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Exploring dictator’s mind

Monday, December 26, 2011

Laaska news  Dec. 26, 2011
Kudashkina Ekaterina
Interview with James H. Felon, Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior and Professor Emeritus of Anatomy and Neurobiology at the University of California.

© Photo: CXS.hu    

Professor, thank you very much for joining us. So, please tell me has anyone ever tried to explore something like a dictator’s mind?

Nobody really knows the brain of a dictator, we’ve really never been able to study them with the genetic. So, a lot of this has to be referred to what we know about people who behave very much like them, these are people who usually be called a psychopaths. It is a social personality disorder and if you break down a psychopath you’ll see some dictators falling into different groups. This what’s called a primary psychopath, these are people that, you know, they don’t respond to stress or disapproval, punishment and they can manipulate people but they don’t have a particular life plan. So, this wouldn’t be Hitler, Hitler had a life plan. They look like they can’t experience real emotion, empathy.

Then there is a whole other group of secondary psychopaths and these are people who are warriors, they feel guilt, they may get stressful, they take risks, they try to avoid pain and they can be very daring but they can be vulnerable just like the average person and this more would be like Hitler.

Now both of those groups, both primary and the secondary psychopaths or sociopaths. One group is called the distempered psychopaths these are people inflame to a complete rage and they get very angry and see red much more easily than the average person and they really go crazy when they get mad and they are sexually very active. This does not seem to be for example the Hitler type.

Hitler type is the other type called the charismatic psychopaths and these are very, very charming and glib people, they are gifted in some way with communication, like Hitler was – in public speaking, and they can talk quite quickly and they can really persuade people to do what they want them to do. So, if we just look at the Hitler type he would be probably what we call a secondary psychopath who is also a charismatic psychopath. And so, if you take somebody like Idi Amin, he is seems to be more of a primary psychopaths and more of what would be distempered, inflame to a rage, he had a very, you know, unusual sex drive but he also was sadistic and which is different, not all dictators are sadistic.

So, if we look at those dictators that are psychopaths then they seem to fall into those two groups each of which are broken up into the same two groups if you will. This is different then, those people who are born into it, they are a part of a succession or line of people who are dictators, it could be quite normal people, they are just accepting their job, accepting a legacy or some sort of royal legacy if you will but they can also be psychopaths adventitious, psychopathology turn on in a family. So even separate those that are accepting a job, you know, of a social dictator and there are others that are really very dangerous people.


Is there any way to say that a person is going to develop this kind of behavior?

Sure, for those who are psychopaths, again many of dictators have these traits, and so look at the traits of a dictator, you know, a lot of them are glib, they are quite charming, they have a very grandiose sense of themselves, they are charismatic, they can lie very easily, they are manipulative, very cunning, they have a lack of guilt apparently and emotionally quite shallow, and they do not seem to have a certain type of empathy toward individual human beings that an average person has, they can have empathy for a whole group of people, like their own race, for example as in the case of Hitler it would have been pan-Germanism, in the case of Stalin it would have been pan-Slavism. And for the recent Norway killer who wanted to be a dictator it seems, he was into more of a pan-Christian, Nordic sort of attachment. So, there is an attachment, they do have empathy and connected this perhaps to their own tribe, with their own great sense of a tribe, but not to individual human beings, they are quite careless for those.

And another thing is that they tend to avoid responsibility for their own actions, they put it on another people, they have early sensual life, many of them. If you look at the lives of dictator and I wouldn’t tell about sixty of them, but what I could find even of the ancient ones, they have early poor behavior control, many of them have a very odd sexual life, they can be hypersexual or they can be asexual or be just ascetic if you will. So, they are always seem to be off-centered, they are impulsive and many even irresponsible but they can be very convincing.

These are some of the traits, now all of those traits that I’ve just mentioned happen to be, the same will you find for a type of social personality disorder which is psychopathology – the psychopaths. So, they really fitted very well, many of them, there has been just psychopaths which we know something about, they have some funny trait and I just to tell the truth, historically I noticed that many of them marry very well. They’ve seemed to marry poorly and did not have quite happy marriages, not all of them. They seem to have not a great taste in art for some reason and many were very short, many of them have dissociable appetites and some were sadistic or sexually deviant but surely not all because they can be quite focused on a grand plan.

And there is true thing that really warns us they are quite dangerous which is the thing of malignant narcissism, you know, this inflated sense of oneself, and malignant in this sense, it means that it’s getting worse and worse and worse, it grows like a cancer. And this is thought to be, but we don’t know again because none of this is really studied – deep biology of brains or genetics of this narcissism, but in the case of malignant narcissism which some people say that does not really exist, you know, other psychiatrists do, so there is an argument, but this is a kind of thing that gets worse and worse, it’s like an addiction.

There are some neuroscientists, some psychiatrists, psychologists who say that a need for power is like an addiction and this addiction like for an addict grows and grows because of the problem with medulla in the brain – that is you can never be satisfied. So, the need for power is getting worse and worse and worse and you can see that behavior but there is a still a question of whether there is really such a thing as an addiction to power.  Although we know some addictions- shopping, sex and drugs and alcohol gambling etc. But that’s really a question that’s still up in the air.

