There is a concept that psychopaths have an ice cold, emotionless and hard persona. This is further supported by the stereotypes portrayed in popular movies.
This misconception, however, has been roundly criticized and at the forefront of this reassessment of the psychopathic mind is Norwegian University of Science and Technology researcher Aina Gullhaugen. She says, “A lot has happened over the past few years in psychiatry. But the discipline is still characterized by the attitude that a certain group of people is put together in such a way that they cannot be treated. There is little in the textbooks that say that these people have had a hard life. Until now, the focus has been directed at their anti-social behavior and lack of empathy. And the explanation for this is based on biology, instead of looking at what these people have experienced.”
In her experience as a psychologist, she found that there are discrepancies between the formal characteristics of psychopathy and her experiences in meeting and dealing with them. She theorized that when psychopathic criminals are hardened with traditional descriptions, there would be no vulnerable aspects or psychiatric disorders present in them. Thus, she reassessed the conclusions by changing the questions and reviewing the issues affecting psychopaths in a specific manner. This is what drove her to look into the psychopath’s mind.
Gullhaugen relates, “Hannibal Lecter is perhaps the most famous psychopath from the fictional world. His character in the books and movies is an excellent illustration of the cold mask some have thought that psychopaths have. Because it is a mask. Inside the head of the cannibal and serial killer have tenderness and pain, deep emotions and empathy.”
Thomas Harris, author of the book “Silence of the Lambs”, has admitted to have been based the Hannibal character on real life serial killers, after conducting research at the famed FBI Behavioral Science Unit. He developed the character through psychological damage incurred during Lecter’s childhood and this damage, according to Gullhaugen, is treatable.
Unfortunately, Hannibal Lecter is a fictional character. Gullhaugen focused her research in scientific literature and compared the Hannibal’s character and other offenders that high degree of psychopathy. She said, “I have gone through all the studies that have been published internationally over the past thirty years. I have also conducted a study of the psychological needs of Norwegian high-security and detention prisoners.”
Each of the studies conducted on these worst offenders indicate that their personal histories had physical and/or psychological abuse during their childhood years. The result of her efforts is all found in their article, “Looking for the Hannibal behind the Cannibal: Current Status of Case Research.”
She further added, “Without exception, these people have been injured in the company of their caregivers and many of the descriptions made it clear that their ruthlessness was an attempt to address this damage, but in an inappropriate or bad way.”
Her reassessment on how the world views psychopaths includes the methodologies used in the study of psychopaths. She said, “One way to examine emotional reactions is to show people pictures of different situations and then study the response. First the subject is often shown benign or neutral images, where you could be expected to be happy and relaxed. The physical reaction is a calm pulse, no sweat on the skin and the like. Then, suddenly there is a picture of a gun aimed at you. Most people would react to this right? But when psychopaths do no respond in the expected way, we conclude that they have a biological defect.”
In order to understand them, Gullhaugen proposes that individuals place themselves in the everyday life of psychopaths. These prevalent conditions include presence of criminal gangs or a difficult upbringing requiring desensitization and being strong as a requirement for daily survival. Maybe even the presence of guns and violence affect how one reacts to these kinds of stimuli, making a cold and emotionless reaction as the only rational and proper reaction to what they have grown accustomed to in their daily lives.
She thus declared, “I found that research on the psychopath’s emotions were incomplete. We need other tests and instruments to measure the feelings of these people, if there are feelings to measure.” In response, this is what exactly what she has done, adding on to the conventional survey methodologies which include a diagnostic interview and checklist of psychopathy and neuropsychological tests by using questionnaires that measure the individual’s interpersonal and emotional aspects. The results from the changes on the methodologies currently being used in the study of psychopathy would be changed and even improved with these efforts.
She relates, “There is no doubt that these are people with what we call relational needs. In the aforementioned case descriptions and my own study, it became clear that they both have the desire and the need for close relationships and that they care. At the same time, it is equally clear that they find it almost impossible to achieve and maintain such relationships.”
The study conducted by Gullhaugen demonstrates how the common survey methods would show individual indications on self-esteem, low depression and sense of general well being together with other methods that underscore how psychopaths suffer from underlying psychological pain. She asks rhetorically, “Isn’t it strange that someone who claims to have a great life can also answer that his or her life experiences have had a catastrophic or tremendous influence on him, or…?” She further explains that in some instances, the interviewees were individuals who didn’t even try to answer questions for fear that someone in prison would get access to information. She further added, “They may have a vested interest in appearing in a certain way. At the same time, they reveal a little bit of what is behind the mask when they answer the various questions in private, without any of us present.”
