Monday, January 4, 2010

Environment vs. Wiring - a Response

Environment does play an important part in dysfunctional families. It also can be pivitol whether someone on the psychopathy checklist progresses across the threshold to being a full blown psychopath. However, with the research that is currently being done, it appears that a precondition of being on the list is a miswiring of the brain and its ability to have empathy. There are people who are destructive individuals through environment alone, but they are not on the checklist (they fall in the broader catagory of anti-social personality disorder).

Checklist behaviour can also result from brain injury or tumours. The first important observation of of this was the case of a railroad dynamite tamper named Gage who had an iron rod blown through his head, but managed to pick himself up and appeared, miraculously, to escape serious injury. What was noted is that his behaviour completely changed from being a careful, conscientious family man and reliable employee to a shiftless, violent individual who left his family and became penniless. A more recent case may be the man who abducted the young girl and kept her in his backyard while he fathered two children with her. As reprehensible as his behaviour is, reports from family and people who knew him growing up indicated that his behaviour changed radically after he had a motorcycle accident. Although both men, after their accidents, would score high on the checklist, they are recognized as being something other then psychopaths. I believe that researchers have referred to it as injury induced psychopathy. (It is interesting to note that a high percentage of homeless men have been found to have suffered, at one point or another, from head injuries. Although different injuries will affect different parts of the brain and produce variable disfunction. Many others are the victims of extreme abuse including sexual.)

An over reliance on environmental causes for mental illness has double victimized families that are already under incredible strain. It wasn't until the nineties that North America began to stop claiming that autism was caused exclusively by frigid mothering and began acknowledging that their were organic causes to the disorder. Think about that for a minute: mothers who had special needs children were told that their child's problems were caused solely by their own inadequate mothering. That fits into my definition of cruelty and influences my criticism of psychology when it is reluctant to give up cherished theories and apply more up to date information on how the mind works.

The term sociopath, which is essentially the same as psychopath, is usually used by people who believe that the behaviour is more narrowly caused by environmental factors. This was my criticism of Martha Stout's book. And yes, the home life of a psychopath has a higher than average chance of being dysfunctional. One reason for this is that the miswiring is a heritable condition making it likely that at least one of the parents could be on the checklist and, as we see with the example of Sarah Palin, they make appalling parents. It is also quite likely that other siblings and relatives would have the miswiring as well - making the entire family toxic. But, even in cases where the rest of the family members are unaffected by the wiring glitch, we can not discount the effect that a budding psychopathic child will have on his home life. There are many people who read this blog who can testify to this from their own personal experience.

lilylake, the reason the checklist was developed in the first place was because of the utter lack of consistency in the research being done on psychopathy up to that point. Everyone was defining psychopaths differently, based on their personal beliefs, which made the results inconsistent and unusable. The checklist has been in place now for over two and a half decades and has lead to a greater understanding of what the problems and causes are for this condition as well as a better understanding of how to best treat them. That is one of the reasons that people with known injury induced psychopathic behaviour or environmentally caused anti-social behaviour are not included in the classification to keep the research as clear as possible.

I would suggest you may want to read Steven Pinker's excellent book The Blank Slate to have a better understanding on the origins of the nature vs. nurture debate. Like all of Pinker's books,it is fascinating on a number of levels.


  1. Vera: link to NPR's story about Phineas Gage

    Thank you for your expertise. As an 'escapee' of a terrifically dysfunctional family, I cannot express how frightening it is to be a child untethered.