Sunday, September 24, 2006

Predators

I have a hunch that psychologists may find some answers by looking deeply into animal behavior, that of predators. What makes a tiger, wolf, dog, cat, or other predator lovably tender and playful one minute and a stealthy killing machine the next? If you watch predators killing on some of these nature programs, look at their eyes. While they are killing or feeding, there's nothing there, is there? they seem unaware of the writhing agony of their prey.

How can this be? These animals are sensate beings. A moment ago they may have even grieved a death or been upset by the sight of violence. Who is more loving and tender with humans than the dog? In captivity, even tigers may show affection for a human. So predatory animals undoubtedly have feelings.

But look what happens to predators the instant they spot prey: it's like they go into an entirely different mode of being. Suddenly they become killing machines. They are suddenly cruel, and if killing is easy will kill just for sport. For example, some species of primates have been filmed in the wild ganging up on a monkey and ripping it to pieces with manifest glee at the sound of its screams. I saw one such film on PBS and found it so disturbing I changed the channel after but a few seconds. Wolves don't bother to kill a moose they bring down. They just immediately battle for the best position to feed on its intestines, so that it suffers a horrible and very slow death. A killer whale plays with a baby seal it doesn't even bother to eat then when it's dead. Sorry, but that's the truth.

What is suddenly shut off in the brainstem to switch predators into machine-mode at the sight of prey?

The reason I ask is because I had a very weird experience once. I was having terrible migraines. I mean, it was more or less permanent, and I was so sick I couldn't get off the couch or do anything but lay there in a dark and quiet room in pain. I'd had it for about a week. No sleep (just half dozing). The doctor had given me some new medication. Though I hadn't eaten for around three days, I had no appetite.

I found that very strange, and it reminded me of the way a dying animal refuses to eat. In fact, I had recently seen a man dying of cancer have the same problem: he just couldn't eat. When they set food before him, he looked at it with a mixture of disgust and horror. He was literally starving and couldn't explain why, but he just could not eat. The thought of eating turned his stomach.

Well, I found out why when I sat down to eat that day!

That was the scariest moment of my life. That plate of food might as well have been a plate of wriggling worms!

Suddenly I was accutely aware of how gross and gory the action of biting and chewing and swallowing food (the tissues of animals and plants) is. It IS, you know! It's disgusting. Fortunately, however, we're normally totally unaware of how gruesome eating is.

So, I can see why people this happens to cannot explain it. If I weren't a biologist, I wouldn't have realized what was wrong: Something in my brain was malfunctioning big-time. Suddenly, the grossness of eating was so vivid that I had all I could do not to throw up at the thought of putting that stuff in my mouth. I realized that this bizarre reaction to food was caused by something wrong in my brain, some circuitry that normally blocks awareness of these unpleasant sensations to enable us to do such a gross thing as eat ... and to actually relish eating instead.

I also instantly realized that this was a life-threatening malfunction. Whatever wasn't working right in my brain was absolutely essential to survival.

I immediately suspected the migraine medication and threw it out. Then I forced myself to take a tiny bit, fearing that if I didn't -- that if I gave in to this feeling of repugnance -- I'd never be able to eat again, like that cancer patient I had known.

I'm happy to say that a few hours later, I was able to eat a little more. Over the next few days, my appetite returned to normal.

Notice that despite this serious malfunction in my brain, I was quite with-it mentally. I was able to think clearly and realize exactly what was wrong. In other words, only a part of my brain was affected.

Weird, eh? There are mysteries in the brain we know nothing of. When we see food, some of our sensibilities are automatically shut off so that we can view it as something we'd just love to devour.

Similarly, if predators didn't go into machine-mode with certian sensibilities shut off, they wouldn't be able to kill. For them, machine mode is an adaptation necessary for survival. It's what ENABLES them to kill.

