Tag Archives: fear

How do you get a psychopath through a maze?

Sorry, I couldn’t resist.

Cleckley psychopath maze

The Blank Page

Tabula rasaThe blank page terrifies me.

As I’m sure many writers know, sitting down to craft their thoughts and opinions into articulate and resonating sentences is often accompanied by at least a mild emotional experience. Sure, there can be the thrill of waiting to find out how you manage to express the fantastic ideas that’ve been rattling around your head for at least the last few hours (seconds?), but this is not without risk. If you do your job well, it’s a rewarding and a gratifying experience. If you fail to articulate those burning spots in your mind, it can be deeply frustrating, even depressing.

I sometimes see the blank page as a kind of magnet, pulling the sentences from my mind as I tell the story to myself. Once it’s out there I can often re-work it to strike a deeper chord. However, sometimes this magnet is not charged, and I am left wondering if I can change it in some way, perhaps it’ll jostle and loosen those words that are clustered together and just refusing to come out. During these moments, the very white of the page starts to irritate me, and I wonder if I change the color of the page or the font or the font style, if that’ll free-up the flow of words that I know are dying to come out. Perhaps I should switch to pen and paper, so I can stimulate my mind with the rapturous and tantalizing smell of ink – maybe even deliberately stain my fingers a little (in for a penny, in for a pound, right?).

I know a lot of this has to do with one’s own technique, personality, mood, and budgeting enough time to write, although I sometimes wonder if the compulsion to write, as in it’s time to satisfy one’s craving, sometimes gets ahead of the thought process. “Come on brain, it’s time to write! What’ve you got for me?”

We clearly get off on making sense of our thoughts. And where would our culture be without this self gratification?

Perhaps the blank page is what started it all.

Asthmatic Personality

asthma lungsI’ve had asthma ever since I was a child, and fortunately as I entered my adult years the severity of its onsets have reduced. Most people know that asthma results in a shortness of breath, but there are two things happening that result in this: Firstly, your bronchioles fill up with mucus, which means that less air can pass through, and secondly, the bronchioles themselves are narrowing, which has the same result. It’s like a double whammy of suffocation, and as you’re struggling to pull air in for extended periods of time, the muscles all around your chest begin to fatigue and ache. Imagine breathing through one of those narrow red straw-like coffee stirrers for five minutes, and you’ll be able to recreate the feelings surrounding the onset of an asthma attack.

Even though there is no cure for asthma, fortunately there are some very effective drugs that can immediately open your bronchioles. I’m sure you’re familiar with a friend who carries a little blue inhaler in their pocket or purse, although I bet you’ve never really seen them use it (I’m personally a bit embarrassed to use it in front of people). Typically, there are two types of inhaler. One that prevents the onset of asthma (a preventer), and one that relieves the symptoms of asthma (a reliever). With a combination of these treatments, most people can stop asthma from interfering with their lives.

So, what has asthma got to do with personality?

Asthma, like any other lifelong ailments, becomes a part of your life – indeed, a part of you. In order to treat the symptoms of asthma, a sufferer must always be aware of how frequently they need to take their inhalers, and make sure to keep them near their person at all times. In fact, as a sufferer, I can tell you that if I leave the house without my inhaler I suddenly feel fearful and nervous. Sometimes I even feel like my chest is getting tight when it isn’t. In order to deal with these irrational feelings, I have deliberately left my inhaler at home, but only during times when I am not straying too far and I can easily get back if I need to. This increases my experiences of being without my inhaler that always transpire with no asthmatic occurrences, and I feel like the deathly-necessity of carrying it all the time is diminished.

As you can see, there is a habitual routine that asthma sufferers have to be mindful of all the time. If this routine is interrupted, such as forgetting the inhaler, emotions like panic and fear, and even the psychosomatic feeling of becoming short of breath can result. Over the years, all of this will have an impact on your personality.

