Double Edge

Originally featured Chronicle Review

Over a 28-year-old single-malt scotch at the Scientific Study of Psychopathy’s biennial bash in Montreal in 2011, I asked Bob Hare, “When you look around you at modern-day society, do you think, in general, that we’re becoming more psychopathic?”

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.”

Kids are becoming anesthetized to normal sexual behavior by early exposure to pornography on the Internet.

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-ofthe-moment impulses. Status. And financial gain. In that order.

Exactly the kind of casual, callous behavior patterns one often sees in psychopaths.

(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”)

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 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.”

Why is this happening?

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.

“College kids today are about 40 percent lower in empathy than their counterparts of 20 or 30 years ago,”

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.

Individuals like my old friend Andy McNab.

McNab was arguably the most famous British soldier to have served in Her Majesty’s Armed Forces until Prince Harry hung up his polo mallet at Eton. During the first Gulf War, Andy commanded Bravo Two Zero, an eight-man Special Forces patrol that was assigned the task of gathering intelligence on underground communication links between Baghdad and northwest Iraq, and tracking and destroying Scud missile launchers along the Iraqi main supply route in the area. But soon the boys had other fish to fry. A couple of days after insertion, the patrol was compromised by a goatherd. And, in time honored fashion, they beat it: 185 miles, across the desert, toward the Syrian border.

Only one of them made it. Three were killed, and the other four, including Andy, were picked up at various points along the way by the Iraqis. Suffice it to say that none of their captors were ever going to have their own talk shows … or make their mark in the annals of cosmetic surgery. It’s generally accepted that there are better ways of putting a person at ease than by stubbing your cigarette out on his neck. And better ways of breaking and remodeling their jawline than with the sun-baked butt of an AK-47. Thanks to more advanced techniques back home in Britain, Andy’s mouth now packs more porcelain than all the bathrooms in Buckingham Palace put together. He should know. In 1991 he went there to collect the Distinguished Service Medal from the queen.

Such mental toughness isn’t the only characteristic that Special Forces soldiers have in common with psychopaths. There’s also fearlessness. A couple of years ago, on a beautiful spring morning 12,000 feet above Sydney’s Bondi Beach, I performed my first free-fall sky dive. The night before, somewhat the worse for wear in one of the city’s waterfront bars, I texted Andy for some last-minute advice.

“Keep your eyes open. And your arse shut,” came the reply. I did. Just. But performing the same feat at night, in the theater of war, over a raging ocean from twice the altitude and carrying 200 pounds of equipment, is a completely different ballgame. And if that’s not enough, “We used to have a laugh,” Andy recalls. “Mess about. You know, we’d throw the equipment out ahead of us and see if we could catch up with it. Or on the way down, we’d grab each other from behind in a bear hug and play chicken—see who’d be the first to peel off and pull the cord. It was all good fun.”

Er, right. If you say so, Andy. But what wasn’t much fun was the killing. I ask Andy whether he ever felt any regret over anything he’d done. Over the lives he’d taken on his numerous secret missions around the world. “No,” he replies matter-of-factly, his arctic-blue eyes showing not the slightest trace of emotion. “You seriously don’t think twice about it. When you’re in a hostile situation, the primary objective is to pull the trigger before the other guy pulls the trigger. And when you pull it, you move on. Simple as that. Why stand there, dwelling on what you’ve done? Go down that route and chances are the last thing that goes through your head will be a bullet from an M16.”

“The regiment’s motto is ‘Who Dares Wins.’ But sometimes it can be shortened to ‘F— It.’ ”

Andy’s on a weeklong spree in the desert, roaring around Nevada on a Harley V-Rod Muscle, when I call. “No helmets!” he booms. “Hey, Andy,” I say. “You up for a little challenge when you get back?” “Course!” he yells. “What is it?” “How about you and me go head-to-head in a test of cool in the lab? And I come out on top?” Manic laughter. “Love it,” he says. “You’re on! How the hell do you think you’re going to pull that off?” I hang up. 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 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.

Andy rocks up to the Centre for Brain Science at the University of Essex one bitterly cold December morning, and we’re met at the door by the man who, for the next couple of hours or so, is going to be our tormentor. Nick Cooper, one of the world’s leading exponents of TMS, ushers us into the lab, shows us over to two high-backed leather chairs, and straps us in. He wires us up to heart-rate monitors, EEG recording equipment, and galvanic-skin-response (GSR) measures, which assess stress levels as a function of electrodermal activity. By the time he’s finished, the pair of us look like we’re trapped inside a giant telecom junction box. The gel for the electrodes feels cold against my scalp.

Directly in front of us, about 10 feet away on the wall, is a large video screen. Nick flips a switch, which makes it crackle to life. Then he goes into white-coat mode. Ambient music wafts around the room. A silky, twilit lake ripples in front of our eyes.

