Friday, October 26, 2012
Meeting a Psychopath
On Wednesday night, I left work early and took the train down to the city to an event called “The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us About Success” at the Rubin Museum. It’s a museum devoted to the Arts of the Himalayas, and this was one conversation in a series called “Happy Talk.”
The event was a conversation between Kevin Dutton, a research psychologist at the University of Cambridge, and Michael C. Hall, the actor who plays the serial killer “Dexter” on Showtime’s popular series.
Since the Rubin Museum focuses on Buddhist art, the talk was designed to make connections between expert Buddhist meditators who practical spiritual fearlessness, and psychopaths whose decisiveness cuts through emotion. Maybe this is where the happiness was supposed to come in.
Dutton talked about advances in neuroscience that can pinpoint areas of the brain involved in psychopathy, and written tests that can be given to people to see where they fall on a scale of psychopathic tendencies.
Michael C. Hall’s character, of course, would score very high. Dexter had recently mentioned the amygdala, the area of the brain he called “the lizard brain.” Dutton discussed how this part of the brain governs our emotional response to fear. In psychopaths, fear does not inhibit their ability to act.
Kevin Dutton had run tests on groups of normal people versus psychopaths. One of the tests was the famous “trolley” problem. It goes something like this. A trolley is running along the track toward five people. But you have a switch that will move the trolley to a second track where there is only one person. Would you throw the switch or not?
The people with psychopathic tendencies had no problem deciding to throw the switch. (Interestingly, none of them let the five people just die, though.) Then the test was given to expert meditators – Buddhist monks in Dharamsala, India, the seat of His Holiness Dalai Lama. The monks also had no hesitation making a decision that would save the greatest number of people.
Michael C. Hall discussed his character Dexter and demonstrated a lot of insight and intelligence about how he portrayed a serial killer whose victims are other serial killers. He talked about how he works with the character’s addictions and motivations. He discussed how Dexter was raised, and how even if he was biologically predisposed to psychopathy, his life experiences pushed him over the edge.
Dutton says that is exactly how it happens with psychopaths. And he also made the distinction between psychopaths and psychotics, noting that psychotics are functioning outside of normal reality and acting on their voices and hallucinations.
Hall explained how Dexter gets drawn into experiences that seem normal, and how he has to simulate normal emotions. The character even has a son, which for me is the only time Dexter seems to show real affection.
I am a constant viewer so I know Dexter better than most of my real-life neighbors. He has a code that he lives by, which is different from having a conscience, but I sometimes wonder if he has a conscience. When he makes his kills, he puts up photos of the people his victim has killed, and seems to enjoy the sight of his prey having to face the music. But is this the same as the compassion of the monks in Dharamsala? No way.
Sitting there in the audience, I suddenly remembered an experience I had when I was first studying Buddhism. I had bought one of those little pocket books that has the sayings of the Buddha. And I was sitting at a bus stop waiting for a bus to go to a lecture by a Tibetan lama on the power of compassion.
While I was waiting for the bus, a man sat down on the bench and plunked down his duffle bag. And we started having a conversation. We were the only people waiting and I guess the bus must have been late. We exchanged first names.
I asked him where he was going, and he said to see his daughter who lived out-of-state. He said he was divorced and didn’t get to see her very often.
I explained I was a student and I was on the way to a lecture.
I asked him, “What do you do for a living?”
And he looked at me and said, “You really want to know?”
I said, “Yes.”
He said, “I’m a hit man.”
I laughed. “Come on.”
He said, “No, really. You want to see my gun?” He reached down and unzipped his bag, showing a big gun nestled among his clothes.
“Wow,” I said, trying not to seem freaked out. “Does your daughter know what you do?”
“No,” he said.
“Well, don’t you think maybe you should find another profession? Something you could tell your daughter about?”
He said, “Actually, you know, it’s not so bad. The people I kill – they’re really the scum of the earth.”
I said, “But still …”
His bus finally came in sight, and my bus was still not there. By now, it was really too late for me to go hear the lama. I pulled out the book of the Buddha’s sayings. I scribbled his name and a little message inside that said, “To help you find a new path.”
I said, “You need this more than I do.”
He took the book and hoisted his duffle bag and got on the bus.
A moment later, he dashed off the bus and ran over and hugged me. Then he got back on the bus.
So that was my first Buddhist encounter.
I kind of wished I could have related that to Michael C. Hall, but there was not enough time.