Archive for the ‘California’ Category

The rice industry in the Sacramento Valley is taking a hard hit with the drought. Some farmers are skipping out on their fields this year, because they are cashing in on their water rights.

Many fields will stay dry because farmers will be doing what was once considered unthinkable: selling their water to Southern California.

“In the long term, if we don’t make it available we’re afraid they’ll just take it,” said Charlie Mathews, a fourth generation rice farmer with senior rights to Yuba River water.

He and his fellow growers have agreed to sell 20 percent of their allotment to Los Angeles’s Metropolitan Water District as it desperately searches to add to its dwindling supply.

It’s not really surprising that Southern California is looking for a place to buy water. But what is making news is how much they’ve agreed to pay for it: $700 per acre foot of water.

Just last year, rice farmers were amazed when they were offered $500 per acre foot. This new price means growers will earn a lot more money on the fields they don’t plant, making water itself the real cash crop in California.

“It’s much more than we ever expected to get. But at the same time, that just shows the desperation of the people that need it,” Mathews said.

The ripple effect of this will be felt around the entire state. If a Bay Area water district needs to buy more water, it will now be competing with Los Angeles to do it.

“They have to pay whatever the last price, the highest price, people will pay,” Mathews said.

http://sanfrancisco.cbslocal.com/2015/03/17/drought-some-northern-california-farmers-not-planting-sell-water-rights-los-angeles/

Thanks to Kebmodee for bringing this to the attention of the It’s Interesting community.

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John Adams Elementary School in Corona. Most of the 717 parents received a phone message last Thursday notifying them of their children’s absence.

Shane Reichardt was at a Banning City Council meeting on Thursday morning, Oct. 23, when a phone message started the clock on what he called “the longest eight minutes of my life.”

The call was from John Adams Elementary School in Corona, where his son, Drew, is a second-grader. The message noted that Drew was absent from school that day.

But he wasn’t absent, and eight minutes later, after Reichardt had bolted out of the meeting and ran to the parking lot for the 46-mile drive back to Corona, another call from the school arrived.

It was all a mistake.

Reichardt, 45, didn’t know at the time that most of the parents of the 717 students at John Adams had received the same computer-generated calls, the first one at 11:11 a.m. All he knew was that Drew had been missing for almost 2 1/2 hours.

He had left Drew with his childcare provider, who was to drop him off at school a little before 8 a.m. “At this point my concern increased exponentially.”

What happened, according to Evita Tapia-Gonzalez, spokeswoman for the Corona-Norco Unified School District, was an “inadvertent error” on the part of a school employee operating Blackboard Messaging, a broadcast messaging system used for communications.

“There is an option to send messages to a filtered group,” she said. “This one was sent to all parents.”

Before such messages are distributed, she said, “The software prompts you to reread and review what was sent and to whom. It was human error coupled with technology error.”

Shortly after the first phone call, several parents who live near the school arrived on campus to get more information. “Site administration immediately was available to offer their apologies to parents and answer questions,” Tapia-Gonzalez said.

One of the parents, Angel Lomeli, said, “I was scared to death.” Lomeli has four children attending John Adams and received a separate call about each.

But another parent, Susan Fonseca, said while she was concerned, she knew her daughter, Alexxi, a fifth-grader, was in class because Fonseca’s husband had dropped her off at school that morning.

Tapia-Gonzalez said in an email that the error has prompted changes at John Adams. “The school has developed a process that provides additional layers of review before messages are sent to parents,” she wrote.

Reichardt, who has a management position with the Riverside County Fire Department, was in Banning representing the department that morning. “I take safety and open communication very seriously,” he said. “The notification system in the school could play a vital role when something goes wrong. If the school can’t use it correctly on a good day, I have concerns about how they will function on a bad day.”

He added, “To tell a parent their child is unaccounted for could quite possibly be the scariest thing a parent could ever imagine. I hope they find a way to prevent it from happening (again).”

http://www.pe.com/articles/school-753273-parents-call.html

brainy_2758840b

Talking to yourself used to be a strictly private pastime. That’s no longer the case – researchers have eavesdropped on our internal monologue for the first time. The achievement is a step towards helping people who cannot physically speak communicate with the outside world.

