using those terms all of the time when explaining about how I don't quite consider myself to have ASPD.  And our buddy Bob Hare should be happy about this seeing as he is always going on about how the two are quite distinct.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Envying the sociopath?

Psychology Today recently presented two arguments for why women seek to marry criminals, particularly murderers: (1) women seek mates with strong male markers like aggressiveness and (2) women dream of being the one person in the world that can reform them.  This author argues another theory in Jezebel--women are envious of sociopaths:

After all these years of hearing from young (and not-so-young) women who are fascinated with predators, I've developed a theory of my own. The women who become easily intrigued by sociopaths are of course interested in protecting the vulnerable (including themselves). But they are also enthralled by those who represent the opposite end of the emotional spectrum from where these women find themselves.

Sociopaths, by definition, lack compassion and remorse. Some young women in our culture, on the other hand, are overwhelmed by those very same things. Think of emotional sensitivity as a spectrum from 0-10, similar to the volume controls for a radio.  It's healthy to be tuned into the needs of others at about 4 or 5 on the continuum.  At that volume, you're aware of the needs of those around you without being overwhelmed by them. But for some women, the world's "emotional noise" comes through at 8 or 9 on the spectrum. The needs and demands of others are so clear and loud that these young women often can't hear themselves think.  They're nearly incapacitated from the effort of absorbing so much emotion, and frequently they feel immensely guilty for not meeting the insatiable demands of those around them.  Is it any wonder that they become fascinated with — and even, in some sense, envious of — sociopaths?  What else is a sociopath than someone whose "volume control" for the needs of others has been set to mute? 

There may be women who fall for dangerous predators because of the evolutionary impulses that Ramsland cites; others may be filled with the desperate quixotism that Seltzer suggests, believing that their love is powerful enough to tame even a serial killer. Many surely identify with strong female characters like Mariska Hargitay's Olivia Benson, SVU's brave and relentless protagonist. But admiration for the cops and lawyers who keep the streets safe is only part of the draw. For many who have made SVU and CSI into two of the most successful scripted televisions shows of the modern era, the fascination may be less about attraction than about a strange kind of envy of the shows' sociopathic villains. How many bright, talented, acutely sensitive young women have occasionally fantasized about having an internal "mute button" that could silence the judging, nagging, needy voices of all around them?

I can sort of see this.  They may also want to be around sociopaths because sociopaths are relatively "silent" emotionally.  I have at least a few female friends who are on the other extreme of the empathy spectrum than I am.  I think one of the things they like about me is that they can be extremely emotional needy about things, e.g. take several months to get over a break up, and know that I'll let them talk forever and when I get bored of hearing about it, I just tune them out.  I'm not put out by it, I am not really anything about it at all.  I guess there's something nice about being around someone who isn't feeling exactly what you're feeling.  But I don't know, that's basically my life all the time, so I have no basis for comparison.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Types of love

A reader recently asked me about how I feel the different types of love (e.g. Éros, storge, philia and agápe). When I love someone like a close friend or family member, it is primarily a feeling of gratitude for who they are in my life.  I don't typically "need" anyone, so I do not identify with a desperate, needing sort of love.  To the extent that I feel passionate or intensely for another person, it is because I have become obsessed or fixated with them.  It does not always mean love, though, and love doesn't not always mean intensity, at least to me.

I can connect with people in various ways but I don't have vicarious feelings like empathy.  If I show interest in someone else's suffering or happiness, it is more like a very strong curiosity.  I have always felt like so much of the world is hidden.  There is always a special pleasure for me in hidden things becoming revealed.  It must be why empaths experience voyeurism and schadenfreude.  Actually, one of the main reasons I enjoy longer term relationships is that eventually I can reveal to them all of my machinations from the beginning -- what I did to them, how I engineered particular situations, my foresight and skill throughout the early stages of the relationships during which I was required to keep everything hidden.  There is a very pleasant tension and release aspect to that activity.  It's almost sexual.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Politically calculating

I've been swamped with work lately and in boredom found this article on the new tell-all book about Barack Obama.  The book includes descriptions about Obama from several people that knew him in his younger days, including contemporaneous accounts about him from his ex-girlfriends letters and diaries.

"The success of 'Dreams' has given Obama nearly complete control of his own life narrative, an appealing tale that has been the foundation of his political success. But Maraniss's biography threatens that narrative by questioning it: Was Obama's journey entirely spiritual and intellectual? Or was it also grounded in the lower realms of ambition and calculation?" Dylan Byers and Glenn Thrush write.

Obama granted Maraniss a 90-minute interview, some surmise in an effort to control his image. Cooke's diary entries, however, reveal that Obama's struggle over what to reveal has been ongoing -- since his youth.

"Friday, March 9, 1984 It's not a question of my wanting to probe ancient pools of emotional trauma ... but more a sense of you [Barack] biding your time and drawing others' cards out of their hands for careful inspection -- without giving too much of your own away -- played with a good poker face," she wrote.  "And as you say, it's not a question of intent on your part -- or deliberate withholding -- you feel accessible, and you are, in disarming ways. But I feel that you carefully filter everything in your mind and heart -- legitimate, admirable, really -- a strength, a necessity in terms of some kind of integrity. But there's something also there of smoothed veneer, of guardedness ... but I'm still left with this feeling of ... a bit of a wall -- the veil."

