Music Makes My Amygdala Randy

Blog FourI am what you call a music whore. If I want to be more specific, an iPod whore. The radio frustrates me to no end and a CD of the same artist becomes too redundant and boring too quickly. So, iPod it is and it must be my own. Even then I tend to flip through a bunch of songs at a time to impulsively and randomly choose songs that are acceptable to listen to at the time…which endlessly annoys my partner.

Whiskey Lullaby by Brad Paisley and Alison Krauss sounds out briefly and before I can skip it, my partner quickly turns it up and I roll my eyes. Of course, this is the emo song he decides to insist upon. We sing to it and he mentions that it’s a good song he would typically listen to for artistic inspiration. So I choose to play another song that I know makes him tear up, sensitive little empath that he is: Oklahoma by Billy Gilman. Twice the inspiration for him, I tease.

Toward the end, my partner starts bringing up how music affects him. He asks me if I ever get this particular feeling in my face from emotionally riveting things. I had no clue what he was asking. No, I can’t say I’ve ever felt something in my face. He proceeds to explain to me the feeling/reaction, how it stretches through his face and to the back of his skull.

I try to supply analogies and descriptions to better grasp what the hell he’s trying to tell me: like a sinus infection? No, not like a pressure. Fuzzies? (I’m now imagining moldy fuzz spreading inside the sinuses of his face. That doesn’t seem like it would feel pleasurable.) Kinda? It resonates through your head? Yeah, yeah that’s a good word for it.

I went back to him a little while later to get some more clarification on what this reactive feeling he gets. This is what he came up with:

It starts off small, and it basically feels like the beginning of when your arm hair raises but it’s in my face. It never covers the front of my face. It starts underneath my skin at my jaw or sometimes the back of my head and blossoms out and around. It resonates. And if I kinda just concentrate on it I kinda shudder. Beyond that it’s just the way it feels…basically it…it’s like a wave of emotions.

At this, I look at him dubiously. He continues on, trying to get the right words out.

Just like something just kinda crashes into me from the inside of me, out. Does that make sense?

I continue to stare at him, silently egging him. I’m getting a better picture of this Connection Feeling, but I like to make him feel nervous, like he’s doing a bad job, to see what else comes out of him. Sometimes I’ll get poetry. Other times, well, not so much.

It’s like…alright, picture this: it’s like water rushing out of a one-way valve and pretend there’s a “C” right here (he holds his hand out in front of him in the shape of the letter), a wall here (his other hand comes out, standing up flat), the water rushes through the wall, goes up the “C” to curve back and hit me, then hits the inside, too, so it’s like a whoosh! You’re just taking in what the person’s giving out and it amplifies inside of you.

Just in your head, I ask.

Arms, top of my spine through my neck, and my head and part of my face. Sometimes I feel like how the other person feels…but worse. Like, I see them sad over there and I’m devastated.

My answer to him in the car, by the way, was no. I absolutely love music and by extension musicals. I love movies and certain television shows. While I primarily enjoy comedies and sci-fi/fantasy type movies, I tend to favor emotional stories, stories with very good depth. Even more so when it comes to musicals and songs. Music especially, I love. I constantly sing along to everything on my iPod. I am well acquainted with most things percussion, I play the piano, and I’m currently self-teaching myself the cello.

But do I resonate with any of it? I don’t and I have no recollection of ever resonating with anything, particularly in the way my partner attempted to describe. I will, however, have reactions. The most common of reactions being the arm hair raising, usually during musicals numbers. The other reaction I’ve experienced would be crying and this is always caused by movies. I never cry without having the full experience of a story: the visual, the situation, the scoring or accompanying song. If a scene tells its story so well that I am focused so intently on what’s happening, then I’ve found that I can zero in on the dominating emotion, like tuning into a specific frequency. And cry. But it is never intense. I am never sad for the character. I am sad for myself, thinking that yes, this would be a sad thing to happen to me. Though while I am going through a brief sad moment, my partner is next to me going through a trauma and wanting to hold and comfort the character.