“If you’re reading text in a newspaper or a book, you hear a voice in your own head,” says Brian Pasley at the University of California, Berkeley. “We’re trying to decode the brain activity related to that voice to create a medical prosthesis that can allow someone who is paralysed or locked in to speak.”

When you hear someone speak, sound waves activate sensory neurons in your inner ear. These neurons pass information to areas of the brain where different aspects of the sound are extracted and interpreted as words.

In a previous study, Pasley and his colleagues recorded brain activity in people who already had electrodes implanted in their brain to treat epilepsy, while they listened to speech. The team found that certain neurons in the brain’s temporal lobe were only active in response to certain aspects of sound, such as a specific frequency. One set of neurons might only react to sound waves that had a frequency of 1000 hertz, for example, while another set only cares about those at 2000 hertz. Armed with this knowledge, the team built an algorithm that could decode the words heard based on neural activity alone (PLoS Biology, doi.org/fzv269).

The team hypothesised that hearing speech and thinking to oneself might spark some of the same neural signatures in the brain. They supposed that an algorithm trained to identify speech heard out loud might also be able to identify words that are thought.

Mind-reading

To test the idea, they recorded brain activity in another seven people undergoing epilepsy surgery, while they looked at a screen that displayed text from either the Gettysburg Address, John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address or the nursery rhyme Humpty Dumpty.

Each participant was asked to read the text aloud, read it silently in their head and then do nothing. While they read the text out loud, the team worked out which neurons were reacting to what aspects of speech and generated a personalised decoder to interpret this information. The decoder was used to create a spectrogram – a visual representation of the different frequencies of sound waves heard over time. As each frequency correlates to specific sounds in each word spoken, the spectrogram can be used to recreate what had been said. They then applied the decoder to the brain activity that occurred while the participants read the passages silently to themselves.

Despite the neural activity from imagined or actual speech differing slightly, the decoder was able to reconstruct which words several of the volunteers were thinking, using neural activity alone (Frontiers in Neuroengineering, doi.org/whb).

The algorithm isn’t perfect, says Stephanie Martin, who worked on the study with Pasley. “We got significant results but it’s not good enough yet to build a device.”

In practice, if the decoder is to be used by people who are unable to speak it would have to be trained on what they hear rather than their own speech. “We don’t think it would be an issue to train the decoder on heard speech because they share overlapping brain areas,” says Martin.

The team is now fine-tuning their algorithms, by looking at the neural activity associated with speaking rate and different pronunciations of the same word, for example. “The bar is very high,” says Pasley. “Its preliminary data, and we’re still working on making it better.”

The team have also turned their hand to predicting what songs a person is listening to by playing lots of Pink Floyd to volunteers, and then working out which neurons respond to what aspects of the music. “Sound is sound,” says Pasley. “It all helps us understand different aspects of how the brain processes it.”

“Ultimately, if we understand covert speech well enough, we’ll be able to create a medical prosthesis that could help someone who is paralysed, or locked in and can’t speak,” he says.

Several other researchers are also investigating ways to read the human mind. Some can tell what pictures a person is looking at, others have worked out what neural activity represents certain concepts in the brain, and one team has even produced crude reproductions of movie clips that someone is watching just by analysing their brain activity. So is it possible to put it all together to create one multisensory mind-reading device?

In theory, yes, says Martin, but it would be extraordinarily complicated. She says you would need a huge amount of data for each thing you are trying to predict. “It would be really interesting to look into. It would allow us to predict what people are doing or thinking,” she says. “But we need individual decoders that work really well before combining different senses.”

http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg22429934.000-brain-decoder-can-eavesdrop-on-your-inner-voice.html

In the inner city, a health problem is making it harder for young people to learn. inner-city kids suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“Youth living in inner cities show a higher prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder than soldiers,” according to Howard Spivak M.D., director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Division of Violence Prevention.

Spivak presented research at a congressional briefing in April 2012 showing that children are essentially living in combat zones. Unlike soldiers, children in the inner city never leave the combat zone and often experience trauma repeatedly.

