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Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Psyches & Serpents: Tell me what you really think

berezovskyheadshot_opI read a fantastic Radio Parallax interview in the Winter edition of KDViations. It was with Dr. James Fallon, a neuroscientist. In the middle of the interview, and also in the middle of a story that Fallon is telling, Fallon asks some of his psychiatric friends what they really think of them. He has recently found that he, a happily-married neuroscientist with no criminal record, has genetic markers that suggest he is a psychopath. The diagnosis  actually comes from himself. After several years researching the genetic signs of psychopaths, Fallon by chance used himself in a control group and discovered he has these psychopathic indicators.

The psychiatric friends that Fallon asked did not even know about his finding, but told him nonetheless (and unanimously) that he had psychopathic traits. To Fallon it was a huge surprise. He had been successful and, perhaps more importantly, happy in his life. But now came the news that he had achieved this life while simultaneously dealing with psychopathic tendencies. Or, as he puts it: “The basic conclusion was that I [had] the drives, ideations and urges of a full-blown psychopath – it’s just that somehow I control[led] them; I never act[ed] them out.”

Why is Fallon able to control these drives while others aren’t? In other words, what  factors make winners and losers in mental health? I ask these questions because they don’t just apply to Fallon’s condition but to my bipolarism as well. Besides being a psychopath “lite,” Dr. Fallon also has bipolarism to a small degree. According to his research, the two conditions are linked. So, because I have bipolarism, I am also borderline Hannibal Lecter, apparently.

Let me add that, really, controlling your mental health applies to anyone who worries about their future sanity. And who doesn’t?

If I knew what the actual solutions were, I would list them right here. I have some ideas though, and I’d like to explore a couple of those below:

The first has to do with my father.  My dad is a doctor, and though he was never diagnosed, he appears to deal with many of the symptoms of that same condition – bipolar. Like son like father. His indifference in certain situations and willingness to overstep bounds revealed him to me growing up as someone who swung between intense moods. One thing my father had though, was discipline. He excelled in biology in high school, and was willing to leave his parents in Maryland to endure depressing winters as a pre-med at Cornell and the rigor of med school at Stanford. Then he opened his own practice – eventually moving from being a practicing doctor to a full-time business owner. I wasn’t there to see my father do these things, but I have a good sense of the kind of self-control they required. Despite his faults, he’s been able to achieve a lot. Whatever discipline pushed him through life, I hope to find it in myself.

Secondly, in order to control mental health we have to be able to emote. Important within our range of emotions is our ability to empathize. Dr. Fallon’s research sheds a little light in this area, suggesting that there are two kinds of empathy, and we can usually only be good at one. One of those is cognitive, “cognitive empathy,” found in people who care about the world at large but are cold to their friends and family. Nelson Mandela in one example of someone with cognitive empathy. The other is “emotional empathy,” seen in those who don’t care about charity work but are adored in their families and communities.

Why aren’t we usually good at both? Well, the closest I have to an answer is the following scenario (this actually comes from the film The Third Man [1949]). Imagine you’re at the top of a ferris wheel with your friend, looking down at all the dot-sized people. Imagine your friend says to you, “I’ll give you $100,000 for every one of those dots that stops moving.” And, what if that money could save the lives of your loved ones, or do something equally important? If you choose to keep the dots alive, I’d say that you care about the world at large, but maybe you cherish your principles more than those close to you. If you calculate the minimum number of dots it’d take to help your community, then you probably don’t care as much about the world at large. It’s practically impossible to be both kinds of people. Then there’s the psychopath, who perhaps doesn’t empathize at all and would stop all the dots just for the heck of it.

In my own life, instating discipline and managing emotions (including empathy) has always been challenging. The longer I’m alive, though, the easier I’ve found it to come to grips with these two factors of mental health. I talked about these two today, but there are many more, of which I’m sure you’re aware.

Life is a balancing act. Sometimes you have to execute your plans and sometimes you have to embrace the unknown. Somewhere amongst these life choices, big and small, we find the sense of control that we’re ready to live for.

PAUL BEREZOVSKY can be reached at pbberezovsky@ucdavis.edu.

Graphic by Andrew Li

Photo by CA Aggie Photo Team

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