And some curious thing about them, they all seem to have excellent memories, they have tremendous memories and there is certain neurobiology, certain genetics to this which suggests that there are some genetic components, we still don’t know what they are, we do know some of the genetics of aggression and violence that there are some types, variants of genes that contribute to that and also there are about 15-20 genes variants right now that have to do with empathy, that is how well you bound and connect to the people.

And so, there is probably the way they will be studied, it’s really disappointing when every time, you know, a dictator is brought down, we never test them properly. Now this is something of question of public policy whether we can force people to have PAT scans and have MRI and have a DNA test, that would surely be great as a public service that they could do for society by allowing to be fully tested so we can find out really what makes them and check.


It’s very interesting because it actually creates a whole new paradigm of attitudes towards those people. I’ve been reading a book, in fact it was translated into Russian by one of the American psychiatrists and his name was Dr. Amen, so after he studied the brains of obviously psychiatric patients for a number of years his conclusion was that it was basically the impaired function of some kind of different parts of the brain, like you said and that those people were not exactly responsible for their illness which was basically their illness. Does that mean that instead of perhaps putting them on trial or executing those people, is there a way we could cure them?

I’m very aware of Dr. Daniel Amen’s work and I agree with that, that to the first point that it appears that even people like dictators who were psychopaths, that they do have early male formation. That could be due to development or an injury, for example being beaten by the farther while they’re young, or because of a combined extreme combination of genetics. They have their orbital cortex, that’s a part of prefrontal cortex above the eyes, that is turned off and that’s the part that has to deal with ethics and morality and impulse control too.

So, people who were just impulsive killers they can have their part damaged that they may not know what they are doing is wrong and they can’t quite help the urge. But turning to the psychopaths appear to have the other of the limbic or emotional brain that’s not formed and that especially include the medulla, what is called hippocampus, and so this whole limbic loop is seems to be under-functioning and therefore that is alter drives  many of which are much related in the medulla. They sometimes cannot be satisfied and they need more and more and more, so this is very in-vection part of this concern.

And they can also, you know, besides not being able to satisfy, they can be very strange desirers and likewise there is a balance that run the orbital cortex, that I’ve mentioned that has to do with ethics and morality, that doesn’t care about it correctly, it is seen as something of regulation.

Those two types of damage development that could have gone wrong before child’s birth or during or after child’s birth, we also really need to have some early abuse, pretty severe abuse, early in the first few years of life, in many times it is loss of, you know, primary parents or biological parents. So, those two things plus some genes, actually three things in total, seem to be necessary and sufficient, that’s a very purpose for psychopathology and therefore many for dictators.

Now, if you just have want you can’t look at a brain scans of these persons – dictator or killer or psychopath, although almost all the brains of killers, psychopaths I vote that do have that damage and they also do have the early abuse and other people found this of course, other researchers including Dr. Amen. And you really need several things occurring earlier, we talk about those people giving to the probability, you know, do they really know that what they are doing is wrong. It’s in some people where we know that they get early brain damaged, and that’s orbital cortex especially, let’s say it’s a 1,2 or 3 years old when they grow up they have no idea of what’s moral and ethical, they really have no idea what they are doing. And these people, I’d hardly imagine they can be really responsible for what they do because they don’t even know that it’s wrong.

Other people, and this can occur with later damage, after very early years, let’s say through puberty and early adolescence, that’s a kind of damage that leads to somebody who is very impulsive and so they know what is wrong, they know right from wrong, but they really ultimately can’t control it. And if you can think of it, if you think of a free will in this way like you really have to go to the bathroom, we surely have free will not to go right now but in two hours we not going to have a free will to do it.

If turn to psychopaths and look at them, they can go a fairly long time without doing anything like killing somebody or really doing something awful but after a while it really gets to them, they just driven by this urge, almost like, you know, an addiction. It finally gets to them and they go on in killing spree, or go on in a very abusive spree and you can see this in dictators too. And so, it seems to be when a damage is done that is do they really know right from wrong and even if they do know right from wrong is it so impulsive, they’re driven so much, is it something that they ultimately have a hard time but possible time controlling. So, that’s a kind of botulism, what is that.


Do you think that perhaps just to prevent more dictators from emerging in this world, do you think it could be worthwhile, I don’t know, making some psychological scans of a person who is supposed to get to a leading position in a state or having a psychology expert in his team? Do you think that such things could be done in a modern society?

I think it’s a great idea. Being a libertarian I had a hard time with, you know, these things they could be voluntary but if they don’t want to take them, then they don’t  have to work for office; so with their full psychological profile and even genetics and brain scans that just show you that this person does not have fundamental deviations, for example being a psychopath, either the behavior or the damage involved. That can lead to a problem because then the data starts being misinterpreted for anybody with a slightly odd brain scan or with combination of genes, normally bad genes, that certain combinations are almost suddenly they are demonized. That’s not a good thing, so somehow if one could look at really important leaders before they sworn in, if you will, that they have gone all through this as a part of just a physical psychiatric exam, I think that probably it would be very useful.

