The Startle Reflex test and Psychopathic responses to trauma

He strapped them up, one by one, to various EEG and sweat- and blood-pressure-measuring machines, and also to an electricity generator, and he explained to them he was going to count backwards from ten and when he reached one they’d receive a very painful electric shock…

The tests seemed to indicate that the amygdale, the part of the brain that should have anticipated the unpleasantness and sent the requisite signals of fear over to the central nervous system, wasn’t functioning as it should.

It was an enormous breakthrough for Bob, his first clue that the brains of psychopaths were different to regular brains. But he was even more astonished when he repeated the test. This time the psychopaths knew exactly how much pain they’d be in when he reached one, and still: nothing. No sweat. Bob learned something that Elliot Barker wouldn’t for years: psychopaths were likely to reoffend…

He did another experiment, the Startle Reflex test, in which psychopaths and non-psychopaths were invited to look at grotesque images, like crime-scene photographs of blown-apart faces, and then when they least expected it Bob would let off an incredibly loud noise in their ear. The non-psychopaths would leap with astonishment. The psychopaths would remain comparatively serene.

Bob knew we tend to jump a lot higher when startled if we’re on the edge of our seats anyway. If we’re watching a scary movie and someone makes an unexpected noise we leap in terror. But if we’re engrossed by something, a crossword puzzle, say, and someone startles us, our leap is less pronounced. From this Bob deduced that when psychopaths see grotesque images of blown-apart faces they aren’t horrified. They’re absorbed. (pp97-99)

Perhaps we gain satisfaction from experiencing trauma in a controlled and safe environment (such as the art gallery) as our emotional response to it reassures us that we are ‘real’, as our reactions are as would be expected from a ‘normal’ person.  A fitting example would be Mat Collishaw’s Bullet Hole which shows a close up of a human scalp apparently wounded by a bullet (which was actually caused by an ice pick). The original image was taken from a pathology textbook and has been enlarged, illuminated and mounted on fifteen light-boxes in full visceral detail to enhance an immediate reaction of repulsion. Yet by taking the image out of its original context, we are encouraged to consider the image beyond the initial sensory impact of the image, and becoming either engrossed or fascinated by such a repulsive and abject image may make us feel abnormal and unsettle us (ironically sensing empathy with the psychopath!)


One Response to “The Startle Reflex test and Psychopathic responses to trauma”

  1. Well...I comment. Says:

    Well, I’m certainly not a psychopath even if I show in my behaviors a lot of characteristics belonged by psychopaths and sociopaths. But, I’ve seen a ton of “repulsive images”, they never gave me a reaction, I just become absorbed, more and more curious and want to see more. I know that I’m different, because other people can’t stand these things or they react and feel something. I don’t. Most of the time I don’t understand why they have reactions, I know “why”, but not why.

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