Do Sociopaths Dream of Electric Sheep?

Another case study in the annals of cognitive sanctuary: John Seabrook’s 10 November New Yorker piece, “Suffering Souls: The Search for the Roots of Psychopathy“, on Dr. Kent Diehl’s use of portable “MRI technology to scan prison inmates for signs of pyschopathy in the hope of discovering a treatment.” It actually tells a creepy tale of criminal profiling, describing how conjoined technology and method can generate a process remarkably similar to… the Voigt Kampff Empathy Test.

Seabrook, on subjecting himself to the process:

One morning while I was in New Mexico, Kent Kiehl arranged for me to have my brain scanned. I reported to the Mind Research Network, and put on a hospital gown. I was going to perform the visual task—rate a series of images as “morally offensive,” on a scale of zero to five.

I climbed onto the gurney, and a technician fitted me with a helmet that had a built-in viewer, and then slowly slid me into the coffin-like scanning tube. I fought a momentary sense of panic. In my right hand I held a push-button device that I would use to rate the offensiveness of the pictures. An iris scan, which was trained on my right eye, would record which part of the picture I was looking at when I made my judgments. The soothing voice of the MRI technician, heard over a speaker in the helmet, guided me. Carla Harenski, who was the lead designer of the task, was overseeing the procedure from the next room.

The fMRI machine started up with a high-pitched whirring sound. I began to see photographs. One was of a baby covered with blood. I thought first about the blood, then realized the circumstances—birth—and rated the moral offense zero. A man was lying on the ground with his face beaten to a bloody pulp: I scored this high. There was a picture of Osama bin Laden. I scored it four, although I felt that I was making more of an intellectual than a moral judgment. Two guys inadvertently butting heads in a soccer game got a zero, but then I changed it to a one, because perhaps a foul was called. I had considered deliberately giving wrong answers, as a psychopath might. But instead I worked at my task earnestly, like a good fifth grader.

Good thing Rick didn’t have to lug that kind of kit around, or bother with it at all with Pris, Zhora, and Roy (or Rachel, for that matter, but she was different). Mind you, the number that Leon Kowalski did on Deckard’s predecessor suggests that all those questions would get under just about anyone’s skin.

Seabrook describes a psychopathy checklist, decades in the making – I have to wonder, given the attenuated time lines involved in the development of this particular profiling method, whether it might have actually been the model for Phillip K. Dick’s replicant polygraph.

Anyway. I especially liked this line, posted, as Seabrook describes it, on a prison wall: “I am here because there is no refuge, finally, from myself.”

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