One of the main characteristics in the development of criminal psychopathy is their abnormal upbringing. The research revealed that psychopaths, as children would experience a parenting style that is very different from what is normal in the general population. Gullhaugen explains, “If you think of a scale of parental care that goes from nothing, the absence of care, all the way to the totally obsessive parent, most parents are in the middle. The same applies to how we feel about parental control. On a scale from ‘not caring’ all the way to ‘totally controlling’, most have parents who end up in the middle. But it is different for psychopaths. More than half of the psychopaths I have studied reported that they had been exposed to a parenting style that could be placed on either extreme of these scales. Either they lived in a situation where no one cared, where the child is subjected to total control and must be submissive or the child has been subjected to a neglectful parenting style.” This, she says, is an example of how the behavior of psychopaths is related to their personal life experiences. This provides for a better image of their individual feelings and this can be the starting point for their treatment.
Gullhaugen remarks, “The attachment patterns show that these children feel rejected. To a much greater degree than in the general population, their parents have an authoritarian style that compromises the child’s own will and independence. This is something that can cause the psychopath to later act ruthlessly to others, more or less consciously to get what he or she needs. This kind of relationship – or the total absence of a caregiver, pure neglect – is a part of the picture that can be drawn of the psychopath’s upbringing.”
This conclusion, however, cannot be fully proven, as the research has not investigated enough cases, though three other similar cases yielded the same tendencies.
She further adds, “It’s hard to say exactly what has created the psychopath’s rock hard mask. Bit as others have said before me: You do not get a personality disorder for your eighteenth birthday present. Have seen what children and young people with these kinds of characteristics experience and what it is like for them, through my work in child and adolescent psychiatry. Of course, not all reckless behavior is explained by a bad upbringing, but we do not inherit everything either. That is my main point.”
Gullhaugen highlights that biology and environment influence each other and personality disorders result from the sum totality of the factors that come from both biology and psychology. She explains, “The combination of the individual’s biological foundation, temperament, personality and vulnerability are important components. The individual’s relational vulnerability is the very essence of the personality disorder in my opinion. I see that these people are apprehensive when they meet me. I see a clear vulnerability in them through behavior that betrays insecurity and discomfort on the inside. And now we have research that confirms the hurt, suffering and nuances of their feelings.”
Her research yielded very few significant differences between normal people and those known psychopaths during her study of Norwegian prisoners. She further examined the individual’s ability to experience a wide range of emotions and found that psychopaths have experienced more negative emotions, such as irritability, hostility and shame. These individuals do not feel guilt and have more primitive emotions such as anger and anxiety. She relates, “This is what I found in the studies I conducted of strong psychopathic individuals who had committed serious criminal acts.” In the realm of positive feelings though, there was little or no difference and this suggested that the psychopath’s emotional life has more nuances than what was first considered.
To address these discrepancies, new and improved diagnostic manuals are currently being developed and will most likely be available in 2013. This development pleases Dr. Gullhaugen, as changes and improvements are being undertaken. The modifications include the use of tools that avoid strictly define individuals into categories but allow a more individualized evaluation allowing for descriptions from normal to diseased. She further places her belief that these modifications would paint a more accurate picture of the disorder.
She concludes, “When we recognize that the psychopath’s upbringing and relationships are important, and that the psychopath’s emotional life is more complex than what we have previously believed, we reduce the stigmatization of these individuals. Meanwhile, we also have a starting point for treatment. I don’t think we can get everyone back to a normal way of life. But it may be possible to help many to get on better with themselves and others. This in turn could reduce the risk of repeated serious crimes. Treatment is difficult, but possible.”
She also recommends that a full risk assessment should be undertaken before reaching a decision on whether or not a person can be returned into the general population. She says, “When you understand the problem better, it would be easier to predict all types of behavior. Our evaluations will be more extensive because of this and will give a more comprehensive and accurate picture.”read more
In a recent study with women suffering from moderate to severe depression, the groups who received treatment for Vitamin D deficiency showed significant improvement in their medical situations.
According to Sonal Pathak, MD, an endocrinologist at Bayhealth Medical Center of Dover, Delaware, “Vitamin D may have an as-yet-unproven effect on mood and its deficiency may exacerbate depression. If this association is confirmed, it may improve how we treat depression.”
The study was unveiled during the Endocrine Society’s 94th Annual Meeting held in Houston, Texas. Here, Dr. Pathak presented the research results after the three women, aged from 42 to 66, were diagnosed with clinical depression and were medicating with antidepressants. The three women were also being treated for one of two metabolic conditions, Type 2 diabetes or hypothyroidism. These women also had risk factors for vitamin D deficiency. These can be attributed to low intake of the vitamin as well as poor sun exposure. To determine such, the three subjects had undergone a 25-hydroxyvitamin D blood test.