One local expert says national data suggests one in three urban youth have mild to severe PTSD. “You could take anyone who is experiencing the symptoms of PTSD, and the things we are currently emphasizing in school will fall off their radar. Because frankly it does not matter in our biology if we don’t survive the walk home,” said Jeff Duncan-Andrade, Ph.D. of San Francisco State University.

In 2013, there were 47 recorded lockdowns in Oakland public schools – again, almost all in East and West Oakland.

Students at Fremont High showed where one classmate was shot.

“If someone got shot that they knew or that they cared about… they’re going to be numb,” one student said. “If someone else in their family got shot and killed they will be sad, they will be isolated because I have been through that.”

Gun violence is only one of the traumas or stressors in concentrated areas of deep poverty.

“Its kids are unsafe, they’re not well fed,” Duncan-Andrade said. “And when you start stacking those kids of stressors on top of each other, that’s when you get these kinds of negative health outcomes that seriously disrupt school performance.”

Duncan-Andrade said doctors at Harvard’s School of Public Health have come up with a new diagnosis of complex PTSD, describing people who are repeatedly re-exposed to trauma, which Duncan-Andrade said, would include many inner-city youth.

In Oakland, about two-thirds of the murders last year were actually clustered in East Oakland, where 59 people were killed.

Teachers and administrators who graduated from Fremont High School in East Oakland and have gone back to work there spoke with KPIX 5.

“These cards that (students) are suddenly wearing around their neck that say ‘Rest in peace.’ You have some kids that are walking around with six of them. Laminated cards that are tributes to their slain friends,” said teacher Jasmene Miranda.

Jaliza Collins, also a teacher at Fremont, said, “It’s depression, it’s stress, it’s withdrawal, it’s denial. It’s so many things that is encompassed and embodied in them. And when somebody pushes that one button where it can be like, ‘please go have a seat,’ and that can be the one thing that just sets them off.”

Even the slang nickname for the condition, “Hood Disease,” itself causes pain, and ignites debate among community leaders, as they say the term pejoratively refers to impoverished areas, and distances the research and medical community from the issue.

“People from afar call it ‘Hood Disease,’ – it’s what academics call it,” said Olis Simmons, CEO of Youth UpRising working in what she describes as the epicenter of the issue: East Oakland.

She said the term minimizes the pain that her community faces, and fails to capture the impact this has on the larger community.

“In the real world where this affects real lives, people are suffering from a chronic level of trauma that doesn’t have a chance to heal because they’re effectively living in a war zone within your town,” said Simmons.

“Terms like ‘hood disease’ mean it’s someone else’s problem, but it’s not. That’s a lie. It’s a collective problem, and the question is what are we prepared to do about it?”

Thanks to Kebmodee for bringing this to the attention of the It’s Interesting community.

http://sanfrancisco.cbslocal.com/2014/05/16/hood-disease-inner-city-oakland-youth-suffering-from-post-traumatic-stress-disorder-ptsd-crime-violence-shooting-homicide-murder/

In 2012, a private company working with the LA County Sheriff’s Department flew a civilian plane rigged with multiple high-powered video cameras over the city of Compton, recording “video of everything that happened inside that 10-square-mile municipality,” all without telling residents, according to The Atlantic. Expanding on a previous piece by the Center for Investigative Reporting, The Atlantic says that the project was a test-run of sorts by the company, Persistent Surveillance Systems, eager to show off its tech to the country’s largest sheriff’s department. (Neither article says how long the plane was in the air or exactly how many times it flew and recorded, but the head of the company himself brags that “We literally watched all of Compton during the time that we were flying, so we could zoom in anywhere within the city of Compton and follow cars and see people.”)

They didn’t tell Compton because Compton might not have liked it.

Ohio-based PSS sells surveillance equipment (known as wide area surveillance) that uses cameras mounted on the underside of planes to record video, allowing police to pause, rewind, and zoom in on footage that’s been recorded in real-time, like a much creepier DVR. The Sheriffs were “persuaded” by Ross McNutt (the Air Force veteran who owns PSS) to let him fly a plane outfitted with cameras over Compton in response to a chain of horrible crimes terrorizing the city’s residents: a string of necklace-jackings. The plan was to have McNutt’s aircraft hover over areas where reported thefts had taken place, and to look for anything that might help investigators.

