In The Psychopath: Emotion and the Brain by James Blair, Derek Mitchell and Karina Blair, when describing possible environmental contributions to the development of psychopathy, the authors noted that while damage to the hippocampus due to the release of too much cortisol from stressful events will result in a degraded ability to regulate the release of stress hormones, they did not think this would contribute to psychopathy as the hippocampus has been indicated to being involved with memory and spatial reasoning “It is unclear why impairment in either memory or spatial processing would cause psychopathy” (p. 35-36).
This statement sparked some thoughts derived from other literature I’ve read, with the result being a curiosity as to whether I am now embarking on a wild-goose chase of disparate connections or my pondering is actually leading to something legitimate. Time will tell and undoubtedly I’ll have to do some more research as to whether people with far more experience than I have covered this. Until then, here are some thoughts and perhaps it’ll spark some return reflections from others.
My initial inquiry centers on memory and I recall the book by Gerald Edelman entitled A Universe of Consciousness. While the point of the book is to establish within an embodied neurology a theory of consciousness, both what it is and how it developed, Edelman spends significant time on the nature of memory and its relation to human interaction with the environment. Edelman first articulates the notion of reentry as being central to his view of human neurology, describing it as “the ongoing, recursive interchange of parallel signals between reciprocally connected areas of the brain, an interchange in space and time.” Essentially this boils down to being like a teeter-totter of neurochemistry, with the action of one side having a result upon the other and vice versa, though when it comes to the brain there is no such thing as a single connection but thousands. A result of reentry is synchrony between functionally specialized areas of the brain. “This synchronous firing of widely dispersed neurons that are connected by reentry is the basis for the integration of perceptual and motor processes” (pg. 48). This integration is the fundamental building block of human behavior. Through the emergence of the thalamocortico complex, the reciprocal connectivity between the thalamus and the cerebral cortex, perceptual categorization in the posterior brain was able to be linked with value-based memory of the anterior areas of the brain, providing the mechanism for the creation of a “remembered present” whereby previous experiences could be linked with current or imagined contingencies.
Rather than viewing memory as a snapshot of an event, Edelman posits that “a memory is not a representation; it is a reflection of how the brain has changed its dynamics in a way that allows the repetition of a performance” (pg. 95). “These changes are reflected in the ability to repeat a mental or physical act after some time despite a changing context, for example, in ‘recalling’ an image.” There is some linkage here that could be made to Dawkins’s and Blackburn’s notion concerning the meme. The sometimes parasitical nature of memes and memeplexes, when looked at from a neural point of view indicates a connection with certain behavioral patterns that are not beneficial for the host’s reproductive well-being but seem incapable of being stopped. Memory, according to Edelman, is not a separate function of the brain, but a result of numerous interconnected pathways. This interconnectivity results in “a key property of memory in the brain: that it is, in some sense, a form of constructive re-categorization during ongoing experience, rather than a precise replication of a previous sequence of events” (p. 95). Memory is like the continual creation of an expanding symphony rather than a discrete set of experiences being added one to the other. The “extrinsic signals convey information not so much in themselves, but by virtue of how they modulate the intrinsic signals exchanged within a previously experienced neural system.” In other words, an external stimulus acts not by adding large amounts of new information, but “by amplifying the intrinsic information resulting from neural connections selected and stabilized by memory through previous encounters with the environment” (pg. 137). Memory is like a painting then, with established colors being done over and over again, adding layer upon layer, when various colors are inspired by present events, leading some to be heavier or darker than others despite having all been originally created at the same time or out of the same experience.
Related to memory is the creation of an internal biological-reference or self. Owen Flanagan, in The Problem of the Soul: Two Visions of Mind and How to Reconcile Them, describes the self, most often referred to as “I” in personal narrative, as primarily indexical. “’I’ is how we denote the biological and psychological continuity of our unique first-person stream of consciousness” (p. 224). The “I” seems to be a result of the primary consciousness associated with Edelman’s construction of memory and the individual’s ability to create a remembered present, a connection between past experience and current or imagined context via the reconstructive properties of memory. “The fact that ‘I’ uttered today seems just like uttering the word yesterday is, first, because the conscious stream is sensibly and subjectively continuous and, second, because in the normal course of things we change very little from day to day” (p. 226).
If the role of the hippocampus is to consolidate short-term memory into long-term memory in the cerebral cortex, and an impairment in its function results in a loss of control for regulating stress hormones, then there exists a possibility that this breakdown could also lead to a difficulty in normal responses to stressors and a consequent difficulty in integrating stressful events into the continuing creation of a self-narrative. An inability to integrate events will result in undifferentiated anxieties that need to be treated by behavior, leading to a potential increase in instrumental or goal-directed behavior, the particular manifestation of which will be determined by social context. For example, stealing $50 is pointless for someone with millions but significant for someone with five cents.
Blair et al. note that “individuals with psychopathy show reduced responding to threatening stimuli.” These individuals also show “reduced emotional responses when imagining threatening events and reduced augmentation of the startle reflex” (The Psychopath, p. 50). This reduction in integrating stressors and events could be indicative of hippocampus degeneration leading to a difficulty in learning from these events and any changes to the self-narrative that usually result. In fact, it is later noted by Blair et al., individuals with psychopathy “present with particular difficulty for instrumental learning tasks that require the formation of stimulus-punishment associations.” Negative responses to behavior, which normally result in a changing of behavior for people, the psychopath seems incapable of processing. This lack of response seems due to a lack of empathy, which at core is simply the ability to associate the external stimuli of others with similar internal stimuli and thus experience a mirrored response. As Oatley, Keltner and Jenkins in the textbook Understanding Emotions note, “emotions guide action in a world that is always imperfectly known, and can never be fully controlled. It is not so much that emotions are irrational, rather that when we have no fully rational solution because we do not know enough, they offer bridges toward rationality” (p.261). Without these bridges, the psychopath is limited in his/her integrative ability and thus with connecting with others and assimilating new experiences.
The conclusion of all this is not that Blair et al. are necessarily wrong with their supposition of the hippocampus lacking a role in psychopathy development, rather I’m just noting that there should be more research into self-narrative development and the role the hippocampus may have in the reciprocal processing pathways that are at its core. The result may be a better understanding of not only the underlying mechanisms that guide emotional development but also why certain memes are so readily accepted by the brain of the psychopath. Perhaps, with these new insights, a workable therapy could be developed that focuses not on fixing emotional integration itself but on restructuring the self-narratives that provide the means for doing so leading to an increased focus on attachment.
“Journeys Of A Spiritual Atheist” is a collection of entries from 2012 categorized and organized to help with the integrating the flow of information. It is available on Kindle and Nook and will soon be available as a paperback.