It’s not that I can’t feel emotions. They are just very shallow and superficial. My thoughts are typically turned inward and I don’t make much effort to relate to others. I’m closest to my partner, I pay the most attention to him, but he’s told me that no matter what we’re talking about, even if I’m making eye contact with him and really focused on him, it always seems that I’m somewhere else. I’m taking in what he’s saying, but since 98 per cent of it is nothing but babble and redundancy I tend to devote only a portion of my attention to him. He’s long since used to it and knows the attention I give him is a lot compared to what I usually give others.

Now, why the hair raising? And yes, the nipple hardening. The two usually go together so let’s keep the reaction realistic. There is a theory that claims the amygdala, a little structure in the limbic system of the brain responsible for processing emotion, intense emotional behavior such as aggression and fear, and motivation, responds uniquely to music. It seeps into the striatum, those ancient neural pathways for reward, triggering the wonderful neurotransmitter called dopamine and affecting us in the same way sex and gambling can.

Paralimbic DescriptionThis is important in special relation to psychopaths. The Psychopath Whisperer: The Science of Those Without Conscience by Kent A. Kiehl, goes into depth on the anatomical explanation of the psychopath. In short, Dr. Kent spent decades on his research and was a pioneer in utilizing fMRI and portable MRI machinery to scan the brains of hundreds of inmates who met the criteria for psychopathy via the Psychopathy Checklist. The scans led to the discovery that the majority of subjects who met this criteria displayed a significant abnormality in the same area of the brain, namely, the paralimbic system.

This region of the brain is primarily associated with regulating attention, motivation, self-control, and emotion. According to Kiehl, his studies show that psychopaths have a 5 to 10 per cent reduced grey matter in and around these regions, resulting in severe impairment. The chief affected structure is the amygdala and when it fails to function properly the person has an impaired ability to respond to threat of punishment, perform clear, moral judgments, and grasp the emotional implications of behavior.

So why, oh why, would a psychopath be inclined toward music at all? It’s said that about 50 per cent of people experience chills when listening to music. Do psychopaths appropriately fall under this half and half chance or do they, once more, fall into their own category? If music is supposed to be emotionally charged, then would it really catch the prolonged attention, much less adoration, of the psychopath?

Dr. Oliver Sachs was involved in the case of an extremely talented psychopath who composed very emotionally charged music. Dr. Sachs speculated that the music enabled him to tap into the recesses of the brain otherwise closed off: the paralimbic region. I believe the psychopath used his talent to compose original pieces by essentially sewing together facsimiles of what he’s already heard. But I also believe that he was able to do this convincingly because the music was able to reach the amygdala and massage it in such a way to provide the insight.

On top of being musically-inclined myself I am also talented in drawing and painting and carving, but I admit my talent has always been superficial in the fact that I can copy things very well but my creativity is lacking. Even in music I am much better in percussion for the rhythms rather than easily tapping into a melody. There isn’t anything that resonates with me in the way my partner was describing that would inspire the originality. I have ideas that can lead to other ideas but I cannot say I’ve ever been truly inspired.

But I try. Oh, I try, because learning tools aside, I feel the music do something. I steer away from Christmas music, most country, sappy songs and soul songs, Christian music. These genres are usually centered on extreme emotion and, in my opinion, try too hard to be emotional. It sounds fabricated and unnecessarily “deep”. I still prefer music that sounds genuine and while it doesn’t “move” me, it gives me an appreciation that I haven’t found with other things.

Perhaps it really does stroke that little part of my lizard brain and creates a weak bridge of dopamine-soaked pleasure between the parts that don’t like to work and the rest that goes about everyday life without ever knowing it’s incomplete.

I’m Not Kidding…Or Am I?

WednesdayI’m now at that wonderful age when I am surrounded by people who either have kids, are having kids, or asking me when I’ll have kids.

It is incredibly annoying and I hold each one in as much disdain as I can muster. With a smile and a subtle insult that we all laugh at, of course.