All three women registered low levels of vitamin D, between 8.9 to 14.5 nanograms per milliliter. When individuals register below 21 ng/mL, they are deemed deficient as normal levels are set at 30 ng/mL according to the Endocrine Society. The women were prescribed oral vitamin D replacement medication between eight to twelve weeks and their vitamin D levels were increased to normal levels. The women ranged between 32 to 38 ng/mL.
After the treatment, the three women related improvements in their depression according to the Beck Depression Inventory. This is a twenty one question survey that measures the level of sadness and depression of an individual. Scoring between 0 to 9 would be minimal depression. A 10 to 18 is considered as mild depression, 19 to 29 is moderate depression and a score between 30 to 63 means severe depression.
One of the three women improved their depression score from 32 to 12, which is a drop from severe to mild depression. Another one of the women scored from 26 to an eight, showing only minimal symptoms of depression. The third patient’s score of 21 improved to 16, showing mild depression.
Still, other studies have indicated that vitamin D levels have an effect on both mood and depression. There is still a need for a large, randomized controlled clinical studies to prove if there is a cause and effect relationship.
Dr. Pathak further added, “Screening at-risk depressed patients for vitamin D deficiency and treating it appropriately may be an easy and cost effective adjunct to mainstream therapies for depression.”read more
A study conducted at the Arizona State University have found that elderly honey bees are able to reverse brain aging. This was found that despite their advanced age, they are able to manage hive responsibilities usually managed by much younger bees.
This finding is important as there is current research on age-related dementia in humans and potential new drug regimens might be found from these senior honey bees. The researchers have found that social interventions in bees, and hopefully in humans can effectively mitigate the effects of dementia due to advancement of age.
The study was published in the journal Experimental Gerontology and it was conducted by scientists from ASU in cooperation with the Norwegian University of Life Sciences. The study was lead by Gro Amdam, an associate professor with the School of Life Sciences at ASU. The findings indicated that tricking the older forager bees in performing socially inclined tasks in the hive results in changes in their brain structure and functioning.
Amdam declared, “We knew from previous research that when bees stay in the nest and take care of larvae – the bee babies – they remain mentally competent for as long as we observe them. However after a period of nursing, bees fly out gathering food and begin aging very quickly. After just two weeks, foraging bees have worn wings, hairless bodies and more importantly, lose brain function – basically measured as the ability to learn new things. We wanted to find out if there was plasticity in this aging pattern so we asked the question, ‘What would happen if we asked the foraging bees to take care of larval babies again?’”
In experiments conducted for the study, the researchers had removed all the younger nurse bees from the hive, leaving only the queen and the babies. When the elder foraging bees had returned to the nest, the activity lessened for several days. When some of the elderly bees returned to foraging for food, the others remained in the hive and took care of the larvae bees. The study researchers found that after ten days in the hive, about half of the elderly bees had significantly improved to learn new things when they remained in the hive.
The team not only observed the ability to learn return to these bees, they also found a change in the protein make up in the bee’s brains. When the brains of the hive bees and forager bees were compared, they found two proteins change in the make up. They also discovered the presence of Prx6, a protein that helps combat dementia also found in humans as well as other conditions such as Alzheimer’s. There was also a discovery of a second protein that chaperones and protects other proteins from being damaged when exposed to cell level stresses.
The boon of this discovery is in the creation of a drug that can help maintain brain functionality but the formulation can still be up to thirty years away in the future. Amdam further added, “Maybe social interventions – changing how you deal with your surroundings – is something we can do today to help our brain stay younger. Since the proteins being researched in people are the same proteins bees have, these proteins may be able to spontaneously respond to specific social experiences.” The study lead further suggested that studies be done on mammals such as rats to investigate if the same molecular changes that bees undergo may also be doable in mammals and eventually humans.read more
According to a study from Harvard Medical School, nearly two-thirds of American adolescents have felt an anger attack at an early age that involved threats of violence, vandalism and even attacking others. These episodes of uncontrollable rage are more common in today’s adolescents compared to previous findings.
The study is based on the seminal National CoMorbidity Survey Replication Adolescent Supplement, which is a national household survey conducted face-to-face with 10,148 individual American adolescents. It found that of those surveyed, two-thirds of adolescents have in their past undergone anger attacks and one in every twelve individuals, nearly six million young adults, has met the criteria to be diagnosed as suffering from Intermittent Explosive Disorder. IED is an emotional syndrome characterized by persistent uncontrollable anger attacks not found in other psychological illnesses.
