The Psychopath, Modern Science, and the Therapist

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John Seabrook, author of the book Flash of Genius and Other True Stories of Invention writes on the subject of Suffering Souls in the November 10, 2008, issue of The New Yorker.

Can new and improved MRI techniques identify and help analysts deal with psychopaths? The psychopath, think characters in a Thomas Harris novel, also falling under the label “antisocial personality disordered,” are considered untreatable. Faced with the psychopath’s penetrating, mesmerizing stare, the therapist is often reduced to a quivering mass. Or the therapist becomes an enabler of the manipulative psychopath, somewhat in the tradition of the so-called Stockholm syndrome.

Psychopathology is undoubtedly a form of mental illness; but it is distinct, and is not universally recognized as such. Cognitive neuroscience has seen the development of fMRI studies. To date, fMRI studies only reinforce different models of psychopathology. But there are high hopes for the portable scanner developed by Dr. Kent Kiehl. Kiehl is described by Seabrook as a techie whose early training in psychopathology coincided with the emergence of computerized neuro-imaging devices.

Whether Dr. Kiehl succeeds in guaranteeing that psychopathy be accepted as a mental disorder among the cold, calculating, and often urbane people who display it, and whether psychopathology will in time become a “treatable condition,” the database Kiehl is amassing, among a population heretofore amorphously identified, will undoubtedly benefit society.

The American Mental Health Foundation applauds this and all research into the unknown abnormalities of the human psyche: which we generally know is, appropriately, the ancient Greek word for the Soul.

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