Politicians and neurological damage: Born that way?

Don’t so much as even attempt to watch another Republican Party presidential debate without having at your side as a reference the new work by Professor Simon Baron-Cohen. Dr. B-C’s analysis of the physiological basis of empathy (The Science of Evil: On Empathy and The Origins of Cruelty, 2011: New York, Basic Books, $30) is invaluable in understanding many phenomena associated with these ongoing spectacles, especially when crowds lustily cheer the suggestion that their sick fellow-citizens should be left to die.

You or I would describe these fiendish candidates with their underworld nicknames such as Mitts and Neutron and Doctor Paws and whatnot, and their supporters, as a revolting pack of ass-wipes, but that’s only because we lack B-C’s grasp of how the old noggin functions. He is a clinical psychologist and professor of Developmental Psychopathology at Cambridge University, who has published extensively on the subjects of autism and Asperger Syndrome. (You may not require those exact credentials to fathom the twisted carnival of the GOP debates, but it surely can’t hurt.)

“Mean people suck,” is the assessment of a popular T-shirt slogan, but the scholar from Cambridge has many more valid insights to add, as you would expect of a scientist who has spent 30 years researching the medical underpinnings of empathy. (Here is where the terminology gets a bit dodgy. The author is able to make clear the abstruse scientific jargon – you know, the role played by your adrenocorticotropic hormones [ACTH] and what-have-you – but his effort to define the term “evil” as an absence of empathy may not seem entirely persuasive to the lay reader, especially those with spiritual leanings.)

Regions in the "Empathy Circuit"

Baron-Cohen confesses there is more, and less, to being a heartless bastard than simply lacking a quart of this neurological empathy juice. He charts the predictable course of the well-read, well-reasoned behavioral specialist, in presenting philosophical considerations such as Martin Buber’s familiar “I and Thou” construction. But this leads the reader toward the tricky business of measuring Empathy Quotient (EQ), and that’s where scientific rigor seems misapplied. It’s all very well for your company’s human resources director to babble on about EQ, as if it requires a corporate policy not to assign client-relationship responsibilities to the biggest jerks in your organization. On the other hand, do you really want job applicants to submit to MRI testing, to determine whether they have the neurological wherewithal to sell recycled ink-jet cartridges at Best Buy? That is where this science may be leading.

It seems your brain’s medial prefrontal cortex divides into dorsal (dMPFC) and ventral (vMPFC) segments, with the dorsal normally assigned the task of thinking about other people, while the ventral dwells more on the self. Baron-Cohen illustrates how the vMPFC often is determined to be defective or damaged in those who exhibit what he calls low empathy (but which others are bound to quickly recognize without the benefit of an MRI scan, as the actions of a self-centered putz.)

Intersections of Zero Negative types

It’s easy to see how this realization might cut either way. Rather than invoking a mushy outpouring of empathy toward the empathy-impaired, as they wheel their shopping cart over your toe in angry pursuit of the last box of marked-down Tide, one might conclude that nothing says, “I recognize that damage to your anterior insula may be the biological foundation of your behavior,” as plainly a sharp smack across the oblivious one’s face.

Intriguingly, Baron-Cohen outlines as many kinds and gradations of non-empathy as there are Tim Horton’s baked-good varieties. Even within the most extreme manifestations – “Zero Negative” cases, in his term – there are three sub-sets, including his Type B, which is what psychiatrists know as the Borderline Personality Disorder crowd. He helpfully provides case studies to illustrate the condition, but his depictions of these patients’ behavior are so vivid and so off-putting that you rather wish he hadn’t. Obviously, persistent acts of casual cruelty can’t hold a candle to a psychotic in full serial-killing swing, but there does seem to be something about habitual nastiness to one’s children or parents or co-workers that causes the reader to consider that the behavior of all assholes may originate in a common place.

On the other hand, he also clarifies that there is a useful side of the Zero Negative state, explaining that, damaged or otherwise, you really do need to be something of a jerk in order to thrive at certain tasks. This information leads us straight back to the remaining field in the Republican primaries.

It is good to know that some of the more bizarre positions taken by the candidates may be rationally explained. For former Senator Sick Rantorum, who counsels rape victims against thinking about aborting their unwanted child; for Eye-of-Newt Gangrene, who thinks poor children should work as janitors serving their better-off classmates; for Dr. Ron Appalling, who says the Hippocratic Oath must be secondary to the free-market economy; and for ex-governor Mittens Unraveling, who began to regard his own healthcare legislation as a poor idea, after it was adopted by President Obama: If you are diffident about characterizing these four empathy-free specimens as “evil,” on the basis of the criteria charted by Dr. Baron-Cohen, you can go ahead and call them biologically broken, marred, or Zero Negative. Doubtless that Rush Limbaugh will offer another way to put it, but to a clinical psychologist, ultimately, all these foul traits may come from the same source.

It’s his brain, Jim.

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