Trope-ic Thunder: Looney Toons

Trope-ic Thunder BannerBy Drew Parton

This week two of you asked me questions about psychopathology. Last week, one of you sent me a question through the handy dandy feedback form way back on my column on memory:

So, I’ve seen the movie Memento and I don’t exactly understand what happened with the twist ending? Is there any scientific merit to that?

Well, to answer your question in short: yes, it’s scientifically possible.


In the ending, it’s suggested that Lenny’s wife wasn’t murdered by the assailant and Lenny’s anterrograde amnesia is psychologically based. What happened to Sammy Jankis REALLY happened to Leonard. Leonard’s wife was diabetic, Leonard’s amnesia was psychological and his wife didn’t believe it and she died from the insulin overdose. The conditioning that Leonard said happened to Sammy really happened to Leonard. You can see this in some single-frame shots in the movie when Lenny is telling the story of Sammy Jankis. Sometimes, for a split second you can see Sammy replaced with Leonard.

mementoNow, all of this is scientifically possible. As mentioned prior, there is explicit memory and implicit memory. And these are codified and processed in two different areas. Explicit memory is codified in the hippocampus while implicit memory is codified in the amygdala. So, if Lenny’s hippocampus was damaged and that caused his anterrograde amnesia, his amygdala (and thus his implicit memory) would remain intact. This is the principle behind the conditioning that Sammy (really Lenny) undergoes. Now, even if Lenny had amnesia, his implicit memories of being shocked would still be there. But that’s only if Lenny’s amnesia was biologically caused and not psychological.

polaroidAmnesia can have two different causes: biological and psychological (dissociative). Biologically caused amnesia usually comes from either damage to the brain or some odd wiring in the brain. On the other hand psychologicaly-caused amnesia is caused by a psychological reason. This psychologically cause amnesia is technically called “Dissociative amnesia.” It belongs to a group of disorders called dissociative disorders. You ever been doing some task and not even been aware that you’ve been doing it? Congratulations, you’ve experienced a dissociation. Dissociative disorders include aforementioned dissociative amnesia as well as dissociative identity disorder (formerly known as Multiple Personality Disorder).


Speaking of mental health, somebody also sent me a message regarding Rooster Recap’s articles on Dexter:

What do you know about psychopaths? Do things like Dexter and American Psycho portray them accurately?

dexOkay, American Psycho doesn’t really fit with most of the current research into psychopathy. Dexter, on the other hand portrays psychopathy extraordinarily accurately. The only problem is the negative light it puts psychopaths in. Listen, despite what media says, the vast VAST majority of psychopaths are not criminals. Only about 2% of the criminal population are psychopaths and only an estimated 10% of psychopaths are convicted criminals. That being said, those 2% of psychopath criminals commit 20% of violent crimes (murder, rape, etc.). Most psychopaths, actually are extraordinarily successful. There are really two gold-standard measures for diagnosing psychopathy- the Psychopathic Checklist- Revised (PCL-R) and the Psychopathy Propensity Index (PPI). And 198 out of Fortune’s top 200 CEO’s score incredibly high on both of them. And you know which fictional character was most likely a psychopath?

James “Godammn Pimp” Bond

Sean ConneryThat’s right, the man for all seasons hits almost every single mark on the PCL-R. Characteristics of psychopaths are incredibly valuable skills: never cracking under pressure, an ability to make tough decisions, the ability to lie without showing any signs, and extreme analytical and observational skills. Perfect skill-set for intelligence operatives and executives.

Most psychopaths aren’t violent or evil, they’re peaceful, adjusted citizens who just happen to not feel emotions or feelings. You see, there is a difference–in the business, we classify emotions as the physiological reactions to stimuli. The emotion of fear includes things such as increased heart rate, blood-pressure, activation of the sympathetic nervous system (fight-or-flight), and the lateral/central amygdalal nuclei. Feelings are what come later, they’re cognitive (thought) or pre-coginitive (unconscious processing) evaluations of those physiological signals. Psychopaths don’t feel either of those.

Much like amnesia, there are two causes: biological and psychological. Biological psychopaths have an anomalous brain structure–there is something different with their physical brain that causes this. Psychological psychopaths (called Developmental psychopaths) were born normal but some extreme trauma caused them to basically drop all traces of emotion. Developmental psychopaths usually develop psychopathy in childhood, they may have felt emotions before and can at least sometimes remember what emotions are, as opposed to biologically created psychopaths who cannot even conceptualize emotions. Dexter Morgan is a developmental psychopath, he was born with emotions, but witnessing his mother’s brutal murder and sitting in her blood for days was sufficient enough trauma to develop psychopathy.

Why does this happen some times? Well, one theory could be a theory that was first applied to emotion (and later to job satisfaction) called “Opponent Process theory.” This theory essentially boils down to “your body doesn’t like extreme emotion.” Be it despair, rage, or exuberance, your mind and body hate that shit. They resist it. The theory details two processes: one, the primary process, that “young love” feeling of extreme emotion. Feeling that every now and then is fine, but feeling that chronically is a huge problem. It taxes your body an insane amount and wears you out. So your body starts to try and counteract it, this resisting mechanism is called the “opponent process.” Hormonally, it actively punishes you to attempt to make you like something less. This is also the reason for the whole “don’t know what it’s got till it’s gone” phenomenon.

No, not that.

When the good thing that your body was trying to counteract ends, your body is still resisting it. But now, there’s no feel-good process, only the opponent process. So what first was just leveling you out makes you super-duper depressed. The opposite of this can happen too. So, when the trauma is so emotionally intense, your brain tries to resist this by dropping out all emotion.

Join me next week as I discuss science tropes in the media. And be sure to check out my other column, where I review dumb-ass action films every Monday: Mindless Action Mondays

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Have a science-related question? Ask it!

If I don’t know the answer, I’ll find someone who does.

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