Sunday, February 12, 2012


I was watching a BBC programme on psychopaths late last night. They are people who, basically, do not feel empathy, so it is not a problem for them if they do awful things to other people.

Researchers have been doing brain scans on psychopaths, and there are areas of the brain that do not light up in the way normal people’s brains do. And they’ve also found a gene responsible.

Fascinating stuff. Incidentally I’m not anti-science, though I might sometimes give that impression. What I’m anti is science using its establishment power to insist that it is the only valid way of describing reality. In that way it is no different to the medieval Catholic Church.

Anyway, one of the researchers, James Fallon, who is a well-known brain scientist, decided to test his family for the psychopath gene. In his family there is a history of violent murderers. And guess who in his immediate family turned out to have the gene? You’ve guessed it, Mr Fallon himself. He was astounded, as he is not an obvious psychopath, yet when he asked his family, they all went actually there is something odd about you, something a bit detached, it’s like you are 2 people, and then he confessed that when something awful happens to someone, he really doesn’t care.

The reason he says he is not an active monster is because he had a healthy childhood. He reckons that the combination of an abusive childhood plus the gene is what is needed to create a real psycho.

The programme then moved on to a legal case in the US, in which a man had murdered his wife. In court it was argued that he’d had an abusive childhood AND had the psycho gene, and could therefore not be held fully responsible for what he had done: what he did was inevitable when you look at his brain and background. The arguments were accepted and the guy got done for some sort of manslaughter instead of murder.
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This is fascinating, for it raises all sorts of questions about free will and determinism and responsibility and is our behaviour just the inevitable product of brain chemistry? Being responsible for your actions in relation to others is fundamental to being human, so though that guy got off the charge of murder, the reason seems to imply that he did so because he is less than a human being, he is a mere animal.

And it’s not just that people are going to be getting off with things because you can prove their brains are f**$=d. The other side of the coin is that if someone does something harmful and the empathic part of his brain is functional, then you can insist that they were responsible for their actions. And it proves to the criminal that he has the capacity to act otherwise, to make different choices, and that seems to me like a good thing. And probably most criminals will be in this category. Even though a high percentage are psychopaths – in prisons it is around 25% - they are still a minority.

Anders Breivik, who slaughtered 77 people last summer and shocked Norway, is not in my opinion a psychopath. He did it for political reasons but, importantly, he said that when he started the shootings, he found it very difficult, he had an instinctual resistance to killing which he had to overcome. A psychopath would not feel like this. Breivik made a choice: he wilfully ignored his own feelings, which is characteristic of the Aquarius Sun square Uranus that he has in his chart.

The programme explored the training of US marines, and the problems you get afterwards with soldiers who have been trained to kill. It can tip them over the edge and they can end up violent in their civilian lives. And they reckoned it was because killing goes so much against people’s natural instincts. Yes, we have testosterone which makes us aggressive and selfish and capable of killing, but there is also oxytocin which produces empathy. What people do have is a natural desire to protect, so the army trainers, instead of getting the soldiers to hate the enemy and to see them as sub-human, were experimenting with the 'protecting your people' motive. Either way it is a grisly business, but as George Orwell said: “We sleep safely at night because rough men stand ready to visit violence on those who would harm us.”

Perhaps psychopaths are there for evolutionary reasons, they are the ‘rough men’ that a community needs to survive. Psychopaths love to win, to rise to the top. Maybe that is why we glorify the warrior, in order to attract the psychopaths to the role they were made for. Just a speculation.

The programme also briefly looked at psychopaths in the business world, which is said to contain about 4% of them, as opposed to 1% in the population at large. An interesting point made here was that the psychopaths in prominent positions usually produce poor results, but through a combination of charm and force of personality they are able to talk their way out of this.

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Thursday, February 02, 2012

Evolution, Psychopaths and Fred Goodwin

Somewhere in our brains is an area associated with mystical experience – or, at a lower level, mere religious belief. So little is known about the brain that we don’t really yet know whereabouts this area is, or whether it’s generalised, or whether it’s a number of areas. But human beings have always had these experiences that point to a wider, deeper, unifying meaning to existence. It gets muddled up with a need for certainty and psychological insecurity and literal thinking to produce fundamentalist religion. But that sense of something transcendent is still there. Most Americans have it.

And it is a product of biological evolution. Evolution is a bodge job, but everything it produces is there for a reason, and usually finely adapted. We treat the 5 physical senses as telling us something about the world we live in, so why not that inner sense of transcendence?

Evolutionists can’t have it both ways. If you believe the story of evolution, then you have to believe that our sense of transcendence is telling us something real. Evolution does not produce characteristics for no reason. And it’s hard to squeeze this one into that ghastly mechanism of ‘survival of the fittest’, which reduces our modern creation story to a justification for capitalism, which is presumably what was (unconsciously) intended. A Creation Myth that reflects the zeitgeist. We understand part of the mechanism behind evolution, but only part.

Evolution is a great story, and what is more you can go out and find evidence for it in the form of exquisite adaptations and the fossil record. But it is not a scientific theory, for it cannot be tested in the laboratory or even very much in the field. There is enough evidence and elegance in it to satisfy most reasonable people. It represents a return to common sense in our idea of what constitutes proof. So evolution is both unscientific and affirmative of the value of religious experience. I think it is going too far to then say that God created the world: that is mere belief, it is something we cannot know by direct experience, and it therefore interferes with our actual experience. But in the Creationist vs Evolutionist debate, the former are ignoring the fossil record and common sense, while the latter (at their worst) are ignoring an aspect of brain evolution because it doesn’t fit their theories.
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I’ve just been reading a book called The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson, subtitled A Journey through The Madness Industry. He’s the guy who wrote The Men Who Stare at Goats, which is about the US Army’s exploration of the potential military applications of the paranormal. It seems that about 1% of the population are psychopaths, rising to about 25% in prisons (where they cause 60% of the violence) and 4% at the top of the business world.