“Bloody hell,” says Andy. “It’s like an ad for incontinence pads!” “OK,” says Nick. “Listen up. Right now, on the screen in front of you, you can see a tranquil, restful scene, which is presently being accompanied by quiet, relaxing music. This is to establish baseline physiological readings from which we can measure subsequent arousal levels. “But at an undisclosed moment sometime within the next 60 seconds, the image you see at the present time will change, and images of a different nature will appear on the screen. These images will be violent. And nauseating. And of a graphic and disturbing nature. “As you view these images, changes in your heart rate, skin conductance, and EEG activity will be monitored and compared with the resting levels that are currently being recorded. Any questions?” Andy and I shake our heads. “Happy?” We nod. “OK,” says Nick. “Let’s get the show on the road.”

He disappears behind us, leaving Andy and me merrily soaking up the incontinence ad. 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 has seen nothing like it. “It’s almost as if he was gearing himself up for the challenge,” he says. “And then, when the challenge eventually presented itself, his brain suddenly responded by injecting liquid nitrogen into his veins. Suddenly implemented a blanket neural cull of all surplus feral emotion. Suddenly locked down into a hypnotically deep code red of extreme and ruthless focus.” He 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.”

My physiological output readings, in contrast, went through the roof. Exactly like Andy’s, they were well above baseline as I’d waited for the carnage to commence. But that’s where the similarity ended. Rather than go down in the heat of battle, in the midst of the blood and guts, mine had appreciated exponentially.

“At least it shows that the equipment is working properly,” comments Nick. “And that you’re a normal human being.” We look across at Andy, who’s chatting up a bunch of Nick’s Ph.D. students over by a bank of monitors. God knows what they make of him. They’ve just analyzed his data, and the electrode gel has done such a number on his hair that he looks like Don King in a wind tunnel.

All done, Andy is off to a luxury hotel in the country, where I’ll be joining him later for a debrief. But that’s only after I’ve run the gantlet again, in Phase II of the experiment. In which, with the aid of a psychopath makeover, I’ll have another go at the experiment, only this time with a completely different head on—thanks to a dose of TMS.

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.” Nick sits me down in the sinister-looking chair and pats me, a little too reassuringly for my liking, on the shoulder. By the time he’s finished strapping and bolting me in, I look like Hannibal Lecter at LensCrafters. He positions the TMS coils, which resemble the handle part of a giant pair of scissors, over the middle section of my skull, and turns on the machine.

Instantly it feels as if there’s a geeky homunculus miner buried deep inside my head, tapping away with a rock hammer. “That’s the electromagnetic induction passing down your trigeminal nerve,” Nick explains. “It’s one of the nerves responsible for sensation in the face, and for certain motor functions like biting, chewing, and swallowing. You can probably feel it going through your back teeth, right?”

I nod.

“What I’m actually trying to find,” he continues, “is the specific part of your motor cortex responsible for the movement of the little finger of your right hand. Once we’ve pinpointed that, I can then use it as a kind of base camp, if you like, from which to plot the coordinates of the brain regions we’re really interested in: your amygdala and your moral-reasoning area.” “Well, you’d better get on with it,” I mutter. “Because much more of this, and I’m going to end up strangling you.” Nick smiles. “Blimey,” he says. “It must be working already.”

Sure enough, after about 20 seconds, I feel an involuntary twitch exactly where Nick has predicted. Weak, at first. Then gradually getting stronger. Pretty soon my right pinkie is really ripping it up. It’s not the most comfortable feeling in the world—sitting strapped in a chair, in a dimly lit chamber, knowing that you don’t have any control over the actions your body is performing. It’s creepy. Demeaning. Disorienting … and kind of puts a downer on the whole free-will thing. My only hope is that Nick isn’t in the mood to start clowning around. With the piece of gear he’s waving about, he could have me doing cartwheels round the lab.

“OK,” he says. “We now know the location of the areas we need to target. So let’s get started.” My little finger stops moving as he repositions his spooky neurological wand in the force field above my head. It’s then just a matter of sitting there for a while as my dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and right temporoparietal junction get an electromagnetic comb-over. 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?

Back in the chair, wired up to the counters and bleepers, I sit through the horror show again: the images modified, so as to avoid habituation. This time, however, it’s a different story. “I know the guy before me found these images nauseating,” I hear myself saying. “But actually, to be honest, this time round I’m finding it hard to suppress a smile.”

The lines and squiggles corroborate my confession. Whereas previously, such was my level of arousal that it was pretty much a minor miracle that the state-of-the-art EEG printer hadn’t blown up and burst into flames, my brain activity after the psychopath makeover is significantly reduced. Perhaps not quite as genteelly undulating as Andy’s. But getting there, certainly. It’s a similar story when it comes to heart rate and skin conductance. In fact, in the case of the latter, I actually eclipse Andy’s reading.

“Does that mean it’s official?” I ask Nick, as we scrutinize the “gures. “Can I legitimately claim to be cooler than Andy McNab?” He shrugs. “I suppose,” he says. “For now, anyway. But you’d better make the most of it while you can. You’ve got a quarter of an hour. Max.”

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

I certainly didn’t want him showing up in the hotel bar later, where I was meeting Andy. They’d either get on great. Or wouldn’t get on at all. To be honest, I didn’t know which would be scarier.