Doesn't this sound like a sociopath?  I have read a lot of people calling Obama a sociopath before but have never really put much stock in it until now.  Let's just say I wouldn't reject the thought of him being a sociopath, and I mean that in the nicest way.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Sociopaths in literature: Yeats' "A Man Young and Old"

I. First Love

THOUGH nurtured like the sailing moon
In beauty's murderous brood,
She walked awhile and blushed awhile
And on my pathway stood
Until I thought her body bore
A heart of flesh and blood.

But since I laid a hand thereon
And found a heart of stone
I have attempted many things
And not a thing is done,
For every hand is lunatic
That travels on the moon.

She smiled and that transfigured me
And left me but a lout,
Maundering here, and maundering there,
Emptier of thought
Than the heavenly circuit of its stars
When the moon sails out.

II. Human Dignity
Like the moon her kindness is,
If kindness I may call
What has no comprehension in't,
But is the same for all
As though my sorrow were a scene
Upon a painted wall.

So like a bit of stone I lie
Under a broken tree.
I could recover if I shrieked
My heart's agony
To passing bird, but I am dumb
From human dignity.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

It never entered my mind

I'm mildly to medium-ly obsessed with the song "It never entered my mind."

To me there is only one thing that really can haunt me, and this sensation, whatever it is, is so perfectly incapsulated by this song.  It is partly a worry that I am missing out on something, but it's worse than that.  It's more the worry that I will regret the decisions I have made because I have missed out on something.

One of my favorite movies is the Woody Allen comedy Sweet and Lowdown.  The protagonist is a completely pompous jazz guitarist from the early half of the last century: a delusional, raging narcissist, beautifully talented, but without any real emotion in his playing.   He meets and (sort of) falls in love with a mute girl named Hattie, played incomparably by Samantha Morton.

She puts up with him like no one else will and he finds that even the simplest pleasures of life are made more pleasurable with her beside him.  Still, he feels like he deserves better (or just more) so breaks up with her about halfway through the movie:

He continues his hijinks through the second half of the movie and even marries an icy femme fatale played by Uma Thurman.  Near the end of the movie he runs into Hattie again.  She is married now and even has children.  He is disappointed, but tries to play it off.  Later that night he tries to console himself by doing some of his favorite activities: shooting rats by the train station and playing the guitar.  Frustrated and emotionally overcome he grabs the guitar by the neck and slams it into a nearby tree, shattering it.  He is a man whose only goal was his own happiness, who has consistently chosen without compunction whatever he thought would make him most happy, and yet he is not happy.  As he clubs the tree with the guitar over and over again he screams, "I made a mistake!  I made a mistake!"

This scene haunts me.  This man thought he was choosing happiness, and chose as wisely as he could, but still ended up crippled by regret.  But it's not the fact that he happens to end up alone that's disturbing.  I acknowledge that much of life is chance and all sorts of bad things might happen to me during life.  I'm fine with that.  The thing that haunts me more than anything else is the thought that I could unwittingly be the author of my own unhappiness -- unhappiness so surprising that it never entered my mind that things could play out that way.  It is the ultimate in powerlessness -- not just the thought that nothing I do really matters, but that things I do could matter and actually make things worse.

Of the negative emotions I feel, regret is the saddest and strongest.

It never entered my mind:
I don't care if there's powder on my nose
I don't care if my hairdo is in place
I've lost the very meaning of repose
I never put a mudpack on my face
Oh, who'd have thought that I'd walk in a daze
Now I never go to shows at night but just to matinees
Now I see the show and home I go

Once I laughed when I heard you saying
That I'd be playing solitaire
Uneasy in my easy chair
It never entered my mind
Once you told me I was mistaken
That I'd awaken with the sun
And order orange juice for one
It never entered my mind

You have what I lack myself
And now I even have to scratch my back myself

Once you warned me that if you scorned me
I'd sing the maiden's prayer again
And wish that you were there again
To get into my hair again
It never entered my mind

Friday, May 4, 2012

Bad guy

I walked in on my flat getting burglarized today.  I live in the worst neighborhood.  I was burglarized the first week I was here, luckily before my stuff had even arrived from the movers.  I thought about moving again but it was such a pain.  And I don't really have anything to steal.  I'm very anti-consumerist, I hate owning things, so anything valuable tends to be gifts from other people that I don't care much about.

One night a few months ago there was a banging on my door just after midnight.  I had just gone to bed and wasn't yet asleep, reading from my phone.  I just let them keep banging, figured it was a case of mistaken identity and eventually they would give up.  People had mistaken my flat before.  In fact, exactly a week before someone had left a love note after some loud middle of the night banging: "Don't think, act.  Meet me at the XXXX.  Hearts and kisses!"  I assumed it was a case of mistaken identity.  This time the banging wouldn't stop, though.  Was this the love note writer's spouse, angry to discover an infidelity and both of them still unaware mine was the wrong flat?  After more than a minute of  pounding, I finally got up and walked over to my door to peep outside, but they were gone.  A few minutes later there was pounding on my back door.  Someone had managed to climb up the fire escape.  They tried the door knob several times, then they seemed to be trying to shake the small door from its hinges.  I turned on a light.  They must have seen I was not who they were hoping for and ran off.