It gives a new take on the idea that “We are the 99%”, particularly as the 1% could be conjectured to play a large part in what goes wrong in the economic world. That is why ‘free market capitalism’ is wrong-headed when it is allowed to go too far. There really are bad people out there, they’re very smart and they will cause a lot of trouble if you don’t regulate them! There's no point blaming them, though, for our ills. It's like blaming a big cat for doing what a big cat does. It comes down to regulation and why governments and the people who elect them don't do it properly. And it comes down to human gullibility and folly for electing some of these people as leaders.

There is a well-known 20 point test for psychopathy, the Hare Psychopathy Checklist. These are the characteristics:

Factor 1: Personality "Aggressive narcissism"
 Glibness/superficial charm
 Grandiose sense of self-worth
 Pathological lying
 Cunning/manipulative
 Lack of remorse or guilt
 Shallow affect (genuine emotion is short-lived and egocentric)
 Callousness; lack of empathy
 Failure to accept responsibility for own actions
Factor 2: Case history "Socially deviant lifestyle".
 Need for stimulation/proneness to boredom
 Parasitic lifestyle
 Poor behavioral control
 Lack of realistic long-term goals
 Impulsivity
 Irresponsibility
 Juvenile delinquency
 Early behavior problems
 Revocation of conditional release
Traits not correlated with either factor
 Promiscuous sexual behavior
 Many short-term marital relationships
 Criminal versatility
 Acquired behavioural sociopathy/sociological conditioning

The lack of empathy and grandiosity stand out for me. I’m sure there are also plenty of psychopaths in the political world, who put on an excellent show of cuddling babies at election time. When the empathy goes, all that is left is the predator who desires to win. I think a lot of gurus have psychopathic traits: disciples are there to feed the guru's grandiosity, and when they no longer fit in or are useful, they are quickly dropped. Jon Ronson also makes the point that if you are a psychopath from a poor background, you end up in prison; and if you are from a privileged background, you end up running a business!

I don’t know if Sir Fred Goodwin, ex-head of the Royal Bank of Scotland, has psychopathic traits. He was known as Fred the Shred for his ruthless cost-cutting style. He eventually led the bank to disaster, and had to be bailed out by the government. He walked off with a huge and controversial pension pot (which he eventually agreed to reduce), and in the UK he has come to symbolise everything that was wrong with the banking system. His successor at RBS (which is still mainly government owned) has just foregone a £1m bonus after huge political pressure and a lacklustre performance. Two days ago Sir Fred was stripped of his knighthood, which had been for ‘services to banking.’ I don’t know if I’m for against the honours system, but I like seeing excellence rewarded. It seems right that Sir Fred lost his knighthood, but it wasn’t entirely for the right reasons. Even George Osborne, the Chancellor, was justifying the stripping in terms of Goodwin being a symbol of what was wrong with the system. If you are doing something to someone because they are a symbol, then that indicates it is a witchhunt. It is the wrong reason.

But Fred was and is a symbol. He never admitted any wrongdoing, but you can’t afford to when you are the subject of a witchhunt. In the last few years he has lost everything: his career, his reputation and his marriage. It is Shakespearean watching somebody being destroyed like this. It was clearly his own doing, but it was also the mob.

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Fred was born 17 Aug 1958. He has Sun in Leo conjunct Pluto and opposite Chiron. When RBS had to be rescued in 2008, Neptune was in the process of conjoining his Chiron and opposing his Sun. Both Chiron and Neptune are associated with scapegoating, and Neptune and Leo are both associated with grandiosity.

Now as Neptune moves on to oppose his Pluto at 2 Virgo, the long process is completing with the loss of his knighthood, which is also a loss (Neptune) of his power (Pluto.) You never know with people. If the guy is irredeemiably superficial, then he will never recover, for he is virtually unemployable. But Sun-Pluto has a propensity towards depth, towards developing a basis in yourself that is authentic, that does not need the worldly trappings. The sort of destruction he has been through may be the necessary catalyst. You never know. John Profumo was the Defence Secretary in 1963 when it transpired he had been seeing a prostitute who also had relations with the Soviet Naval Attaché. He lied to Parliament about it, and was eventually disgraced. Profumo also had Neptune hard-aspecting his Sun at the time, and he went on to be awarded the CBE for charity work.

Back to The Psychopath Test. There is a story in the book (which I had heard before) where someone put American psychiatry to the test. He got a load of volunteers to go to different mental hospitals and act perfectly normally, except to say they occasionally heard a word in their head that said thud or echo. All these volunteers were quickly diagnosed as schizophrenic and locked up. It took them up to 2 months to talk their way out of the institutions. When the results were published, the profession was furious, and said that if they cared to do the experiment again, they would spot all the volunteers for what they were. The experiment duly went ahead, and the mental hospitals proudly declared they had spotted 40 imposters, only to be told that none had presented themselves!

It was a body-blow to the reputation of psychiatry in the US. And rightly so, for it is a pseudo-science. We know very little about the brain, let alone, for example, about the effect of psychiatric drugs on the brain. Yet they are administered freely. It can be a way of controlling embarrassing non-conformity in the population.

Ron Jonson also mentions the rise in the diagnoses of bi-polarity. He suggests that there are such strong pressures to conform in society, that if someone is different, then getting a label like bi-polar can be a way of helping that person to feel OK about being different. I've noticed that celebrities sometimes wear these diagnoses as a sort of badge. But maybe for them it is also a way of coping with fame. Keith Richards said that heroin addiction was his way of keeping his feet on the ground in the early years of the Rolling Stones.

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