“Our whole system costs less than the price of a single police helicopter and costs less for an hour to operate than a police helicopter. But at the same time, it watches 10,000 times the area that a police helicopter could watch,” McNutt told CIR. While the tech sounds futuristic (in a dystopian way), it is thankfully still limited: the cameras are not powerful enough yet to recognize faces. (Nowhere near as fancy/invasive as the license-plate recognition software that the LAPD uses.) McNutt himself predicts that technology will advance within the next few years, so don’t even sweat it.

At no point was any of this revealed to the residents of Compton because the cops knew they wouldn’t much care for having their entire city recorded. “A lot of people do have a problem with the eye in the sky, the Big Brother, so in order to mitigate any of those kinds of complaints, we basically kept it pretty hush-hush,” says LA County Sheriff Sgt. Doug Iketani, the project’s supervisor.

http://la.curbed.com/archives/2014/04/la_sheriff_secretly_recorded_all_of_compton_from_above.php

Thanks to Kebmodee for bringing this to the attention of the It’s Interesting community.

In a trio of studies published Sunday, scientists reported that they reversed aging in the muscles and brains of old mice — simply by running the blood of young mice through their veins.

The papers, from two independent groups in Cambridge and California, used different approaches to begin to unravel the rejuvenating effects of young animals’ blood, in the hopes of eventually developing a therapy that could be tested in people.

Researchers at Harvard University administered a protein found in young blood to older mice, and found that treated mice could run longer on a treadmill and had more branching blood vessels in their brains than untreated mice. A group led by a University of California, San Francisco researcher identified a molecular switch in a memory center of the brain that appears to be turned on by blood from young mice.

“These are the tissues that are really affected by advancing age. Changes in these tissues are responsible for the changes that people worry about the most — loss of cognition and loss of independent function,” said Amy Wagers, a professor of stem cell and regenerative biology at Harvard University involved in two of the studies.

Wagers said many questions remain about the mechanism of the protein and what the best therapeutic strategy might be, but she is already working to commercialize the protein discovery. The same substance is found in human blood.

Outside scientists cautioned that the findings are limited to one strain of mice and that it is not yet clear that something so simple would have dramatic anti-aging effects in people.

The new studies build on a decade of research that showed that young blood can have a rejuvenating effect on older mice. When scientists stitched together the circulatory systems of pairs of old and young mice, in a procedure called parabiosis, they found beneficial effects on the cells of the spinal cord, muscles, brain, and liver of the older animals. The next question was why — which of the many substances floating around in blood were responsible for the changes, and how did it work?

Last year, Wagers and another Harvard stem cell scientist, Dr. Richard T. Lee, found that a protein called GDF11 could cause a mouse heart thickened with age to revert to a youthful state. No one knew, however, whether the effect was specific to the heart, or would apply to aging in other tissues. Two of the new papers, published online by the journal Science, extend that work to the mouse brain and muscle.

In one study, Wagers and colleagues first connected the blood vessels of old and young mice. They measured profound changes to muscle stem cells in the older mice that made the cells appear more youthful. There were also changes to the structure of muscle. Next, they injected the protein that had been shown to rejuvenate hearts into the older mice. Although some individual mice did not change much, on average, the treated mice could run nearly twice as long on a treadmill as older mice not given the protein. The protein had no effect when injected into younger mice.

In a second study, Dr. Lee Rubin, director of translational medicine at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, found that after parabiosis, the older mice had an increase in the branching network of blood vessels in the brain and in the rate of creation of new brain cells. Treated mice were more sensitive to changes in smell, suggesting the new neurons had an effect on their abilities. The GDF11 protein alone resulted in similar structural changes.

Wagers said that she has begun working with Atlas Venture, a venture capital firm based in Cambridge, to come up with a strategy to turn the insights about GDF11 into potential treatments that could be tested in people.

