Driven by Pleasure

Driven by Pleasure.

Speculations by Stefan Stenudd

In an episode of Through the Wormhole dealing with evil and psychopathy, a neuroscientist explained how normal people and psychopaths drive their cars. He did so while driving his car. It struck me: Oh, what if he's a psychopath? It turned out he is.

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       Well, what he himself found was that his brain has the same characteristics as those of a psychopath. That doesn't necessarily mean he will start behaving like one. But it means he could.

       Here is an interview with him in Wall Street Journal. He doesn't keep it a secret. Actually, he seems quite intrigued by it.

       I was surprised at my sudden impression, telling me that the scientist talking very scientifically about psychopaths might be one, himself. In my mind, I had the impression that he was. When it was revealed that he really was, at least in the sense of his own neurological definition, I wondered what gave me the idea.

       He was sitting in his car, driving down the street, telling the camera how normal people relate to other people in traffic. But when he started to talk about how psychopaths relate to the same situation, I got the impression that his level of excitement rose. He talked about them with an ingredient of pleasure.

       That could be a core difference between psychopaths and those who are not. The latter can also, occasionally, commit brutal deeds. But they don't enjoy it. The psychopaths do.

       That's gotten lost in the conventional descriptions of psychopaths. Mainly, they are described as people lacking empathy, as if that alone would make them do evil deeds sort of automatically. Hardly. They do them when they think they can get away with it. And then, they make sure to enjoy them.

       It's about lust and its gratification. We all do a lot of things we regret, because lust pushes us. When the promise of pleasure exceeds a certain level, we can't help ourselves. You don't have to be a psychopath, stripped of empathy, to have it happen to you. But there has to be lust involved.

       We must have the lust for brutal and sadistic actions to consider them. Some people do, but not many at all, fortunately. I doubt that it's because they lack empathy. Instead, maybe it's just that their lust far exceeds any moral or empathic inhibitions.

       My impression, which I don't claim to be able to prove, is that ethics are fundamental in us all. Really fundamental. We can't ignore our sense of right and wrong, unless our brains are so damaged we probably forget how to breathe. It's a basic component of our species, and it has probably been with us for millions of years.

       Sadly, we don't have a completely trustworthy instinct as to what is right and what is wrong, in the altruistic perspective. We are easily fooled, even by ourselves. But we can't escape making an ethical judgment on everything we do. That just doesn't cease, not even in psychopaths.

       I know that a lot of psychiatrists and psychologists would disagree. But there you are. I have not found reason to change my view.

       Biologists zoom in on animals triggered by inner reward systems, such as dopamine and the like. It's not very flattering that such simple chemistry would lead our actions. But we are animals, too.

       We're strange creatures, because we're both animals and conscious beings trying to live by reason. We even call ourselves Homo sapiens sapiens, the wise wise human. But repeating it is no magic formula turning us into complete intellectual beings.

       We still have the emotions and they are responsible for most of our actions, especially the spontaneous ones and those we can't stop even if we know we should. Our wisdom is mostly at work making up excuses for them.

       We are particularly vulnerable to irrational, emotional action when we convince ourselves that our conscious minds are in control. When we pretend not to be animals. That's when our actions can get out of control, simply because we refuse to see that it's possible, so we are unprepared.

       When analyzing psychopaths as well as the rest of us, we need to recognize the animal in ourselves to have a chance of understanding why we behave the way we do. There's no guarantee that we can change if we're just aware of our animalistic instincts, but we're sure to fail if we're not.

Stefan Stenudd
August 18, 2012

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Stefan Stenudd

Stefan Stenudd

About me
I'm a Swedish author of fiction and non-fiction books in both English and Swedish. I'm also an artist, a historian of ideas, and a 7 dan Aikikai Shihan aikido instructor. Click the header to read my full bio.