Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Eileen Wilks: A Fearless Life Is Not All It's Cracked Up To Be

I geek out over books on brain science. Also over books that draw on brain science. A quick check of the books I've unpacked and shelved (hey, I've only been in the new house for a year; there's still a lot of books boxed up in the garage) reveals titles like The Gift of Fear, Buddha's Brain, The Paradox of Choice, and The Owner's Manual for the Brain.

Oh, the things our amygdalas get up to! Not to mention the sly antics of the cerebral cortex, or that pain-killing pro, the periadqeductal gray . . . but I promised not to mention them, didn't I? Point being that naturally I was drawn to a title like The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson (highly recommended) when I wanted to learn more about Robert Friar, the chief villain in my lupi series. Robert Friar is the chief agent for an Old One who wants to destroy the lupi on her way to world domination.

My takeaway from The Psychopath Test: psychopaths are not like us.

With most mental disorders, we can—if we squint a bit—see our own flaws and foibles writ large. Maybe in screaming Sharpie ALL CAPS, but who doesn't have a wee trace of the narcissist? We're born knowing the world revolves around us. The world disabuses most of us of this delusion, but a whisper of it lingers. Most of us reserve our panic attacks for appropriate situations (such as speaking before a large audience, which people fear more than they do death), but we can understand how terrible such spells must be for those who have them more often. And who doesn't have some kind of phobia, even if it doesn't rise to the clinical level? I can't be the only one who refused to see Arachnophobia. . .

But psychopaths, however well they may blend in, however reasonable and even charming they may seem, have some serious deficits in the way their brains work. You probably know that they lack empathy. What you may not know is that humans are hard-wired to feel empathy. The ability to share in others' feelings is built into our brains. This starts with what are called mirror neurons—which, by the way, are the reason you can get so scared while reading a Stephen King book—that are designed to fire in sympathy with observed actions and emotions. We respond to smiles, to an angry expression, and to tears. Show most of us a grisly picture—say, crime-scene photos involving blown-apart faces—and we recoil in horror.

Psychopaths don't. Instead they are fascinated. They are often especially intrigued by the expression of fear or terror . . . because they don't feel it themselves.

That's what Bob Hare concluded, anyway, as the result of experiments he conducted with prison inmates. He gave two groups of inmates a painful electrical shock while wired up to EEGs and other instruments to measure their sweat and blood pressure. Those with normal brains reacted predictably as the countdown approached zero, when they knew they'd be shocked. They grew fearful.

The psychopaths didn't. They had no measurable physical or neurological experience of fear. After going through the countdown once, culminating in a painful shock, they failed to react the next time.

Fear comes from the amygdala, which is part of the limbic system. The limbic system is a set of brain structures that support a number of human functions, including emotions, behavior, and motivation. Many experts believe that psychopaths don't have a fully functioning limbic system. They don't feel anything deeply. They don't have a conscience. And they don't ever, ever experience remorse.

Every work of fiction explores what it means to be human. I do that, too, in my lupi series, but I also look at what it takes to be a monster. In one book, Lily wonders what it means if the Great Bitch, the Old One who wants to destroy the lupi so she can remake the world according to her own notions, keeps using human agents who look, act, and react a lot like psychopaths. Did they start out that way, or did close connection to her change them?  

Which would make her the Typhoid Mary of psycopathy.  Not a happy thought.  Good thing she's been permanently locked out of our realm  . . . hasn't she?


Pat Cochran said...

Good grief, let's hope The Old One has been blocked from our
world! I certainly would not like to meet up with her in a dark
alley some night!

Pat C.

Mary Preston said...

What an amazing cover.