I hang up. What I’m planning is a psychopath makeover, to find out firsthand, for better and for worse, what it’s like to see the world through devil-may-care eyes. And there’s nothing like a bit of competition.
Transcranial magnetic stimulation (or TMS) was developed by Anthony Barker and his colleagues at the University of Sheffield in 1985. The inaugural application of TMS by Barker and his team comprised an elementary demonstration of the conduction of nerve impulses from the motor cortex to the spinal cord by stimulating simple muscle contractions. Nowadays it’s a different story—and TMS has widespread practical uses, in both diagnostic and therapeutic capacities, across a variety of neurological and psychiatric conditions, from depression and migraine to strokes and Parkinson’s disease.
The basic premise of TMS is that the brain operates using electrical signals, and that, as with any such system, it’s possible to modify the way it works by altering its electrical environment. Standard equipment consists of a powerful electromagnet, placed on the scalp, that generates steady magnetic-field pulses at specific frequencies, and a plastic-enclosed coil to focus those magnetic pulses down through the surface of the skull onto discrete brain regions, thus stimulating the underlying cortex.
Now, one of the things that we know about psychopaths is that the light switches of their brains aren’t wired up in quite the same way as the rest of ours are—and that one area particularly affected is the amygdala, a peanut-size structure located right at the center of the circuit board. The amygdala is the brain’s emotion-control tower. It polices our emotional airspace and is responsible for the way we feel about things. But in psychopaths, a section of this airspace, the part that corresponds to fear, is empty.
In the light-switch analogy, TMS may be thought of as a dimmer switch. As we process information, our brains generate small electrical signals. These signals not only pass through our nerves to work our muscles but also meander deep within our brains as ephemeral electrical data shoals, creating our thoughts, memories, and feelings. TMS can alter the strength of those signals. By passing an electromagnetic current through precisely targeted areas of the cortex, we can turn the signals either up or down.
Kevin Dutton is a research psychologist at the University of Cambridge. This essay is excerpted from The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us About Success, his new book from Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux.