Psychopaths have always interested us, even if film and TV portrayed them at a safe distance away from our reality – until recently.
The recent resurgence in popular psychology has scrapped over-the-top depictions of serial-killers from film, alarmed readers with the notion there could be a psychopath next door in Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test, and made scientific theories accessible to the wider public.
The Psychopath Whisperer: Inside the Minds of Those Without a Conscience is the work of leading neuroscientist Kent Kiehl. It spans his career of twenty years, from his first interviews with psychopathic criminals, tentative and humorous as a young graduate, to his ground-breaking discovery: that psychopaths do indeed have different brains to normal humans.
Personally, I enjoyed the anecdotal form of the book that included just enough science and theory, including some really interesting images of MRI scans. I’m not sure what psychologists, or readers with better scientific knowledge than myself, would think of it, as at points it veers towards autobiographical, but it’s readable and entertaining.
Kiehl also surprised me, as I personally would have expected somebody who had interviewed the most disturbed and amoral of minds to have an aversion to them – actually, some of his subjects are funny and even likeable for their narcissism and lack of self-control. At one point, one prisoner presses the panic-button in Kiehl’s office simply because he wants to see the prison-guards sweat, and another two plot against him to try and escape. Kiehl gets to know the traits of psychopathic individuals so well that later on, when he sets up the brain-scanning equipment, he wryly explains that he doesn’t think having a big red alarm within reach of the MRI machines is a good idea.
Despite the subject matter being, as expected, dark in parts (with certain discomforting case studies I found easier to skim-read and forget about), I found this book to be balanced and analytical towards the personality disorder, and I definitely went away feeling like I’d learned a few things. Possibly my favourite thing to take away from the book was a sense of humility towards this 1% of the population that I felt Kiehl wanted the reader to leave with – obviously, the severity of some of the crimes made empathising with the psychopaths unimaginable. It was impossible for me to not feel ambivalent towards this subject, when presented with Kiehl’s findings – this book will really grab the attention of any reader who wants to understand the mystery of the human psyche.
The point of his research was to identify the brain of a psychopath early on and work on treatment. I did feel irreparably and fully disgusted at some of the criminals, but with others I could see them simply as humans who have deficits in a part of the brain I had only newly heard of (the amygdala). For anybody who likes being scared (and I do not) there is definitely something eerie about the topic, due to the affirmation that there really are apparently normal, yet morally insane, individuals who walk around the same as us, yet without caring, without loving or feeling.
Apparently, leading scientists expect Kiehl’s findings to significantly impact upon the legal system. It’s definitely worth a read!
Rating: 4 out of 5 cups of tea.