But to the point of whether people who are psychopaths, if we take dictators who are very well the psychopaths, whether they can be cured – I don’t think so. I used to think that it would be possible but I don’t think they are ever cured. Now there may be one or two examples, occasionally but they almost all go back to the same things they did before. So, I don’t think they can be cured and I also don’t think we should be cruel to them either, you know, and go for capital punishment and all. I don’t think that a real problem of psychopaths can ever be fixed.

Now, for that being a case, for its start date back earlier, the first couple of years of life there are some indications of a child who looks like he’ll be a real trouble in this way and if this intervention by the family and not so much society but by family, I mean not something we have to discuss, you know if the parents feel that there is some problem with the behavior, then in privacy they can consult a psychiatrist and ask what they can do because there are some indications that early, very early intervention can really inhibit the creation of this psychopathic parents but after a few years of patience does not seem to really work.


Do you keep any statistics that would perhaps illustrate the dynamics of the development of these conditions, I mean do we have more psychopaths and potential dictators with time or do their number remains more or less constant?

It’s not known because, you know, these numbers really have only past half century been looked at and one of the often cited statistics about 3% of males in a population and it doesn’t matter what society and about 1% of females are psychopaths. Now, we tend to want to use these categorical definitions but like many diseases psychiatric diseases like Schizophrenia, depression, addictions it seems to be on a sliding scale, it is a spectrum sort of problem.

So, there are people who borderline psychopaths. If you take Hare’s psychopathology test, there are 40 points and if you have zero that would be a normal person with none of these traits, if anything 30 or above as categorically we define as a psychopath but there are people who have 25, 20 – kind of borderline psychopaths, there is a lot more of these.

But you know, I think more perhaps to the point, interesting point we are making – one idea is that, and which I’ve argued for, is that since it is so it will be distributed between cultures and it maybe be a cultural and therefore it may have been around for a long time, for 50 000 – 100 000 years of human evolution, we don’t know. These psychopaths are important for us, that is they do our dirty work and those people who are, you know, really coldblooded killers you want these people on your side when you got to fight because they don’t hold back. And many times we say that – oh, in all this greed in Wall Street and CEOs, you know, there are always psychopaths. But really when you ask individual people, they want their investors to be coldblooded, they want them -go and get me money or, you know, I want my stuff to go up, you want your own people, your own CEO, you want investors, the personal protection militarily.

The question why you own one to be kind of psychopath because they are on your side is mostly because people do not want to do their own psychopathic work I think. Now probably a lot of people would really not accept that, but you know, the more you look at it, the more it seems clear this is just for high purposes, that we almost need psychopaths. So, they keep being found out in all cultures, so it makes one wonder how we use them and how we depend on them too, you know, it really saves us in many ways.


So, just to develop your idea “we need psychopaths” but we need them controlled.

You know, I always think I’m responsible for saying this, I mean this is what I really feel, that having borderline psychopaths, that is those that can turn off their emotions, is very important because they don’t let emotions get in a way of things because emotion slows you down and it could really make you a nice person and very empathetic connected person, it doesn’t make you very efficient.

You want to have for example temporary psychopaths, you want your soldiers at a time of kind of fight, you don’t want them thinking about all of this stuff about empathy. You don’t want you neurosurgeon doing surgery worrying about you, just  – oh my god, I really care about this patient, you want them to mechanical. But in way with psychopaths and dictators they’re mechanical and so it is both positive and negative thing.

So, like any sort of human behavior, you know, there are bad behaviors that are absolutely bad and only bad in context and so all things that psychopaths do, even killing, is what the humans do as a matter of fact. And all the aggressive sexuality, all these things are what humans and other primate animals do, it’s part of us. And all we ask of ourselves and others is like – just do it only under certain and right circumstances and in right context. So, in a way a society would say – look, give us psychopaths, but we are not able to turn them on and off and, right? And I don’t think so it only got to be that control so they could turn it on and off. So, one thing you want to have psychopathic tendencies in a really top fighting group, but when they come home you don’t want them to come back to the family and society as psychopaths, you want them to be normal people.

So, there are people that are at borderline who seem to be able to do this but full-blown psychopaths – they don’t, they stay very give in and very dangerous. So, that’s the thing like you said, you know, is there a way we need psychopaths – sure, it seems that but, you know, how we get them to control themselves which is against the whole idea of a psychopath. And then there are quite theory thoughts of ways how can we do this with very simple stimulation or snorting something, intranasal sort of treatment, you know, when they are not on the fire line, if you will, that somehow can we modify that behavior by just turning on these areas or turning them off temporarily.

So, that’s a kind of a brave new world when you are asking your warriors, your neurosurgeons, you investors and your leaders that they have to snort something every day, something that concerns with the orbital cortex that will temporally make them tough. This is seems to be very radical sort of thing to do for a society but it can be done but how does this spread into other parts of our life, then we can expect it becomes very dangerous quickly.


Professor, thank you very much. And just to remind you the guest of our program was a prominent American neuroscientist James H. Felon – Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior and Professor Emeritus of Anatomy and Neurobiology at the University of California.



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