Personally, I’ve never been inclined to have children in any way, shape, or form. To some I’m just being obstinate and, no worries, I’ll be changing that tune as I get older. To most people this translates as hating kids. I really don’t but it’s simpler to deal with the masses and simply declare that yes, I hate the little shits. Usually, if I do have a problem with a child it’s more to do with the parents and their questionable, or lack thereof, rearing skills. Parents make children assholes and then fail to fix the problem.

In actuality, children are not that bothersome and are much more natural to hold a genuine conversation with than most adults. Child psychology theorizes that children are essentially born sociopaths (the term, of course, used loosely). With maturity and social interaction they grow out of their natural narcissistic qualities as they discover and adhere to the societal norm. Because of this, I’ve found that kids and I tend to be on a similar wavelength and I find myself being more honest with them.

Despite my stand-off attitude around them, children relentlessly gravitate toward me. Not unlike cats who can sense when a human doesn’t want it around. I gain favor quickly with kids because when they ask me questions, I answer truthfully. If I answer meanly then it’s taken at face value or laughed off as a joke. I don’t talk down to them because I don’t make much distinction between child and adult. You would be surprised just how much children appreciate not being cooed at like a pet. I’ll play just about anything they want me to if it catches my interest and I’m always happy to color and draw. Beats making irritating small talk with the bigger humans.

And when I’m finished playing and wish to be alone, I tell them as much. If this doesn’t go over well and I’m not left alone (or I’m followed), I’ll threaten the child. I always give warning because I believe in being fair. If I’m not left alone then sometimes I’ll do something minor like push one kid into another, break a favored toy, etc. and then blame the child. The other adults only see an upset kid and so I let the kid yell out what I did, I laugh astonished and explain what “really happened”, then sit back as the kid gets reprimanded and sent off to another room or outside. After all, I did warn it.

Now, do I want this to be a part of my everyday life? Not at all. I don’t mind children but to be perfectly honest, I am too self-centered to be bothered with one and would probably need supervision; no doubt I’d forget to feed it and crying is not something I tolerate. But, if I wish to keep a happy, baby-crazy partner, then a kid is something I would need to allow.

Man, if I had a kid…

I think I’d rather have a sociopathic kid, a boy. Not a girl because my partner would spoil the little thing rotten and a spoiled princess of a sociopath-like child would not a happy household make. No, sociopathic children are in extreme need of boundaries and stability. Something my own mom was very good at providing. Always saying how unique and special I am, I never knew if my mom was aware of just how true that was. From Sheriff’s audio transcriber to correctional officer to Master’s degree holder in criminal justice, perhaps my mom just knew what red flags to look for in a child that needs extra attention and precise rearing in order to instill some sort of moral compass.

Whatever the case may be, I believe having a kid who thinks like me would be much better than having one that thinks like my partner. What my mom provided for me, worked, and what I know of what works for me, would be passed on.

In short, I would be an amazing parent.

Can Sociopaths be Taught Empathy?

Inside OutLast week, my partner convinced me to see Disney Pixar’s, Inside Out. The movie presented a fun concept but looked very childish in its trailers so I wasn’t very cooperative. Because I’m essentially stuck in perpetual boredom, he finally got me in the theater. Five minutes in and I’m already intrigued. By the end of the movie I was somewhat impressed by the film’s presentation of emotions and how those emotions interact with the host, other emotions, and their part in creating “core memories”, the fundamentals of a person.

Part of the I-Lack-Empathy package includes the difficulty or inability to accurately identify expressions in another person and, by extension, the emotions that person is experiencing at the time. I go through life by trial-and-error when it comes to reading people and I’ve become very good at it. If I don’t have a lot of context, however, and that person is giving me misinformation on his actual feelings, then it gets very difficult to get a proper read and thus respond appropriately.

