Writing for The Chronicle of Higher Education, Kevin Dutton underwent transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to damp down his amygdala and explore the way some brain scientists think psychopaths feel. (It’s the Dark Side version of a moral jump discontinuity). I’ve read some scientific literature on this hypothesis before, but it was really interesting to read his subjective experience.
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?
Dutton went through the experimental set-up (watching graphically violent images while scientists record his biological readouts) twice, once with TMS and once in his natural state. But what’s really interesting, especially in the context of that last paragraph, is how the Special Forces soldier who was also going through the experiment reacted:
Results reveal later that, at this point, as we wait for something to happen, our physiological output readings are actually pretty similar. Our pulse rates are significantly higher than our normal resting levels, in anticipation of what’s to come.
But with the change of scene, an override switch flips somewhere in Andy’s brain. And the ice-cold Special Forces soldier suddenly swings into action. As vivid, florid images of dismemberment, mutilation, torture, and execution flash up on the screen in front of us (so vivid, in fact, that Andy later confesses to actually being able to “smell” the blood: a “kind of sickly-sweet smell that you never, ever forget”), accompanied not by the ambient spa music of before but by blaring sirens and hissing white noise, his physiological readings start slipping into reverse. His pulse rate begins to slow. His GSR begins to drop, his EEG to quickly and dramatically attenuate. In fact, by the time the show is over, all three of Andy’s physiological output measures are pooling below his baseline.
Nick… shakes his head, nonplused. “If I hadn’t recorded those readings myself, I’m not sure I would have believed them,” he continues. “OK, I’ve never tested Special Forces before. And maybe you’d expect a slight attenuation in response. But this guy was in total and utter control of the situation. So tuned in, it looked like he’d completely tuned out.
These results point to the horror of war, and the shame of training people in this kind of strength. The freedom and clarity and power that Dutton experiences are the worst thing for him.
People who have congenital insensitivity to pain with anhidrosis (CIPA) don’t get sensory feedback of pain, heat, or cold, because of a defect in their nervous system. And they tend to be in terrible danger. They lack data about what is happening to their bodies, so they can break a toe, not notice, and end up septic. It seems like psychopaths and other morally dampened people are in a similar situation. They’s still taking (and causing) damage, and their insensitivity can’t spare them the effects of what they do, it just makes it harder for them to notice and seek healing.