Showing posts with label brain. Show all posts
Showing posts with label brain. Show all posts

11 March 2018

The making of a psychopath - A vignette

by Mary Fernando

If Leigh Lundin suggests an article topic, it is always one that is both intriguing and complicated. His ideas keep me up at night. They get under my skin.

When Leigh asked me what creates a psychopath, I knew that was a question worth tackling. It is too big a question to answer fully. I would, however, like to present a small vignette, a window into this issue: please let me introduce Phineas Gage and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, or VMPC.

In 1848, a railway foreman named Phineas Gage, had a horrific accident. An explosion shot a metal rod shot through his head. If you look at the diagram of how the rod entered his brain, the fact he survived was remarkable. At first it appeared that Phineas survived the accident with his physical and mental abilities intact. However, as time passed, it became increasingly clear that his personality changed. He went from being a well-liked, balanced man who was socially adept, to being socially inappropriate and uncaring.

Phineas and metal rod
Phineas and metal rod
What is interesting for the purposes of our question, is that Phineas developed an ‘acquired sociopathy’, or ‘pseudo-psychopathy’. Since then, we have noted that lesions to this part of the brain have left other people with similar impairments, with otherwise normal intellectual function. They have an absence of empathy. They lack interest in the well-being of others.

Every area of the brain is a true team player. No area functions independently, each receiving inputs from many areas and sending outputs to many areas. So, to just talk about one area is a little odd but for the purposes of this essay, I will treat the VMPFC as a sole player. It deserves a spotlight and to take centre stage.

We know that damage to this area causes a defect in empathy. However, few psychopaths have injuries to their brain like Phineas. There may be a genetic component to the development of psychopaths, but here I would like to concentrate on the development of this area.

The VMPC does not come fully developed at birth. It grows and develops, most rapidly before one year of age, and continuing during early childhood.

The VMPC changes in response to the relationships the baby has which can either enhance or diminish its growth.

Enhancing the VMPC growth comes from being loved, with hugs, holding and – most importantly – a responsive adult who says, hey, you are hungry, scared, alone, in pain, let me help. I will hold you, feed you, take care of you. That interaction is the opposite of neglect. It is love in action. And love for a baby is always love in action. From this, the baby gets the social information to form connections later on, and the happiness bathes the VMPC with growth enhancing substances released by the brain.

If an infant is neglected, the VMPC does not grow as successfully, in part, because of the lack of social information and growth enhancing substances. The rest of the story is that the stress of being unattended bathes the baby’s brain in the stress hormone - cortisol - that has a corrosive impact on brain development. This is not an all-or-nothing situation. However, true neglect, like that found in infants raised in orphanages with no interaction, results in true deficits. In some severely neglected infants, we find a functional hole in not just the VMPC, but in the area around it called the orbitofrontal cortex.

Abuse is another way that the VMPC gets damaged. The VMPC of a frightened infant will be bathed in corrosive cortisol and that does not bode well for future empathy.

Now that I have introduced a few of the players in the crafting of a psychopath, I would like to emphasize another one: nuance. Many neglected and abused people do not turn into psychopaths. There is something in the severity of the early experiences and also, likely, a genetic predisposition.

A final thought. For mystery writers, the issue is often about murder and, quite frankly, most murders are not committed by psychopaths. The vast number of murders are committed by people who forget to look into someone’s eyes and see another person. This can be momentary or it can be part of a general lack of empathy. So, nuance means that people who are neglected and/or abused may have a deficit of empathy that allows them to commit murder.

If Phineas and the VMPC have another lesson to teach us, I believe it is that we need to treat our infants well. We all make mistakes as parents but if, on balance, we love them, hold them and don't let them live in fear, we are likely to grow that part of the brain that allows them the most human gift of all: empathy.

08 April 2013

Lost Ideas

Jan GrapeI'm thrilled the President is backing research on mapping the brain. Mainly, because I'd like to know where my brilliant ideas go inside my brain when I lose them. Does this ever happen to you? I can't understand it and it's wonderful that scientist are going to map out the brain. I wonder if it will be like a file cabinet and things will be labeled alphabetically? Or will they just handle things regionally? Texas things here. NY things here. California things over here. Music, art, literature, science, mathematics, food, wine, sex, uh oh. I really don't care I just want to access those awesome ideas when I have them.

The aggravation is, I know I had a wonderful idea for this post last week. It was on writing and the lessons were perfect for the beginning writer, for the advance writer and for the astute reader. I had examples I planned to use and even thought of book covers I could incorporate. But silly me, I didn't write any of this down. You see, I was laying (lying?) in bed trying to go to sleep and my brain was running about 120 miles per hour. It happens to me at least twice a week. I just can't turn off my brain and go to sleep.

