"When you look around you at modern-day society, do you think, in general, that we're becoming more psychopathic?"
Robert Hare, the eminent criminal psychologist and creator of the widely used Psychopathy Checklist paused before answering. "I think, in general, yes, society is becoming more psychopathic," he said. "I mean, there's stuff going on nowadays that we wouldn't have seen 20, even 10 years ago. Kids are becoming anesthetized to normal sexual behavior by early exposure to pornography on the Internet. Rent-a-friend sites are getting more popular on the Web, because folks are either too busy or too techy to make real ones. ... The recent hike in female criminality is particularly revealing. And don't even get me started on Wall Street."
He's got a point. In Japan in 2011, a 17-year-old boy parted with one of his own kidneys so he could go out and buy an iPad. In China, following an incident in which a 2-year-old baby was left stranded in the middle of a marketplace and run over, not once but twice, as passersby went casually about their business, an appalled electorate has petitioned the government to pass a good-Samaritan law to prevent such a thing from happening again.
And the new millennium has seemingly ushered in a wave of corporate criminality like no other. Investment scams, conflicts of interest, lapses of judgment, and those evergreen entrepreneurial party tricks of good old fraud and embezzlement are now utterly unprecedented in magnitude. Who's to blame? In an issue of the Journal of Business Ethics, Clive R. Boddy, a former professor at the Nottingham Business School, contends that it's psychopaths, pure and simple, who are at the root of all the trouble.
The law itself has gotten in on the act. At the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping trial, in Salt Lake City, the attorney representing Brian David Mitchell—the homeless street preacher and self-proclaimed prophet who abducted, raped, and kept the 14-year-old Elizabeth captive for nine months (according to Smart's testimony, he raped her pretty much every day over that period)—urged the sentencing judge to go easy on his client, on the grounds that "Ms. Smart overcame it. Survived it. Triumphed over it." When the lawyers start whipping up that kind of tune, the dance could wind up anywhere.
Of course, it's not just the lawyers. In a recent study by the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, in London, 120 convicted street robbers were asked why they did it. The answers were revealing. Kicks. Spur-of-the-moment impulses. Status. And financial gain. In that order. Exactly the kind of casual, callous behavior patterns one often sees in psychopaths.
In fact, in a survey that has so far tested 14,000 volunteers, Sara Konrath and her team at the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research has found that college students' self-reported empathy levels (as measured by the Interpersonal Reactivity Index, a standardized questionnaire containing such items as "I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me" and "I try to look at everybody's side of a disagreement before I make a decision") have been in steady decline over the past three decades—since the inauguration of the scale, in fact, back in 1979. A particularly pronounced slump has been observed over the past 10 years. "College kids today are about 40 percent lower in empathy than their counterparts of 20 or 30 years ago," Konrath reports.
More worrisome still, according to Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, is that, during this same period, students' self-reported narcissism levels have shot through the roof. "Many people see the current group of college students, sometimes called 'Generation Me,' " Konrath continues, "as one of the most self-centered, narcissistic, competitive, confident, and individualistic in recent history."
Precisely why this downturn in social values has come about is not entirely clear. A complex concatenation of environment, role models, and education is, as usual, under suspicion. But the beginnings of an even more fundamental answer may lie in a study conducted by Jeffrey Zacks and his team at the Dynamic Cognition Laboratory, at Washington University in St. Louis. With the aid of fMRI, Zacks and his co-authors peered deep inside the brains of volunteers as they read stories. What they found provided an intriguing insight into the way our brain constructs our sense of self. Changes in characters' locations (e.g., "went out of the house into the street") were associated with increased activity in regions of the temporal lobes involved in spatial orientation and perception, while changes in the objects that a character interacted with (e.g., "picked up a pencil") produced a similar increase in a region of the frontal lobes known to be important for controlling grasping motions. Most important, however, changes in a character's goal elicited increased activation in areas of the prefrontal cortex, damage to which results in impaired knowledge of the order and structure of planned, intentional action.