Inside Out was one of the most emotionally comprehensive movies I’ve ever seen because I really had no excuse to be confused at any point. Primary emotions were each represented by a physical character and every scene flipped back and forth between action and emotion. When memories were created, the process was shown by the emotions filing them away into the person’s mind after being color-coded, displaying which emotion was dominant in causing a particular experience. Then, we have the core memories, the fundamental experiences that influence the character of a person. Plugged into a special memory bank, these core memories created a physical representation of islands, i.e. Family Island, Friend Island, Goofy Island, Hockey Island. Granted, the core memories and their corresponding islands didn’t exactly provide very much depth for the concept, but this is representing the mind of a child, I suppose.

Now, a common misconception of sociopaths is that they have a complete lack of empathy. In actuality, sociopaths have little to no emotional empathy, but they do have the capacity, a heightened capacity even, for cognitive empathy. This means that while empathy does not come automatically or spontaneously certain things can be laid out specifically in order for the sociopath to comprehend an emotional cue/event, or when the sociopath is independently interacting with other people, he is using analytical intelligence to deduct and understand a person’s emotional being. After all, sociopaths could not be such successful mimickers and manipulators without possessing some level of cognitive empathy.

I came across an article that relates to this. I’ll touch on some points but if you would like to read the article yourself, here’s the link:

A brain imaging study in the Netherlands shows individuals with psychopathy have reduced empathy while witnessing the pains of others. When asked to empathize, however, they can activate their empathy. This could explain why psychopathic individuals can be callous and socially cunning at the same time.

The study consisted of 18 psychopathic individuals with a control group in a three-step process.

“All participants first watched short movie clips of two people interacting with each other, zoomed in on their hands. The movie clips showed one hand touching the other in a loving, a painful, a socially rejecting or a neutral way. At this stage, we asked them to look at these movies just as they would watch one of their favourite films”, Harma Meffert, the first author of the paper, explains. “Next, the participants watched the same clips again. This time, however, the researchers prompted them explicitly to ‘empathise with one of the actors in the movie’. In the third and final part, we performed similar hand interactions with the participants themselves, while they were lying in the scanner, having their brain activity measured. We wanted to know to what extent they would activate the same brain regions while they were watching the hand interactions in the movies, as they would when they were experiencing these same hand interactions themselves.”

At first, the psychopaths did not respond, or empathize, with the clips. Brain scans showed very little activity in the appropriate regions. However, in the second part, when asked to empathize, not just watch, with the subjects on screen, the differences in the emotional areas of the brain between psychopathic and non-psychopathic individuals nearly disappeared. This led to the conclusion:

“Psychopathy may not be so much the incapacity to empathize, but a reduced propensity to empathize, paired with a preserved capacity to empathize when required to do so,” explains Valeria Gazzola, Assistant Professor at the UMCG and second author of the paper … The brighter side is that the preserved capacity for empathy might be harnessed in therapy. Instead of having to create a capacity for empathy, therapies may need to focus on making the existing capacity more automatic to prevent them from further harming others. How to do so, remains at this stage uncertain.

As for the media used, I think therapists and researchers would have better consistent results if they took a page from Inside Out. They tend to favor using media clips and stills that portray unrealistic and exaggerated forms of expression. If videos were made of emotionally plausible situations and then each action in the scenes were coincided with the physical representation of the animated emotions, then I believe it would have a more enhanced and lasting impact on the sociopath. Creating an awareness in the sociopath of his or her own emotional empathy deficiency would, at the very least, create a curiosity to actively seek it out in others.

I agree that this could open up new venues for actual therapy, but I’m not so sure how effective the therapy would be. You could easily teach the sociopath how to better manipulate other people rather than inducing an emotional sensitivity to them. I will say that, in the long run, concentrating on improving the pre-existing capacity of cognitive empathy will not make much difference in the destructive qualities of a sociopath. No matter the means, sociopathic individuals very much understand the emotions of other people, even the emotions the sociopath is not prone to genuinely experience personally such as disgust or fear. The problem lies in the emotional empathy, the ability to feel and share what the other person feels. This particular capacity is very low or so low as to be non-existent.