So I'm lying (laying)? there and suddenly I began having a brainstorm. I'll bet at least half of those 86 billion neutrons were popping at the speed of light and the thoughts kept blinking off and on. Off and on. I'd have a good thought and that in turn would melt into another related good thought. The next idea flowed into another and it all made wonderful sense.

I know, I know, I probably should have gotten up, picked up my pad and pen from my night stand and made notes. Problem is, I was so comfortable. I had my body in exactly the right position so that nothing hurt and it was so nice that I just didn't want to move. When you get to be my age, good sleeping positions are to be cherished and the worst thing you can do is move a muscle. Because once you move, that warm comfy position somehow slips away. No matter how much you try, after you get up, to get back into that comfort zone you just can't find it. It's gone. Where I don't know, but perhaps with the brain mapping there will be a cabinet drawer that's labeled "Comfort Zone For Sleeping." Lord, I hope so.

So I'm totally comfortable and I'm not about to move. The next best thing is to sternly tell myself, "Self, this is important. This will make a super article for my SleuthSayers blogspot." Okay, so I repeat several times what I believe is the main theme of my article. I mentally write on my forehead, as if it were a note pad. Number 1: The fantastic way to do this is by writing...this. Number 2: It's very easy to do, all you have to do is...this. Number 3: Show examples of this. Number 4: Get someone to show you how to pull book covers off web sites and put into your article. Finally, Number 5: bring it all together in a meaningful way and got this.

That's when the danged alarm went off and it was time to get up and get ready for my bowling league. I was exhausted because I had not slept a wink all night because I had this extraordinary idea to write for my blog. However, I couldn't remember any of it except all the meaningless things.. Like being too comfortable to get up and make notes. Like talking sternly to myself and saying "You will remember, you will remember, your will remember." Like mentally writing bullet number points on my forehead as it it was a lined sheet of paper.

BUT I had absolutely no idea what my article idea was about. Nothing. Nada. No way. I've tried every day for nine days to remember. Used every trick I could think of to bring it all back to mind and nothing works. Which means that y'all now have this silly little article about my forgetfulness and my frustration. As my Mama used to say, "It's aggra-fretting."

Please Doctor Scientist, hurry up and get our brains mapped so I can know exactly where to go in my mind to find those super ideas that I manage to come up with. And maybe, just maybe that awesome idea is there, filed away somewhere in my mental file cabinet and I'll be able to resurrect it and write it up for all of you to read.

26 February 2012

Meditation On Imagination and Logic

by Louis Willis

I’m not sure what adjective describes what I’m doing in this post. Brainstorming? No, it takes more than one person to do that. Speculating? No, wrong connotation; meditating is probably the word for what I’m doing. I got the idea of calling this post a meditation from an essay “A Few Thoughts on the Meditative Essay” by Robert Vivian in which he says the essay is more pondering and contemplation than opinions and ideas (I paraphrase).

After reading Dixon’s post on Print Zombies, and thinking about the post on whether to outline or not to outline, I couldn’t stop my left brain from thinking theoretically, which it does occasionally without any prompting from me. I sometimes read as much theory as I can stand without getting a headache, thinking it will help me understand and enjoy fiction on deeper level. You know what I’m talking about, all that headache-inducing stuff called deconstruction, postmodernism, reader-response, aestheticism, ethical criticism, and a whole lot of other theories of literature and criticism. All that theory stuff does is interfere with my enjoyment of a good story.
Nevertheless, the theorist in me had to get out, so the left brain just kicked the right brain to the side and took over, and the result is this article. It is not about theory of storytelling but a meditation on the imagination and logic in the creative process, that is, their relationship to each other and function in the art of storytelling (okay, it is a meditation on the theory of imagination and logic). 

When you start a story, do you use logic and say I’ll write about so and so. Maybe, but at some point, your imagination takes over, whether you want it to or not, and your muse offers her help in letting your imagination roam where it may. The subconscious probably takes over at some point in the creative process before logic steps in. Thus, you have already told the story in your imagination but not in a coherent order—an outline puts it in order. If you don’t put the outline on paper, logic demands you think outline: how does this character function, what is the need for this scene; how can I make this character come alive? Logic edits and in some cases sanitizes what goes  in and what’s left out of a story. Whether to outline or not outline doesn’t matter because imagination and logic are at work no matter what, and if properly used can prevent those Print Zombies from remaining so dry.

Anxiety, the feeling that you might miss an editor-imposed or self-imposed deadline, or that for some reason, the story isn’t right, or maybe imagination has gone hog wild (a cliché and I don’t even know what it means), you stop and think, and logic sees an opening and rushes (well maybe not so quickly) in to provide answers.

As for the Print Zombies, what is missing is a lack of imagination and too much logic. And maybe a little laziness is present.