David Harrison, an aging researcher at Jackson Laboratory, a nonprofit research organization based in Bar Harbor, Maine, who was not involved in the research, said that an important caveat about the research is that it was done on a particular strain of mouse that is inbred. It will be important, he said, to test the protein’s effect in a more genetically diverse population of mice before thinking about extending the work to clinical trials.

Thomas Rando, a professor of neurology at Stanford University School of Medicine who pioneered using the parabiosis technique to study aging, said it is important to try and understand how young blood has its potent effects. But he said it seems very unlikely, given how complex aging is, that reversing it will depend on a single pathway.

“My answer always was and always will be there’s no way there’s a factor,” Rando said. “There are going to be hundreds of factors.”

In the third study published in the journal Nature Medicine, researchers from the University of California, San Francisco and Stanford used parabiosis to search for changes in gene activity in the brain that might help point to how young blood had its effects. They found changes in the activity of genes involved in the connectivity of brain cells in the hippocampus, a memory center.

Instead of using a specific protein, the researchers then gave older mice repeated transfusions of blood from young mice and found that the older animals improved on specific age-related memory tasks, such as locating an underwater platform and remembering an environment where they had experienced an unpleasant foot shock.

Saul Villeda, a UCSF faculty fellow who led the work, said that the results of the three studies reinforce one another, but they differ in their approach.

“I’m really interested to see whether GDF11 accounts for everything, or whether it’s going to be a combination of factors that together that has the full effect,” Villeda said.

All the researchers warned that people hoping to reverse aging shouldn’t get any wild ideas about infusing themselves with young blood, although they acknowledged making their share of vampire jokes.

“I am the oldest member of the team here, and I personally understand the sentiment for patients,” Rubin said. But he still wouldn’t try it.

Written by Carolyn Y. Johnson, who can be reached at cjohnson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @carolynyjohnson.

http://www.bostonglobe.com/news/science/2014/05/04/blood-from-young-mice-reverses-aging-brain-muscles/iepDMMf7wrLJy6WgXqpdIJ/story.html?rss_id=Top-GNP&google_editors_picks=true

Thanks to Da Brayn for bringing this to the attention of the It’s Interesting community

There are a few things we take for granted in social interactions with people. We presume that we see the world in roughly the same way, that we all know certain basic facts, that words mean the same things to you as they do to me. And we assume that we have pretty similar ideas of right and wrong.

But for a small – but not that small – subset of the population, things are very different. These people lack remorse and empathy and feel emotion only shallowly. In extreme cases, they might not care whether you live or die. These people are called psychopaths. Some of them are violent criminals, murderers. But by no means all.

Professor Robert Hare is a criminal psychologist, and the creator of the PCL-R, a psychological assessment used to determine whether someone is a psychopath. For decades, he has studied people with psychopathy, and worked with them, in prisons and elsewhere. “It stuns me, as much as it did when I started 40 years ago, that it is possible to have people who are so emotionally disconnected that they can function as if other people are objects to be manipulated and destroyed without any concern,” he says.

Our understanding of the brain is still in its infancy, and it’s not so many decades since psychological disorders were seen as character failings. Slowly we are learning to think of mental illnesses as illnesses, like kidney disease or liver failure, and developmental disorders, such as autism, in a similar way. Psychopathy challenges this view. “A high-scoring psychopath views the world in a very different way,” says Hare. “It’s like colour-blind people trying to understand the colour red, but in this case ‘red’ is other people’s emotions.”

At heart, Hare’s test is simple: a list of 20 criteria, each given a score of 0 (if it doesn’t apply to the person), 1 (if it partially applies) or 2 (if it fully applies). The list in full is: glibness and superficial charm, grandiose sense of self-worth, pathological lying, cunning/manipulative, lack of remorse, emotional shallowness, callousness and lack of empathy, unwillingness to accept responsibility for actions, a tendency to boredom, a parasitic lifestyle, a lack of realistic long-term goals, impulsivity, irresponsibility, lack of behavioural control, behavioural problems in early life, juvenile delinquency, criminal versatility, a history of “revocation of conditional release” (ie broken parole), multiple marriages, and promiscuous sexual behaviour. A pure, prototypical psychopath would score 40. A score of 30 or more qualifies for a diagnosis of psychopathy. Hare says: “A friend of mine, a psychiatrist, once said: ‘Bob, when I meet someone who scores 35 or 36, I know these people really are different.’ The ones we consider to be alien are the ones at the upper end.”

