Crim­i­nal MINDS

Study­ing psy­chopaths’ brains re­veals phys­i­cal flaws

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS -

IT’S just as well Kent Kiehl doesn’t get to take his work home. His fas­ci­na­tion is crim­i­nal psy­chopaths, a capri­cious com­bi­na­tion of crime and flawed think­ing that pro­duces at its worst a liv­ing nightmare — a cun­ning, scary, dan­ger­ous crook who seem­ingly can’t be hu­man, yet seems per­sua­sively so. In The Psy­chopath Whis­perer, brain sci­en­tist Kiehl writes with colour and skill about these people be­hind bars. Many of his sub­jects are ca­reer crim­i­nals in max­i­mum-se­cu­rity de­ten­tion for a va­ri­ety of se­ri­ous, of­ten vi­o­lent crimes, in­clud­ing mul­ti­ple mur­ders, rapes, as­saults sas­saults and/or rob­beries. As the men at the top of the psy­cho­pathic food chain, they’re outwardly civ­i­lized, but in re­al­ity are as de­struc­tive or lethal as a smil­ing Rot­tweiler or Anthony Hop­kins’ Han­ni­bal the can­ni­bal in The Si­lence of the Lambs. Not ev­ery crook is a psy­chopath, and not ev­ery psy­chopath a crook. But put them to­gether in the same head and yyou’ve got a truly fright­en­ing in­stru­ment that doesn’t be­have; psy­chopaths com­mit one of ev­ery four mur­ders in the U.S. Al­though es­ti­mates vary, 15 to 25 per cent of the prison pop­u­la­tion is psy­cho­pathic, as is about one per cent of adult males in the out­side pop­u­la­tion. A young, leading in­ves­ti­ga­tor of psy­chopa­thy, Kiehl in­di­cates that while progress is be­ing made, it would likely be eas­ier to tame an African lion with a wooden spoon than fig­ure out what’s cook­ing in the heads of North Amer­ica’s worst psy­chopaths — and whether sci­ence can one day free them of their self­de­struc­tive ways. An im­por­tant ques­tion Kiehl doesn’t ex­plore is whether the pub­lic sup­ports the rein­te­gra­tion of any of the men­tally ill (let alone crim­i­nal psy­chopaths) who have com­mit­ted egre­gious acts but are deemed fit thanks to drugs and/or ther­apy. Kiehl’s book is in­ter­est­ing, even ghoul­ishly en­ter­tain­ing; at times it reads like a think­ing man’s hor­ror story, or a dose of Stephen King in real life as he re­counts his ex­pe­ri­ences with chill­ing people in­side both Cana­dian and U.S. pris­ons. The worst of the psy­chopaths are in­side prison (or should be); they are ra­tio­nal and know right from wrong but just can’t care. They’re ego­cen­tric, have zero em­pa­thy, no con­science, no moral com­pass, can’t love, can smooth-talk bet­ter than a tel­e­van­ge­list and can con bet­ter than a car­ni­val barker. To call the men Kiehl stud­ies sim­ply anti-so­cial is like say­ing Cana­dian mur­der­ers Robert Pick­ton, Paul Bernardo and the late Clif­ford Olsen just don’t get along with people. Kiehl con­cludes crim­i­nal psy­chopaths’ minds are flawed. Us­ing MRI tech­nol­ogy for the first time in pris­ons, he scanned the brains of over 500 psy­chopaths as well as 3,000 vi­o­lent of­fend­ers. His ground­break­ing brain-im­agery stud­ies have ad­vanced re­search in the field by leaps and bounds, be­cause the im­ages prove what he be­lieves. These mov­ing im­ages show the brain at work, and Kiehl is able to see that psy­chopaths’ minds func­tion dif­fer­ently than ours: their brains are im­paired in a num­ber of re­gions, they find it hard to process ab­stracts, and their minds re­act to sounds in the same way as people with cer­tain brain dam­age. Long be­fore Kiehl, the late fa­mous psy­chi­a­trist Dr. Karl Men­ninger spoke of so­ci­ety’s zeal­ous pur­suit of re­venge and its un­will­ing­ness to for­give in his land­mark 1968 book, The Crime of Pun­ish­ment. Per­haps Kiehl’s work will one day help us get to the point where there will be no crime of pun­ish­ment — at least for crim­i­nal psy­chopaths — be­cause sci­ence will have found the rem­edy for their flawed brains. Or is that too much serendip­ity to ex­pect? What­ever hap­pens, we’d still be left with the venge­ful, ruth­less, nar­cis­sis­tic, trou­ble­some psy­chopaths liv­ing among us who are not crim­i­nals. And then there are the “suc­cess­ful” psy­chopaths, whose char­ac­ter traits help them do well in pol­i­tics, busi­ness and en­ter­tain­ment be­cause they’re de­ter­mined at all costs to get what they want. Some in­ves­ti­ga­tors spec­u­late these three ca­reer cat­e­gories are full of such people, but they re­ally don’t know. Un­for­tu­nately, Kiehl leaves up to us how we cope with all of this.

Barry Craig is a re­tired jour­nal­ist.

The Psy­chopath Whis­perer: The Sci­ence of Those With­out Con­science

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