Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Psychopath Whisperer: The Science of Those without Conscience, by Kent Kiehl, PhD

This book wasn’t exactly what I was expecting. The name is misleading; I picture a “whatever whisperer” as being someone who understands the mind of the subject in depth and who can easily and painlessly convince the subject to do what the whisperer wants. While Kiehl did groundbreaking work on what happens in a psychopath’s brain, he didn’t find any way to change their brains or their behaviors. What he found, by using cutting edge fMRIs, was that psychopathology is hardwired in the brain; there is a deficit of activity in certain areas of their brains when faced with situations that evoke emotional responses in most people. By going into prisons with his work he was able to find a wealth of psychopaths (as indicated by their histories and scores on the Hare Psychopathy Checklist) to put in the MRI machines. The correlation between areas of deficit and their behavior traits was irrefutable. What he didn’t find was any way to help them change; the only part of the book that deals with this possibility is near the back, where he talks about a treatment program in Wisconsin, the Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center. This program takes juvenile offenders and treats their good behaviors- no matter how rare they are at first- and positively reinforces them. Acting in socially acceptable ways brings rewards, and teaches them to try these ways first. The treatment lowered repeat offenses by 34 percent compared with untreated juvenile criminals. Sadly, this program suffered budget cutbacks and cannot treat as many teens as it was doing. This seems counterproductive when the program is actually a money saver over imprisoning people repeatedly, not to mention the damage to victims of psychopaths.

The book is interesting but not riveting. I was hoping for more science and less anecdote.

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