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As I read all I could find about psychopathy, I found something was missing.

A key piece of the puzzle was consistently absent, and it bothered me. I wasn’t sure how much this missing piece even mattered, but it seemed important enough to make me search for it and ponder it, and to come up with a possibility of my own.

We are told that psychopathic people don’t have a conscience, that they can’t feel love or remorse, and that they don’t experience empathy as we do. I understand that, but it raises some big questions for me and I realize these questions point to the missing piece of the puzzle, which I will soon reveal.

These are the questions I find myself asking:

Are my conscience and my ability to experience love, remorse and empathy the only things that keep me from hurting others? As far as I know, I don’t even have any serious desires to hurt anyone. If I did have such desires I could understand how these qualities would stop me from acting on them, but I don’t have them and I don’t think the majority of people do, either.

So, then, does the lack of these qualities (conscience, love, remorse, empathy) in the psychopath somehow cause dark impulses to arise? That doesn’t make sense.

Or are the two unrelated, such as that in psychopathy a person lacks these qualities and also has abnormal impulses to hurt others? I’ve never read anywhere that psychopathy causes the brain to generate thoughts of harming others; I’ve only read that psychopaths lack those qualities (or at least the expression of them) probably due to the fact that psychopathy is a neurological disorder in which the emotional (feeling) parts of the brain are not connected to the executive (thinking) parts.

Image courtesy of Stefan Schweihofer

But I haven’t read anywhere that this disengagement within the brain causes thoughts of harm to arise, or is related to it in any way. In fact, so far I’ve never seen the issue of ‘the origin of thoughts of harm’ addressed in anything I’ve read or heard about psychopathy. Did I miss it? And does it really matter? Would it make a difference? Maybe not, but I’m curious about it anyway.

These “thoughts of harm” are the missing piece of the puzzle for me.

♦ If the thoughts and desires to harm others weren’t there, a psychopathic person would not be any more dangerous than anyone else. They would still be unable to experience love or empathy or remorse and still be unable to bond with others, so they wouldn’t be the best choice for a close friend or partner or parent. But they wouldn’t be dangerous.

There is a theory that the behavior of psychopathic people depends on the environment they were raised in. If they’re raised by abusive parents or in a violent neighborhood, for example, they can turn out to be violent themselves (neurotypical people are also at risk of the same fate). But if they are raised in a loving and supportive enviornment, they may turn out to be what’s known as a “pro-social” psychopath, or a psychopath who does not purposely harm others. This theory may explain it. Maybe…

But I can’t help thinking maybe there’s something more to it.

What about the ones who do grow up in loving and supportive homes, but grow to be anti-social psychopaths anyway? I’ve read about little kids who are described as “callous-unemotional” (a psychopathy diagnosis is not given to children but this term means basically the same thing, although some researchers believe that with the right treatment — which is still in development — there is still hope at this point). These kids do things like torture family pets, seriously injure infant siblings, and cause all kinds of chaos within the family. There’s a fascinating article on the subject: Can You Call a 9-Year-Old a Psychopath?

Here’s an excerpt:

“By the time he turned 5, Michael had developed an uncanny ability to switch from full-blown anger to moments of pure rationality or calculated charm — a facility that Anne describes as deeply unsettling. “You never know when you’re going to see a proper emotion,” she said…..Over the last six years, Michael’s parents have taken him to eight different therapists and received a proliferating number of diagnoses……Then last spring, the psychologist treating Michael referred his parents to Dan Waschbusch, a researcher at Florida International University. Following a battery of evaluations, Anne and Miguel were presented with another possible diagnosis: their son Michael might be a psychopath………“This isn’t like autism, where the child and parents will find support,” Edens observes. “Even if accurate, it’s a ruinous diagnosis. No one is sympathetic to the mother of a psychopath.”

“….Another psychologist described one boy who used a knife to cut off the tail of the family cat bit by bit, over a period of weeks. The boy was proud of the serial amputations, which his parents initially failed to notice…In another famous case, a 9-year-old boy…pushed a toddler into the deep end of a motel swimming pool in Florida. As the boy struggled and sank to the bottom, Bailey pulled up a chair to watch. Questioned by the police afterward, Bailey explained that he was curious to see someone drown……Mark Dadds, a psychologist at the University of New South Wales who studies antisocial behavior in children, acknowledges that “no one is comfortable labeling a 5-year-old a psychopath.” But, he says, ignoring these traits may be worse. “The research showing that this temperament exists and can be identified in young children is quite strong.”

sand sculpture of jigsaw puzzle head

This article, like the others, still does not address the missing piece of the puzzle — where do thoughts of cutting off a cat’s tail or watching someone drown, come from? Why is there an urge to harm when empathy and emotion and remorse are missing? Where does that come from, and why is it there?

What I wonder about are these things:

  • Could it be that we all have these dark thoughts emanating from somewhere deep within our brains, and that they are kept from our conscious awareness by our conscience, which acts as a gatekeeper? Is it possible that our conscience acts as a defense mechanism to protect ourselves from acknowledging these thoughts, in order to keep our self-image intact? After all, these thoughts are unacceptable to us and would be very disturbing, enough to disrupt our ability to function and to live our day-to-day lives and maintain close relationships.
  • And if that gatekeeper — the conscience — does not exist, does it then mean that those dark thoughts are let into our conscious awareness and are thus available for our consideration, unstopped by empathy and concern and love if one does decide to act on them?

♥ What are your thought on this theory? Do you have a another theory or different  ideas? What do you believe causes psychopaths to have dark thoughts? Let us know by leaving a comment. Thank you.

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