Face to face with psychopathy

The Guardian has a curious article where journalist Jon Ronson investigates what it means to be a psychopath and meets a patient diagnosed with psychopathy at one of Britain’s highest security psychiatric hospitals.

In popular culture, ‘psychopath’ refers to a crazed killer but in psychiatry it refers to someone with anti-social personality traits along with low empathy and manipulative behaviour. Although psychopathy is more common amongst violent criminals it is not restricted to this group and the many other people can have ‘psychopathic traits’.

Ronson explores the concept and his experiences of meeting someone with the condition, but also recounts some surprising anecdotes from the history of the condition.

In the late 1960s, a young Canadian psychiatrist believed he had the answer. His name was Elliott Barker and he had visited radical therapeutic communities around the world, including nude psychotherapy sessions occurring under the tutelage of an American psychotherapist named Paul Bindrim [see previously on Mind Hacks]. Clients, mostly California free-thinkers and movie stars, would sit naked in a circle and dive headlong into a 24-hour emotional and mystical rollercoaster during which participants would scream and yell and sob and confess their innermost fears…

And so he successfully sought permission from the Canadian government to obtain a large batch of LSD, hand-picked a group of psychopaths, led them into what he named the “total encounter capsule”, a small room painted bright green, and asked them to remove their clothes. This was truly to be a radical milestone: the world’s first ever marathon nude LSD-fuelled psychotherapy session for criminal psychopaths.


Link to Guardian article on psychopathy (via @tomstafford)

6 thoughts on “Face to face with psychopathy”

  1. In my dealings with someone who was later diagnosed as a psychopath, what stands out to me most was how his words were so detached from meaning and action. It was different than garden-variety “lying” somehow. He was aware that others attached meaning to words though, and seemed to find this funny. He was capable of saying “I’m not hitting you” with complete confidence while hitting you (just as one example). This kind of thing was very disorienting to those who dealt with him, to say the least. The assumption that words are attached to their meanings made it suprisingly easy for him to manipulate. Even ordinary lies are often meant to reflect some kind of actuality.

    Re: the LSD experiment in the article- that was just peculiar…

  2. Bloody interesting article, and at some stage I’ll have to get the ebook (you know, when I get a Kindle etc etc)

    I’ve always been kind of fascinated by these abnormal personalities, and certainly the man that Mr Ronson describes in the short Guardian article is one of them.

    Also- the Guardian’s quality seems to indicate it’s one of the best newspaper/magazine/publications on the internet these days!

    Side note: How intriguing- my pingbacks show up as “recent comments”

  3. I heard of trrials like this being run at the Ontario Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Penetanguishene, Canada. Never did hear any good or bad results, though.

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