Yes, I see that person is in physical pain. Would I appreciate the same pain? Probably not. Would I stop the other person’s pain if I had the ability to do so? I have no reason to. I might stop it or I may be preoccupied with drinking a wonderful coffee. I can’t feel his pain. I have no motivation to stop it so why would I? It’s not happening to me.

People are like pocket watches. They have these beautiful gears on the inside that make them tick and I like to pick them apart and see how they work. Sometimes I like to put them back together in a different way to see what happens. Other times I break them on accident by prodding too much. If it’s exceptionally shiny and I enjoy how it works at the time, then I may keep it for a while, like my partner. He’s been by far my favorite pocket watch for some time. I can understand these pocket watches very well (cognitive empathy), but I’ll never feel the watch break or feel the gears grind or even feel the engravings of its casing because the entire time I’m handling the watches I’ve never actually touched them (emotional empathy). I’m like the Level 4 scientist handling a pocket watch with gloves through a biosafety container. I can manipulate it but I can never feel it, not at the intensity that would motivate me toward genuine altruism.

This is, of course, not to say that I cannot be a good person. In fact, I’m very good at being nice.

First Awareness

Awareness started with my partner.

Several years ago we had moved to Japan during which we were, more often than not, each other’s sole company. At this point we had been together for nearly two years and he was very accepting of my apparent split condition. I have DID, or Dissociative Identity Disorder, more commonly known as Multiple Personality Disorder. I share my body with two alters who usually do not cause much trouble for me.

He started to notice things about my personality that went beyond the quirks of disassociation. When presented with a friend or family member’s death, I would fascinatedly inquire how it happened, when it happened, where it happened rather than express even mild grief or concern. As an empath, this disturbed him, but ultimately thought not much of it. He would answer my questions and then encourage me to be more sensitive when talking to others surrounding the death.

Next came the Yawning Trials. Unbeknownst to me, my partner took to heart a suggestion from a wonderful television show, Bones. Psychopaths will not naturally yawn around other yawning individuals as they do not possess the empathy for it to trigger the bodily reaction. To test his growing theory, he was careful to watch me every time he felt a yawn coming on. And to his concern, I never yawned once in reaction to him. In fact, he once noticed me notice him yawning and I unconvincingly faked my own in response.

Finally, he began making passive aggressive comments about my being a sociopath. I barely took notice to the remarks, just laughing them off as jokes while throwing out a random reason on why I am obviously not a sociopath. But then he would make these same comments while we had friends in the car or were entertaining guests. I started to feel like he was trying to out me or take away my cover and it was then that I not only realized that perhaps he was not joking, but if there was any merit to his claims.

I confronted him on his thoughts and he believed that I had sociopathic, or rather antisocial, qualities. This instigated my curiosity and I began my own research into the spectrum of antisocial personalities. So much of my life started to fall into place and I had an understanding of myself that I’d never had before. I discovered Portrait of a Sociopath by M.E. Thomas and never had a book speak out to me as this one did.

While there is a difference between psychopath and sociopath, the terms are often used interchangeably. Since I do not know if my personality is due to biological differences I will refer to myself as sociopathic. I have not been officially diagnosed through the Psychopathy Checklist, however, logic and personal history dictates that I am a high-functioning sociopath.

I thoroughly enjoyed M.E. Thomas’ book as well as her weblog, Sociopath World. I agree that there is not nearly enough positive information regarding not only sociopaths, but anyone located on the antisocial spectrum. The purpose of this blog is to provide a neutral, if not positive, outlook on the high-functioning sociopath and perhaps create a better understanding of the inner motivations of such individuals.

As I had mentioned earlier in this post, I also identify with DID, which I suppose is a contradiction in the psychology world. This blog will no doubt focus largely on sociopathy but I plan on keeping it open to the antisocial spectrum as well as personality disorders in general. I will admit that I am primarily driven out of boredom in doing this blog. It is very likely that this could be my only post or I may continue for much longer. Either way, I am curious to see where this goes.