The study results were published in the July 2nd edition of Archives of General Psychiatry. The study clarified that IED typically presents itself during late childhood, and often continues throughout one’s life. This condition is also associated with other problems, and often precipitates emotional disorders such as depression and substance abuse. All these findings were elucidated by the study’s Senior Author Ronald Kessler, who is also the McNeil Family Professor of Health Care Policy at the Harvard Medical School. He further said that only six and half percent of all adolescents suffering from IED had received professional treatment for their anger attacks.
The HMS study further found that IED sufferers often have severe and chronic episodes during adolescence, and its first symptoms occur early in life. The study further found that IED episodes are largely untreated, with only 37.8 percent of adolescents undergoing treatment for IED and other emotional problems within a year of the study. In this group, only 6.5 percent received psychotherapy specifically for this anger disorder.
With these findings, the study team advocates the importance in identification and treatment of IED especially through school-based violence prevention programs. Kessler added, “If we can detect IED early and intervene with effective treatment right away, we can prevent a substantial amount of future violence perpetration and associated psychopathology.”
In order to be diagnosed with IED, the adolescent must have at least three separate incidents of impulsive aggressiveness that is described as “grossly out of proportion to any precipitating psychosocial stressor” at any stage in their life. This definition comes straight from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. For the study, an even more stringent criteria had been set for IED where adolescents would not be qualified under other mental conditions related to aggression, such as bipolar disorder, ADHD or attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, oppositional defiant disorder and other conduct disorders.read more
Awareness or mindfulness is one way that an individual can respond to pain and discomfort. While many would want to be free from physical discomfort, some discomfort is inevitable for everyone, and mindfulness can help ease this condition. In doing this, the individual can learn how to manage the pain and suffering until recovery is complete.
There are three components to physical discomfort, which are as follows:
- The physically unpleasant sensation itself, such as pain, aching muscles or fatigue;
- The emotional reaction to the discomfort, such as anger, frustration or fear;
- The thoughts triggered by the discomfort, often with little basis in reality.
Two of the aforementioned parts are mental in nature, commonly called ‘mental suffering’. This exacerbates the physical pain because the mental pain is felt throughout the body.
Mindfulness is the art of paying careful attention to the environment in the present moment using any of the senses of the body or mental cognition. Also called awareness, this is a practice because it takes training and practice to utilize, as many thoughts dwell in the past and future. One need not be in a meditative state to practice this, as this can simply be achieved with just focus on the breaths taken or the ambient noise around the individual. Focused attention to the present moment is the foundation of mindfulness. Breathing is a good way to start off, as breathing is always present and real to the individual.
When one becomes mindful, it calms and steadies the mind. This is important as the mind suddenly runs a thousand ways when one is feeling stressed or wrung out. This is essentially a muddy blur, but with mindfulness, the mind becomes clearer allowing us to segregate emotions and thoughts during the moment. With a better and clearer view, the individual can make skillful choices about their response to these emotions and thoughts and these choices would lessen the effect of suffering on the individual.
The common reaction to physical discomfort is resistance and rejection, often channeled as frustration or anger. In doing mindfulness, the individual can counter the habitual response with one that is more skillful. An example would be pain and as a result, aversion to pain would be exhibited as frustration. There are two available choices, one would be to allow the habitual response to grow and become stronger, resulting in increased mental suffering. This in turn exacerbates the physical pain as the muscles around the pain center tighten up because of the frustration. The better response would be to acknowledge the frustration and then move the mind to more compassionate and kind thoughts of oneself.
With the thoughts of kindness, the individual can just focus on the physical sensation and it is not just a solid wall of discomfort. There are waves of sensations where some may actually be pleasant with differing levels, such as heat, pulses or tingling. Mindfulness can help examine physical sensations and its ever changing nature. This would help break up the sense that the whole body is in discomfort and instead part of it is feeling the pain. It also provides positive feedback as the changing sensations would show that the frustration would be impermanent too.
Another aspect would be stressful thought patterns. Being aware of the stories that are told about the physical discomforts would be able to steady and calm the mind. When this is achieved, individuals are able to see thoughts more clearly allowing for individuals to make choices. The thoughts that come with the pain can either be believed in or just be validated. The best relief would be to let go of stress-filled stories that has no basis in fact or reason. Ultimately, it would feel like a weight has been lifted from the mind.
Ultimately, mindfulness or self awareness is the best medicine, as this can calm the mind and nerves to be able to skillfully address stressful emotions and thoughts. This eases the physical suffering because the pain is localized physically and not exacerbated mentally.