In the Netflix series Mindhunter, audiences are invited to travel back to the late 1970s and enter a corner of our society that is much darker and much more frightening than the classic cars and disco music the era initially lets on. As the series unfolds, we witness the birth of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Behavioral Science Unit, via a series of interviews with infamous serial killers, including Richard Speck, Edmund Kemper, and Montie Rissell. Through these interviews, the audience discovers that the behavior of murderers and sexual predators goes far beyond the notions of “evil” or “unethical” and into the most complex areas of psychology and the human brain, primarily, psychopathy.
While Mindhunter has been a success for Netflix, it’s hardly the first program to address psychopathy, and its manifestation as violent behavior. Psychopathy is typically understood as a personality disorder characterized by a shallowness of feeling, lack of impulse control, a disingenuous social façade, and a tendency in some towards violent behavior. From Norman Bates in Psycho, to Dr. Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs, there has always been a fascination with psychopathic individuals. Today, demand for programs like NPR’s Serial podcast – which as of March 2017 had been downloaded 175 million times – or HBO’s critically acclaimed True Detective, has consistently demonstrated a societal interest in the darkest valleys of human behavior. But are all murderers psychopaths? Do we understand what a psychopath really is? And, how does the media we consume influence our preconceived notions of what these individuals are really like?
Inside everyone’s brain, within the temporal lobe, there is an almond-shaped group of nuclei known as the amygdala. This part of the brain serves as our primary driver of emotions and decision-making. It is also known as the portion of the brain in which psychopathic behavior originates. In a 2014 interview with NPR’s Fresh Air, Adrian Raine, DPhil, a professor of Criminology at the University of Pennsylvania, said, “when we brain-scanned psychopathic individuals in the community and compared them to matched controls, we found that that amygdala part of the brain, the emotion part of the brain, it was reduced in volume by 18 percent.” This research suggests that psychopaths aren’t simply mustache-twirling villains, but individuals dealing with a neurological deficiency.
Knowing where psychopathic behavior comes from can help us in understanding psychopaths from a biological perspective, but how do we recognize their real world behavior? Raine says, “If I had to use one word or two words, I'd say ‘without conscience.’ They just lack feelings, normal feelings that we usually have. They'll often talk about feelings, rage and anger, but there's nothing really going on beneath the surface.”
Noticeably absent from this definition is violent behavior. In fact, there are many psychopathic individuals living perfectly normal and peaceful lives. According to Raine, “only about half of the psychopaths we studied in the community were caught and convicted. My sense is that there are just as many ’successful’ psychopaths operating in society as there are ’unsuccessful‘ psychopaths who have been caught and convicted, if not more.”
Even those who study psychopathic brains can be surprised to learn who might be one. The most striking example of this misconception could be that of a laboratory researcher who discovered that his brain scans matched those of psychopaths.
So now that we know psychopathy isn’t result of an evil heart, but an underdeveloped amygdala, and that many psychopaths are “normal” people, how do we explain our interest in them?
Raine suggests the reason popular culture is so captivated by psychopaths is due to the unique characteristics of this population. Raine notes their larger-than-life characteristics, saying, “…they are charming. They are fun to talk to, and they are the life and soul of the party. Although they can be a bit on the wild side, that can enhance our interest in them. They can also do some pretty outrageous things and get away with them, and this enhances their charisma.”
That said, just as there are misconceptions about psychopaths constantly interacting with the criminal justice system, there are problems with how certain films and television shows portray them. Raine highlights the Oscar-winning portrayal of Dr. Hannibal Lecter by Sir Anthony Hopkins, saying, “I think Hannibal Lecter is a good example of a media portrayal of psychopathy which is just not quite right. If you recall the scene where he first meets Clarice Starling in prison, he immediately comes over as scary and creepy. The reality is that true psychopaths are the opposite – on first meeting them you will find them to be friendly and gracious, and even courteous.”
So there you have it. Psychopaths, the monsters in the closet of so many of our favorite television shows and podcasts, are far more complex than we might have initially imagined. Despite the extreme examples of psychopathic behavior, which can violate the most basic of social norms, Raine notes that psychopaths, “on a first meeting one can connect quickly, easily, and comfortably with them – and that’s one reason why they are so good at trapping and manipulating people.” It’s this complexity, the contrast between their minds and our own, that has made them a popular fixture in our media. However, just like those of us without an underdeveloped amygdala, psychopaths can vary in whether or not they carry out acts of violence. Just because someone is a psychopath, that doesn’t mean they are destined for some violent end. So next time you’re binging Netflix’s newest crime thriller, bring this information with you. It might just give you a deeper appreciation for your own mind.