tells the story of how he test-drove being a psychopath (excerpted from his book):
"The effects of the treatment should wear off within half an hour," Nick says, steering me over to a specially calibrated dentist's chair, complete with headrest, chin rest, and face straps. "Think of TMS as an electromagnetic comb, and brain cells—neurons—as hairs. All TMS does is comb those hairs in a particular direction, creating a temporary neural hairstyle. Which, like any new hairstyle, if you don't maintain it, quickly goes back to normal of its own accord."
TMS can't penetrate far enough into the brain to reach the emotion and moral-reasoning precincts directly. But by damping down or turning up the regions of the cerebral cortex that have links with such areas, it can simulate the effects of deeper, more incursive influence.
It isn't long before I start to notice a fuzzier, more pervasive, more existential difference. Before the experiment, I'd been curious about the time scale: how long it would take me to begin to feel the rush. Now I had the answer: about 10 to 15 minutes. The same amount of time, I guess, that it would take most people to get a buzz out of a beer or a glass of wine.
The effects aren't entirely dissimilar. An easy, airy confidence. A transcendental loosening of inhibition. The inchoate stirrings of a subjective moral swagger: the encroaching, and somehow strangely spiritual, realization that hell, who gives a s---, anyway?
There is, however, one notable exception. One glaring, unmistakable difference between this and the effects of alcohol. That's the lack of attendant sluggishness. The enhancement of attentional acuity and sharpness. An insuperable feeling of heightened, polished awareness. Sure, my conscience certainly feels like it's on ice, and my anxieties drowned with a half-dozen shots of transcranial magnetic Jack Daniel's. But, at the same time, my whole way of being feels as if it's been sumptuously spring-cleaned with light. My soul, or whatever you want to call it, immersed in a spiritual dishwasher.
So this, I think to myself, is how it feels to be a psychopath. To cruise through life knowing that no matter what you say or do, guilt, remorse, shame, pity, fear—all those familiar, everyday warning signals that might normally light up on your psychological dashboard—no longer trouble you.
I suddenly get a flash of insight. We talk about gender. We talk about class. We talk about color. And intelligence. And creed. But the most fundamental difference between one individual and another must surely be that of the presence, or absence, of conscience. Conscience is what hurts when everything else feels good. But what if it's as tough as old boots? What if one's conscience has an infinite, unlimited pain threshold and doesn't bat an eye when others are screaming in agony?
I shake my head. Already I sense the magic wearing off. The electromagnetic sorcery starting to wane. I feel, for instance, considerably more married than I did a bit earlier—and considerably less inclined to go up to Nick's research assistant and ask her out for a drink. Instead I go with Nick—to the student bar—and bury my previous best on the Gran Turismo car-racing video game. I floor it all the way round. But so what—it's only a game, isn't it?
"I wouldn't want to be with you in a real car at the moment," says Nick. "You're definitely still a bit ballsy."
I feel great. Not quite as good as before, perhaps, when we were in the lab. Not quite as ... I don't know ... impregnable. But up there, for sure. Life seems full of possibility, my psychological horizons much broader. Why shouldn't I piss off to Glasgow this weekend for my buddy's stag party, instead of dragging myself over to Dublin to help my wife put her mother in a nursing home? I mean, what's the worst that can happen? This time next year, this time next week even, it would all be forgotten. Who Dares Wins, right?
I take a couple of quid from the table next to ours—left as a tip, but who's going to know?—and try my luck on another couple of machines. I get to $100,000 on "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" but crash and burn because I refuse to go 50-50. Soon things start to change. Gran Turismo the second time round is a disappointment. I'm suddenly more cautious, and finish way down the field. Not only that, I notice a security camera in the corner and think about the tip I've just pocketed. To be on the safe side, I decide to pay it back.
I smile and swig my beer. Psychopaths. They never stick around for long. As soon as the party's over, they're moving on to the next one, with scant regard for the future and even less for the past. And this psychopath—the one, I guess, that was me for 20 minutes—was no exception. He'd had his fun. And got a free drink out of it. But now that the experiment was history, he was suddenly on his way, hitting the road and heading out of town. Hopefully quite some distance away.