Imagining, it would seem, really does make it so. Whenever we read a story, our level of engagement is such that we "mentally simulate each new situation encountered in a narrative," according to one of the researchers, Nicole Speer. Our brains then interweave these newly encountered situations with knowledge and experience gleaned from our own lives to create an organic mosaic of dynamic mental syntheses.
Reading a book carves brand-new neural pathways into the ancient cortical bedrock of our brains. It transforms the way we see the world—makes us, as Nicholas Carr puts it in his recent essay, "The Dreams of Readers," "more alert to the inner lives of others." We become vampires without being bitten—in other words, more empathic. Books make us see in a way that casual immersion in the Internet, and the quicksilver virtual world it offers, doesn't.
Which is worrisome, to say the least, given the current slump in reading habits. According to a 2011 survey conducted by the British charity the National Literacy Trust, one in three children between the ages of 11 and 16 do not own a book, compared with one in 10 in 2005. That equates, in today's England, to a total of around four million. Almost a fifth of the 18,000 children polled said they had never received a book as a present. And 12 percent said they had never been to a bookshop.
But if society really is becoming more psychopathic, it's not all doom and gloom. In the right context, certain psychopathic characteristics can actually be very constructive. A neurosurgeon I spoke with (who rated high on the psychopathic spectrum) described the mind-set he enters before taking on a difficult operation as "an intoxication that sharpens rather than dulls the senses." In fact, in any kind of crisis, the most effective individuals are often those who stay calm—who are able to respond to the exigencies of the moment while at the same time maintaining the requisite degree of detachment. What I'm planning is a psychopath makeover, to find out firsthand, for better and for worse, what it's like to see the world through devil-may-care eyes. And there's nothing like a bit of competition.
Transcranial magnetic stimulation (or TMS) was developed by Anthony Barker and his colleagues at the University of Sheffield in 1985. The inaugural application of TMS by Barker and his team comprised an elementary demonstration of the conduction of nerve impulses from the motor cortex to the spinal cord by stimulating simple muscle contractions. Nowadays it's a different story—and TMS has widespread practical uses, in both diagnostic and therapeutic capacities, across a variety of neurological and psychiatric conditions, from depression and migraine to strokes and Parkinson's disease.
The basic premise of TMS is that the brain operates using electrical signals, and that, as with any such system, it's possible to modify the way it works by altering its electrical environment. Standard equipment consists of a powerful electromagnet, placed on the scalp, that generates steady magnetic-field pulses at specific frequencies, and a plastic-enclosed coil to focus those magnetic pulses down through the surface of the skull onto discrete brain regions, thus stimulating the underlying cortex.
Now, one of the things that we know about psychopaths is that the light switches of their brains aren't wired up in quite the same way as the rest of ours are—and that one area particularly affected is the amygdala, a peanut-size structure located right at the center of the circuit board. The amygdala is the brain's emotion-control tower. It polices our emotional airspace and is responsible for the way we feel about things. But in psychopaths, a section of this airspace, the part that corresponds to fear, is empty.
In the light-switch analogy, TMS may be thought of as a dimmer switch. As we process information, our brains generate small electrical signals. These signals not only pass through our nerves to work our muscles but also meander deep within our brains as ephemeral electrical data shoals, creating our thoughts, memories, and feelings. TMS can alter the strength of those signals. By passing an electromagnetic current through precisely targeted areas of the cortex, we can turn the signals either up or down.
Turn down the signals to the amygdala, of course, and you're well on the way to giving someone a psychopath makeover. Indeed, Liane Young and her team in Boston have since kicked things up a notch and demonstrated that applying TMS to the right temporoparietal junction—a neural ZIP code within that neighborhood—has significant effects not just on lying ability but also on moral-reasoning ability: in particular, ascribing intentionality to others' actions.""