Hannibal Lecter is certainly world’s most famous psychopath. I know – it’s not real. However, the anti-hero of “The Silence of the Lambs,” embodies the constellation chilling traits usually associated with this rare mental disorder. A very smart doctor and a psychiatrist, Lecter is superficially charming, even urban – at least when it’s not cannibalizing their innocent victims. Rarely is emotional, and despite the brutality of his crimes, shows absolutely no evidence of empathy or a guilty conscience.
One idea is that this psychopathic disorder is related to child temperament, courage in particular that the basis for the development of real psychopathic disorder in adulthood. There is evidence to support this idea: The psychopath have great difficulty learning about pain – to learn to avoid electric shocks and loud noises, for example – and their ability to recognize fearful faces is also impaired. Perhaps above all, psychopaths do not respond normally to the penalties induced by fear – so it is very difficult for parents and others to teach right and wrong.
Despite the popularity of the “hypothesis of the absence of fear,” a growing number of experts wonder if it is deep enough. Perhaps, say, the problem is more fundamental, perhaps neurological – a problem with attention, which makes the psychopaths who do not respond to signals that provoke fear in the world. According to this theory of competition, psychopaths seem brave because they are not paying enough attention to things that normally scare people. This theory has inspired the clinical interventions that teach children to focus consciously on emotional cues around them – an approach that has not been particularly successful.


Now another group of scientists psychological goes further, suggesting that the roots of this disorder can penetrate deeply into the unconscious mind. Patrick Sylvers, University of Washington, in collaboration with Patricia Brennan and Scott Lilienfeld of Emory, it is suspected that psychopaths may suffer a deficit in “preattentive process” – the constant, automatic analysis of their environment that takes place outside of consciousness. Theoretically, if children lack this basic cognitive machinery, never learn to decipher the normal signals of danger, and without this learned fear, and stop socializing adult consciousness.
At least that’s the theory, the scientists decided to test in the laboratory. They recruited 88 children between 7 and 11 years of age who had a history of trouble at school and at home, and are selected for them what is called “unemotionality insensitive.” This includes a disturbing indifference to the needs of others, shallow emotions and lack of remorse and empathy – very similar to the basic features of adult disease. Also tests of impulsivity and behavioral problems and signs of narcissism, as long assumed, which is also observed in many adult psychopath.
After this test, the scientists gave the children a visual test that measures unconscious emotional processing. Specifically, I wanted to know if the test subjects, compared with normal children of the same age, were slower to become aware of the faces of fear that flashed quickly – so quickly that they were registered by the conscious mind. If so, this would be evidence that the problem children are not automatically absorb the threatening signs in their world. Also shone happy faces, angry and neutral for comparison.
The results, published online in the journal Psychological Science, were clear and provocative. In fact, constitute the first evidence that children with psychopathic traits have a significant deficiency in its automated processing, unaware of certain signs – especially signs of fear, but also signs of disgust. Fear and disgust are closely related to the primitive mind, and the results suggest that these children with a disability is fundamental to recognize – “in the blink of an eye” – any kind of social danger. So maybe the roots of childhood personality of murderer Hannibal Lecter, was itself no courage, even in their conscious thought processes, but rather in their general cluelessness of society.

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How We Recognize a Psychopath