The Man Who Stares at Himself

The Psychopath Test pretends to search for meaning

The amygdala is a region of most vertebrate brains that acts as a gatekeeper to memory, assigning priority to memories on the basis of emotional intensity, and in the process molding our emotional reflexes. Anyone who has been in combat or a car accident should get the idea. But psychopaths, who suffer from a total deficit of amygdalal activity and its attendant empathy, never acquire such searing long-term memories. As a result, we learn in the British journalist Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry (Riverhead, $26), they have trouble relishing their pleasurable experiences for a sustained period of time. And since they derive pleasure from inflicting suffering on others, they inevitably do it again and again, just to remember what it feels like.

This is not Ronson’s problem. To the contrary, he suspects he has been cursed with an overactive amygdala, a condition that manifests itself in regular panic attacks, the occasional involuntary shriek and a recurring nightmare wherein a stranger yells, “You’re a failure!”

A failure he is not, of course. His 2005 book The Men Who Stare at Goats (Simon & Schuster) sold millions of copies and in 2009 was adapted into a movie that grossed nearly $70 million. That work also revolved around the amygdala and the efforts of American intelligence authorities to learn psychological warfare.

The Psychopath Test treads on the less exotic ground of sanity, personality disorders and other pathologies, whether CEOs have the personality types of serial killers, the common fear of losing it and various other “madcap” subgenres of madness studies. Early on, Ronson fixates on the disorder we know as psychopathy, which neurologists have traced to a severely inactive amygdala. He gingerly befriends a diagnosed psychopath, a Scientologist activist trying to get him released from prison, the man who invented the checklist of traits used to diagnose the young man and various other denizens of the “madness industry.” Chronically torn over the field’s medical and ethical controversies, Ronson nevertheless remains driven to prove that his anxiety is evidence of an overabundance of amygdalal activity, making him the diagnostic opposite of a psychopath. (He is comforted to learn through painful shock treatments that he does indeed exhibit an above-average degree of anxiety.) It is an odd preoccupation, making the case that one is the diametric opposite of a psychopath; perhaps an ex-girlfriend could elucidate.

Perhaps in hopes of sparing us the personal hell of his own hyperactive amygdala, Ronson scrupulously avoids interacting with the amygdalal instincts of his readers. The Psychopath Test is so emotionally and psychologically untaxing to read that I began to suspect that I would finish it without “feeling” like I had actually read “a book.” I was right; my first thought upon shutting it was, “Bloody hell, was Blink even over this quickly?” I’m exaggerating with the “bloody hell” part, of course, in parroting Ronson’s lively conversational prose style. He writes sentences that lodge his stories in a reader’s consciousness with minimal effort and no need for emotional investment.

Somewhat ironically, Ronson himself clings pathologically to “fun.” After seizing upon a psychiatrist’s theory that America’s economic woes are the legacy of a CEO class dominated by high-functioning psychopaths, he travels to an obscenely opulent Florida estate to administer the psychopath test to the infamous “Chainsaw Al” Dunlap, whose reign of indiscriminate outsourcing as the CEO of the appliance-maker Sunbeam devastated communities, ruined lives and goosed the company’s stock price with liberal accounting fraud. Dunlap, a by-the-numbers psychopath, boasts that his psychopathic personality traits are the foundation of his indisputable success. While Ronson does his self-deprecating best to highlight its absurdity, the scene is ultimately just depressing, and he soon abandons the “theory” for no apparent reason other than what seems like a congenital resistance to making an argument. Also, it’s become increasingly clear that a major by-product of their emotional bankruptcy is that psychopaths are boring. At least Ronson can string a good sentence together.

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