What gets shut off in the brain when they go into machine mode? Can it be shut off in the human brain too? Can human beings turn it on and off at will? Or can certain situations like the emotional extremity of combat shut it off? What about narcissists and sociopaths? Is there some way to turn it back on, or to persuade them to turn it back on, so that they can empathize with their own kind and stop viewing others as prey?

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12 Comments:

At 5:55 AM, Anonymous GH said...

The curious difference is that you were aware that your reaction to the food was disordered and werre fully capable of making a conscious decision to override it, to make the appropriate choice despite that grossed out feeling.

I suppose the difference for the Narcissist is that even when he can make that choice from time to time, the disordered feelins never go away for him, he always feels irrationally defensive and in need to feed off someone he can imagine is weaker. He can force himself to be normal for short spurts, but it must be truly exhausting to try to maintain that all the time.

 
At 1:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with the earlier post in part -- Ns do want a victim who is weaker, but NOT a whole lot weaker.

You see, there's not a lot of fun for them in stamping on ants. In order to feel really satisfied with inflicting injury, an N has to feel like he’s hurting someone who is truly "exceptional." Sometimes, the N can find victims of equal status (like some of us), but the problem is that most Ns are so weak themselves, sometimes they can only find ants, or their human analog, to stamp on. In their own minds, Ns will accept that, but in order to really enjoy the experience of hurting others, the Ns (like malignant little children) have to convince themselves those aren’t really ants they’re stamping on -- they're dinosaurs.

I used to be friends with an N who always had a weird parade of misfits marching through his life. He is a professional with an advanced degree from a famous university, but he'd surround himself with oddballs -- failed artists, drug-addicts, uneducated laborers, prostitutes, petty criminals. He'd find ways to control them, either through money, or free food or booze, or outright deceit, so that they'd fuss over him, and give him the attention he craved.

Ordinarily, a man like this would never associate with people like that -- they were so far beneath him on the "status ladder" -- and he always let it be known what low regard he had for people “beneath” him. So, it gave a lot of people pause that he kept people like this around. But, everyone else who was truly a peer of this guy in education and intelligence could see (at least eventually) that he was a failure, a liar and a fake, and wanted nothing to do with him. So, sadly (for him), he couldn’t take advantage of his peers, so instead he created a fantasy world. He'd tell you: “That artist who has never sold a painting is actually brilliant, and that drug addict isn't really a drug addict, he’s a poet, and that laborer may not have graduated from grade school, but he is so much smarter than almost anyone you'd hope to meet.”

It was as if he were saying, “These “friends” of mine, they might look like ants to you, but they’re NOT -- they’re big and important, and best of all, they’re all MINE to with as I wish!”

And, of course, that’s what he’d do: he'd injure and discard these people too, when the moment came, as it always did. And then go out to find more ants to stamp on.

 
At 3:19 PM, Blogger Kathy K said...

That's an interesting story. It just goes to show that every N has his or her own style. If they think they can take somebody down, look out. It may even be a powerful person who is simply too gentle and/or naive to fight back. But they will hunt the biggest game they're capable of bringing down.

Hence an ant like Lee Harvey Oswald murders President Kennedy. Hence a wife beats her husband, because he won't hit a woman back.

But of course most often Ns have to be satisfied with prey of lower status, like children, or employees, or the down-and-out.

And you're right. They will magnify these people, to imagine they are taking down big game.

So silly. So absolutely, profoundly silly they are. And pathetic. They would be hilarious if they weren't so vicious and good at mental cruelty.

 
At 3:27 PM, Blogger Kathy K said...

GH,

Yes, that's what I thought was weird: I was perfectly lucid, and yet something was radically wrong. (I blame the migraine medication.)

That's why I wonder if some circuitry just doesn't develop the way it should in predators. Or if they supress it (as people can through a kind of self hypnosis suppress pain). Ns can think straight when solving a calculus problem. But they think like a screwball in their interactions with others. Weird.

 
At 2:06 PM, Anonymous Dandelion said...

