Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Stuff: Sympathy for the poor devil.

Over at the Frontal Cortex blog, Jonah Lehrer discusses the insights psychopaths give us into moral behavior. His takeaway is that morality is an emotional, rather than a rational, response to the world around us. His argument rests on the fact that psychopaths "seem to have perfectly functioning minds. Their working memory isn't impaired, they have excellent language skills, and they don't have reduced attention spans. In fact, a few studies have found that psychopaths have above-average IQs and reasoning abilities; their logic is impeccable." The problem is that their emotional reactions are stunted or nonexistent. Which leads us to the part that gets interesting for horror fanciers:

When normal people are shown staged videos of strangers being subjected to a powerful electrical shock or other painful stimulus, they automatically generate a visceral emotional reaction. Their hands start to sweat, and their blood pressure surges. But psychopaths feel nothing. It's as if they were watching a blank screen. Most people react differently to emotionally charged verbs like kill or rape than to neutral words like sit or walk, but not psychopaths. The words all seem equivalent. When criminologists looked at the most violent wife batterers, they discovered that, as the men became more and more aggressive, their blood pressure and pulse actually dropped. The acts of violence had a calming effect.

So, despite the conventional wisdom assumption that psychopaths would show an obsessive interest in media violence – think of Patrick Bateman's use of Texas Chainsaw Massacre as porn – the research suggests otherwise: Horrific images bore psychos.

This reminds me of an assertion made by horror writer Joe Hill that the defining characteristic of horror was sympathy. In his Heart-Shaped Box his smuggles in something of a manifesto: "Horror was rooted in sympathy, after all, in understanding what it would be like to suffer the worst."

Perhaps psychopaths reveal something fundamental about the sensation of horror. One of the traditional knots of horror fandom is how one should divide the horror experiences into a taxonomy. The explicit versus the implicit, terror versus horror, the uncanny versus the possible, and so on. But, the odd immunity of psychopaths to horrific imagery might suggest a common, more primal connection. Perhaps, no matter how you slice it, all horror, regardless of final affect, starts with a moral sympathy. Before you can anticipate the terrible or revolt at the image of the horrible laid bare, you have to be able to create a connection between the suffering or threatened other and yourself. That link is a prerequisite act of sympathy.

Thoughts?

5 comments:

WriterME said...

Interesting stuff. Being a 'late' horror fan myself (I didn't really get into it until I was hitting 20), I've been trying to figure out why I enjoy it as much as I do. Put into the mix I was scared of my own shadow for a long time, and it gets even more confusing.

On a personal note, for me it is mostly about 'realism'. Not so much in terms of themes, but because it shows the dirty side of life. Romantic comedies... How likely is this 'love at first sight' thing, really? (yes, in my world, you're more likely to be killed horribly by hillbillies than fall in love ;))

To add another aspect to the mix: this article describes the response to happenings, and notes that the basic reaction in the brain to imagining something happening, seeing it happening to someone else, and actually experiencing it is virtually the same: http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0002939

Curt Purcell said...

It sounds like the first study noted that the psychopaths had to use the same mental "workaround" to successfully attribute emotions, regardless whether they were positive or negative; though you're probably right, the role you attribute to sympathy might be too fundamental to restrict the point to just horror.

K. R. Seward said...

Cool post. Tho' I don't know how to feel . . .

Um, sorry: it would seem to imply that a fan of horror endures & operates with sympathy rather than brushing it aside. Damn, that must hurt.

Okay, I'm back to: cool post. Thanks.

Bill said...

Perhaps in many cases the fear response is beaten (or abused) out of them, erased when young. They haven't any real fear, or fellow-feeling receptors left in their amygdala, etc. All used up. I think I read somewhere that the notion of others, and an under-standing of how another person feels only begins to develop in children between the ages of 3-5 years old and anything could happen to a mind in development before that. Maybe even something simple, that an adult couldn't fathom, if repeated over time might warp a childs mind.

Christian said...

Good post, but I must take issue with the "seem to have perfectly functioning minds. Their working memory isn't impaired, they have excellent language skills, and they don't have reduced attention spans. In fact, a few studies have found that psychopaths have above-average IQs and reasoning abilities; their logic is impeccable." quote.


First off, emotional intelligence is an intelligence. If you don't possess empathy or sympathy, then you don't have a functioning mind. Secondly, lacking the ability to relate to others and understand others' perspective, then your logic will become flawed. If you don't consider other people to be people like yourself, your logic in regards to these people will be impaired.