This time I walked in on two guys.  At first I didn't realize what was happening.  They of course did and scurried off out the back window where they had come in.  I ran after them just a little bit, but then figured that most of my stuff seemed to be piled up in the center of the room, so what was the point.  The police came, at my neighbor's insistence.  I had no idea how to act.  Scared?  Concerned?  I ended up just being friendly, but it came off as being flirty.  Maybe that's ok.  It's these unusual circumstances that are certain to trip me up in terms of acting normal, I realized for the hundredth time.

The afternoon blown on conversations with police and neighbors, I finally got ready to go take a swim but couldn't find my waterproof ipod.  Those bastards.  The thing that really bothered me is that they wouldn't even recognize that it is waterproof, at 5 times the normal cost.  To some pawnbroker, it would just be an outdated ipod.  So wasteful.  Goodbye dear ipod, we had such lovely moments together.

Because I couldn't listen to music, instead I thought about these burglars of mine and wondering, do they think they are bad guys?  See, I'm so much more interested in the stories we tell ourselves rather than our actual behavior.  And I had just spent hours listening to my neighbors and the police say what pieces of human trash the burglars were.  It was sort of a dick move to take my external harddrive, which couldn't be worth that much to anyone but me, who had a million personal files stored on it.  They were about to take my mobile charger.  What?  How much could they get for that, versus how annoying would it have been for me to go right then to a shop to replace it because I had just lost my spare.  And it's obviously dangerous work.  What if I had a weapon?  Or they did leave their gloves, which apparently can keep fingerprints themselves.  And I yelled disparaging things at them as they ran away like scaredy cats.  That must not feel good to the old ego, right?  I wondered quite honestly, how do they justify the dickishness and the danger for a pile of useless crap?  Do they paint themselves as some sort of dramatized villains?  Or good guys that have fallen on hard times?  Or are they sort of like me and don't really "feel" anything at all about it.  That would make sense.  I could see that.  And that was weird to think about, in the same way it's weird to see two identical twins, one of them fat and rundown and the other one smoking hot.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Neurodiversity = asset

A lot has been written about neurodiversity and how unfair it is to treat poorly people who fall out of the mental norms.  Despite the push of the neurodiversity movement, things are still labeled with pejorative terms like "disorder" and "syndrome" and the focus has been on "treatment" and integration as if being neurodiverse is equivalent to being handicapped.  In Wall Street Journal article titled "The Upside of Autism," Jonah Lehrer makes a contrary case:

Because of these obvious shortcomings—humans are supposed to be social animals, after all—most people regard autism as a disease, a straightforward example of an impaired mind. But there's compelling evidence that autism is not merely a list of deficits. Rather, it represents an alternate way of making sense of the world, a cognitive difference that, in many instances, comes with unexpected benefits.

That's the lesson, at least, of a new study from the lab of Nilli Lavie at University College London. A few dozen adults, both with and without autism, were given a difficult perceptual task, in which they had to keep track of letters quickly flashed on a computer screen. At the same time, they also had to watch out for a small gray shape that occasionally appeared on the edge of the monitor.

When only a few letters appeared on the screen, both autistic and normal subjects could handle the task. However, when the number of letters was increased, subjects without autism—so-called neurotypicals—could no longer keep up. They were overwhelmed by the surplus of information.

Those adults with autism didn't have this problem. Even when the task became maddeningly difficult, their performance never flagged.

What explains this result? According to the scientists, autism confers a perceptual edge, allowing people with the disorder to process more information in a short amount of time. While scientists have long assumed that autistics are more vulnerable to distraction—an errant sound or conversation can steal their attention—that's not the case. As Prof. Lavie notes, "Our research suggests autism does not involve a distractibility deficit but rather an information-processing advantage."

These perceptual perks have real-world benefits. The scientists argue, for instance, that the ability to process vast amounts of data helps to explain the prevalence of savant-like talents among autistic subjects. Some savants perform difficult mathematical calculations in their head, others draw exquisitely detailed pictures at a young age. These skills have long remained a mystery, but they appear to be rooted in a distinct cognitive style shared by all autistics. Because they can process details that elude the rest of us, they can perform tasks that seem impossible, at least for the normal mind.
The larger lesson is that, according to the latest research, these "deficits" are actually trade-offs. What seems, at first glance, like a straightforward liability turns out to be a complex mixture of blessings and burdens.

Of course you would never see an article in the Wall Street Journal titled "The Upside of Sociopathy" and for that it's a little hard for me to take the neurodiversity movement seriously.  But I like this idea of one sense being gone so your other senses fill the gap.  It reminds me of this classic tale of blindness and talent...  you're welcome!

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