The asthma attack itself is synonymous with feelings of desperation. When you can’t breath, with each contraction of your chest muscles and diaphragm, you are desperately trying to pull the much needed air into your lungs, but you can’t. The duration of an asthma attack is laced with frustration, fear, and desperation. You are anxiously waiting for your chest to open up and pull that much needed oxygen in. It is no wonder that asthma sufferers develop such an obsessive and paranoid relationship with their inhalers – anything to avoid having to go through an attack again. If the attack is bad enough, I would even call it a traumatic event, and we know how our lives and our behavior can be shaped by trauma.

I have even found that if I start to become tight, and I am engaged in a particular activity, I will try to finish the activity before I take my inhaler. In this sense, having a puff of my ‘reliever’ becomes the reward for finishing. If I start an activity, particularly if it is a chore such as doing the dishes, I do not want my asthma to mean I have to stop, go find my inhaler, take a puff, and then resume washing the dishes. Instead, I rush to finish the dishes so that by the time I can breath again I can associate the feelings of relief with the feelings of having accomplished the task. The only trouble is, if the asthma starts to get bad, I delay taking my inhaler as the asthma worsens, and could even end up making myself bad. But during the times that I am asthmatic, my inhaler has trained me to finish chores!

I have also become defiant with periods of chest tightness. I can remember a number of times during my school days that I did not want to let my asthma interfere with doing what the other children were doing. If I started to become tight, and taking my inhaler wasn’t an option without stopping the activity (such as playing or running), I would just deal with the feelings in my chest for as long as I could ignore them. I didn’t want to be the outsider. I didn’t want asthma being the reason that I couldn’t play and compete with everybody else.  I’m sure that these experiences are partly responsible for the aspect of my personality that ignores, even condemns, those who tell me I can’t do something.

If I did have to stop playing, and with asthma you don’t really have a choice in the matter, I started to become impatient with my condition, and I would start to get mad at myself for having such a ‘crappy’ body. I am happy to say that my self-loathing never resulted in anything clinical, and it vanished along with my adolescence. Nevertheless, the remnants of asthma-induced frustration in my ‘developmental’ years still shaped my brain and my personality.

If anyone has any thoughts on this, I would love to hear from you.

Fear and the Amygdala

The experience of fear has often been closely tied to activity in the brain structure called the amygdala, which is itself a cluster of nuclei and highly involved in the processing of memory. There are two amygdalae, one on each side of the brain.

There is ample evidence that the amygdala is heavily involved in fear conditioning, the procedure whereby we learn to tag aversive experiences with feelings of fear. Fear conditioning is perfectly natural, and functions to help you avoid aversive experiences in the future. There are numerous problems that can arise because of fear conditioning, however, such as tagging healthy and innocuous experiences with a fear response (perhaps because of past trauma), making one susceptible to perpetual fear, paranoia, and misanthropy. On the whole, though, fear conditioning should facilitate your passage through life.

A recent study by Feinstein et al. found that while the amygdala is active during fearful occurrences, it is not responsible for our subjective experience of fear. Feinstein et al. found that a lady, who suffered a condition that resulted in a reduced amygdala, and subsequently seemed to lack a fear response, could be induced to experience fear by increasing her carbon dioxide intake. In fact, people who have a reduced amygdala become even more fearful than those with a healthy amygdala during these negative experiences. I would expect that CO2 triggers fear because of the impending threat of suffocation; if the body is becoming low on oxygen, any mechanism or experience that motivates the organism to take action will promote survival.

On the surface, this experiment seems to suggest that you can induce fear in those who do not typically experience it.

Naturally, this peaked my curiosity because of my interest in psychopaths. Those with psychopathy typically have a reduced amygdala and cannot experience fear. I would be curious to know if this method of inducing fear could be used to help psychopaths develop a conscious and emotional understanding of what it is to experience fear. There are still no treatments for psychopathy, but if we could induce fear in these individuals, perhaps we could trigger the beginning of a conscience?

Jack Pemment, 2013



Nature News: Researchers scare ‘fearless’ patients – Feelings of terror did not involve the brain’s fear center.

Feinstein, J. S., Buzza, C., Hurlemann, R., Follmer, R. L., Dahdaleh, N. S., Coryell, W. H., … & Wemmie, J. A. (2013). Fear and panic in humans with bilateral amygdala damage. Nature neuroscience.

Mind Whimsy