Interesting about the brain circuits. I've done some reading on brain development in adolescents. It turns out there's a blossoming of neural connections around puberty, and a time window for pruning and reinforcing connections during adolescence. Those connections that don't get reinforced, wither and die.

I had a scare with my daughter's behavior a few years ago, when she was in 7th and 8th grades. I feared that she was going to turn into my mother, with similar distortions in thinking being used to justify aggressiveness and blaming others. Now that she's a junior in high school, she has mostly outgrown this, and is using more of her prefrontal cortex (reasoning skills). What a relief!

It's probably that my mother's connections weren't formed properly when she was growing up--a case of arrested development. What may be part of the normal spectrum of development in adolescents becomes narcissism in adulthood if those connections aren't made.

 
At 2:32 PM, Blogger Kathy K said...

Dandelion, I see that you're on the same page. I was thinking exactly along the same lines. Circuitry that doesn't get used, withers away, and this may explain why personality disorders are so undoable. If something prohibits the proper integration of a whole personality in childhood, maybe the potential is lost later in life. There are so many circuits that function in ways we know not of. So many neurotransmitters we don't completely understand all the effects of.

One thing is for sure though: predators see other people differently than normal people do. Where we see a sweet and pretty child, they see lunch. So, something is radically wrong.

Can it be treated or reversed? Nobody knows yet.

 
At 2:57 PM, Anonymous GH said...

Fascinating thougts on the neurobiology (?) of NPD. I can't help but think that the brain is a remarkably adaptive organ -- we see people with serious brain injuries regain destroyed skills through instense, hard work to rewire the circuitry. And others who never make the recovery. Just think of stroke victims -- some of whom regain muscle function and some of whom don't.

It's a both promising and disheartening perspective. It says that perhaps NPD can be overcome, but also that it can only be overcome with a focus of determination and effort that few "normal" people are probably capable of. For an N, I can hardly imagine what it would take to motivate that kind of sustained effort.

 
At 3:35 PM, Blogger puglette said...

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At 7:58 AM, Blogger gior said...

Your adversion to food could have been a natural instinctive healing process. Migraines are often caused by food allergies. Something you ate....or a variety of things could have caused a toxic overload and the reaction was migraine. I know because I suffer with food intolerances. The reason that the body goes into a fasting mode is to lighten it's load while it tries to eliminate the toxins... which could take a few days. Remember that old adage...starve a fever....it helps lighten the load on the liver, pancreas, and intestinal tract. Our intellect sometimes overrides our bodies natural processes. Sometimes we just have to listen to our body. When it is ready....hunger comes back. Lack of appetite doesn't always indicate looming death. But if it were to continue for a long period...then I would be concerned. I just think your body was in a healing mode. That's why some naturalists even advise fasting when the body is ill. And btw....even though the migraine medication may releive your symptoms....drugs are chemicals that just add to the toxic overload. That's not to say that we shouldn't use them...but it just might take a little longer to detoxify.

So I don't think your lack of appetite was a brain malfunction so much as the body's natural healing process.

 
At 8:16 AM, Blogger gior said...

I don't think predators can turn it on and off. Narcissists, or psychopaths, as some now think are the same thing.... have actual physical brain differences. Their brains just process differently and some think they may even be a different species of "humans". Whether it's nature vs nuture or a combination of both that makes them what they are is irrelevant. They can no more turn off their predatory aspects anymore than they can change their eye color....it's in their DNA. When they seem benign...look out.

 
At 9:44 AM, Blogger Kathy K said...

