Tuesday, 4 August 2015

Psychopaths: a Sniff Away from Extinction?

Psychopathic Serial Killer Denis Neilsen

Recently,  I was restoring an old 1940's wireless radio which was in good working condition, except that in the early 1970's some hippies, in their pad, chose to give it a 'groovy' paint job which was like something akin to Yellow Submarine meets a nocturnal vomit by some obscure taxi rank on a Saturday night. In order to remove the paint job, a website suggested using acetone to lift the paint off. What happened next was very interesting. 

I removed the top off the bottle of acetone and immediately the distinct smell filled my nostrils taking me right back to a factory I worked in back in the 1980's were we used acetone to clean electronic switches. The single sniff of the chemical not only transported me back to my old job, but flooded my senses with memories of the place and the people who worked there for the first time in decades. The smell of the acetone in my nostrils for a split second made me experience a kind of sensory time travel. The power of our sense of smell to evoke a time and place was brought into sharp focus as I began to remove the 'groovy' paint job.

In 2011, research conducted by psychologists at Macquarie University in Australia discovered that subjects who scored highly on psychopathic traits profiling, had a much poorer sense of smell than the rest of the seventy college students in the study. This discovery raises remarkable questions as to why psychopaths can't detect smells as well as the rest of us. More interestingly, as the sense of smell relates strongly to both memory and sensory/emotional recollection - almost certainly as an evolutionary survival trait - does this study also add weight to the previous discoveries that psychopaths apparently have no sense of a past identity?They exist 'in the moment', and the past to them is literally an experience 'someone' else had as they change personae constantly with each predatory tangent they embark upon.

As this powerful correlation between memory and smell not only fills us with nostalgia, but can also serve to remind us of the presence of natural predators - within a wild context - and this would put any psychopath living in a hunter gather society at an extreme disadvantage in terms of using their poor sense of smell to build a cognitive environmental internal geography within their consciousness. 

This would serve to prove why psychopaths are completely dependent upon enablers and hence, why they tend to do better in larger urban 'target-rich' environments, as they quite simply, could not survive in a rural or wilderness setting. 

When I was writing Puzzling People; the Labyrinth of the Psychopath in 2009, I spoke to a gentleman in Canada who was a typical outdoors man, and who also believed his brother to be a psychopath. One of the traits this gentleman relaid to me was that from the time they were kids his brother was literally terrified of going hiking and camping in the wilderness and constantly expressed a great hated for the natural world outside human civilisation. One time a skunk had left its scent close to their camper van and while all the other kids were holding their noses, his psychopathic brother could not understand what the fuss was all about.

As a side note: the psychopathic serial killers Anthony Sowell and Denis Neilsen were both caught due to neighbours smelling rotting corpses on their properties. Something both of these psychopaths were apparently oblivious to.