>Your adversion to food could have been a natural instinctive healing process.<

No, I'm sure it wasn't that. I have experienced loss of appetite, but you can see from my description that this was something totally different and bizarre. It wasn't mere absence of appetite or a nauseous aversion to eating such as is natural when we're full or have had our fill of sweets. When I said that plate of pasta might as well have been a plate of live, wriggling worms, I wasn't speaking figuratively. My reaction was exactly as yours would be if someone set a plate of live wriggling worms before you to eat. That's a whole other thing than any natural loss of appetite. I accept the value of fasting, but that wasn't what was needed here. (In fact, I have found since that aspirin with caffein in it + a candy bar + Coca Cola will kill a migraine if you take these three things when the migraine is just starting.) My guess is that it explains the inability to eat that the final stages of cancer sometimes causes (when the brain is being damaged). Migraines can be triggered by many things, not just food intolerances. Anything that increases blood flow to the head will trigger one in people disposed to getting migraines. There's simply not enough room for all that blood in the closed cavity of the skull. For example, an infection in the mouth or ear will trigger a migraine.

>Narcissists, or psychopaths, as some now think are the same thing.... have actual physical brain differences.<

Yes, this is true. But what those promoting their theory don't tell you is that this doesn't mean the difference is due to a genetic difference. These differences in brain activity are abnormally high activity in some areas and abnormally low activity in other areas. This may well be diagnostic. BUT it may be an EFFECT, not a CAUSE, of the disorder. In other words, habitual abnormal thinking patterns WILL result in these differences found in the brain.

For example, under hypnosis we see similar abnormalities in the brain. So, it can obviously be caused by a state of mind.

So, can "deprogramming" alter these abnormal patterns? Possibly. Without statistical evidence taken from families that have produced narcissists and psychopaths -- evidence showing the INHERITANCE RATIOS of genetic transmission -- it is too big a stretch to jump to the conclusion that it's genetic. The mere fact that it runs in families is no proof of that.

That's the bottom line: this brain abnormality doesn't indicate what they imply that it indicates. Indeed, this abnormality is exactly what you'd expect to find if these disorders are caused by by abuse in early childhood. So, they prove nothing (except that drugs may be useful in treatment).

Those who promote the genetic hypothesis haven't come anywhere near to proving that these disorders are inherited yet. They may someday, but they haven't yet.

See Nature or Nurture? and its two subtopics on the main site for a more detailed explanation.

 
At 10:17 AM, Blogger Kathy K said...

PS

I just realized that you may have been referring also to reports that certain parts of the brain remain in an underdevelpoed state in narcissists and psychopaths.

Yes. But again, this doesn't mean that the cause is genetic.

The cause could be insufficient USE of those parts of the brain. With the brain, if you don't use it, you lose it. Also, the brain takes a long time to develop. Development is the establiment of connections between brain cells (gray matter). By just trying to use parts of your brain (thinking certain ways) you cause the appropriate connections to develop. For example, by trying to understand algebra, you are using certain neural pathways and thus eventaully cause the development of the connections that allow you grasp the concept of a ratio (usually by the age of 18 or 20). A person's brain doesn't fully develop till the late teens or early 20s. So, it's easy to see how mental illness or a personality disorder in childood can result in underdeveloped parts of the brain. Such children never empathise, so those connections in the part of the brain where this activity occrs never get made, and that area remains underdevoped. Such children never mentally mature, so the connections associated with that never get made.

But there's no reason to think that these underdeveloped parts of the brain are defective. If the N decided to think straight, these areas might well begin to develop.

So, is some or all of this due to willfull patterns of perverse thinking? There is no doubt that willfull, habitual patterns of perverse thinking WILL cause differences in the brain -- just as much as any genetic flaw will.

So, again, the research findings don't prove genetic inheritance. They could just as well be due to abuse in childhood that the child coped with by (a) refusing to mature mentally, (b) fantasizing, (c) refusing to empathize, and (d) thinking perversly to rationalize abusing others. Result = arrested brain devopment in some areas and enhanced development in others.

We just have no evidence yet. I am skeptical because narcissists and psychopaths CAN and DO control their conduct. They sneak around to do their dirty deeds and do them only when no one is looking. That's NOT inability to control their conduct because of some genetic flaw. That's just wicked. Also, they must be capable of empathy or they wouldn't know how to be so SADISTIC.

 

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