But is psychopathy a disorder – or a different way of being? Anyone reading the list above will spot a few criteria familiar from people they know. On average, someone with no criminal convictions scores 5. “It’s dimensional,” says Hare. “There are people who are part-way up the scale, high enough to warrant an assessment for psychopathy, but not high enough up to cause problems. Often they’re our friends, they’re fun to be around. They might take advantage of us now and then, but usually it’s subtle and they’re able to talk their way around it.” Like autism, a condition which we think of as a spectrum, “psycho­pathy”, the diagnosis, bleeds into normalcy.

We think of psychopaths as killers, criminals, outside society. People such as Joanna Dennehy, a 31-year-old British woman who killed three men in 2013 and who the year before had been diagnosed with a psychopathic personality disorder, or Ted Bundy, the American serial killer who is believed to have murdered at least 30 people and who said of himself: “I’m the most cold-blooded son of a bitch you’ll ever meet. I just liked to kill.” But many psychopathic traits aren’t necessarily disadvantages – and might, in certain circumstances, be an advantage. For their co-authored book, “Snakes in suits: When Psychopaths go to work”, Hare and another researcher, Paul Babiak, looked at 203 corporate professionals and found about four per cent scored sufficiently highly on the PCL-R to be evaluated for psychopathy. Hare says that this wasn’t a proper random sample (claims that “10 per cent of financial executives” are psychopaths are certainly false) but it’s easy to see how a lack of moral scruples and indifference to other people’s suffering could be beneficial if you want to get ahead in business.

“There are two kinds of empathy,” says James Fallon, a neuroscientist at the University of California and author of The Psychopath Inside: A Neuroscientist’s Personal Journey into the Dark Side of the Brain. “Cognitive empathy is the ability to know what other people are feeling, and emotional empathy is the kind where you feel what they’re feeling.” Autistic people can be very empathetic – they feel other people’s pain – but are less able to recognise the cues we read easily, the smiles and frowns that tell us what someone is thinking. Psychopaths are often the opposite: they know what you’re feeling, but don’t feel it themselves. “This all gives certain psychopaths a great advantage, because they can understand what you’re thinking, it’s just that they don’t care, so they can use you against yourself.” (Chillingly, psychopaths are particularly adept at detecting vulnerability. A 2008 study that asked participants to remember virtual characters found that those who scored highly for psychopathy had a near perfect recognition for sad, unsuccessful females, but impaired memory for other characters.)

Fallon himself is a case in point. In 2005, he was looking at brain scans of psychopathic murderers, while on another study, of Alzheimer’s, he was using scans of his own family’s brains as controls. In the latter pile, he found something strange. “You can’t tell just from a brain scan whether someone’s a psychopath,” he says, “but you can make a good guess at the personality traits they’ll have.” He describes a great loop that starts in the front of the brain including the parahippocampal gyrus and the amygdala and other regions tied to emotion and impulse control and empathy. Under certain circumstances they would light up dramatically on a normal person’s MRI scan, but would be darker on a psychopath’s.

“I saw one that was extremely abnormal, and I thought this is someone who’s way off. It looked like the murderers I’d been looking at,” he says. He broke the anonymisation code in case it had been put into the wrong pile. When he did, he discovered it was his own brain. “I kind of blew it off,” he says. “But later, some psychiatrist friends of mine went through my behaviours, and they said, actually, you’re probably a borderline psychopath.”

Speaking to him is a strange experience; he barely draws breath in an hour, in which I ask perhaps three questions. He explains how he has frequently put his family in danger, exposing his brother to the deadly Marburg virus and taking his son trout-fishing in the African countryside knowing there were lions around. And in his youth, “if I was confronted by authority – if I stole a car, made pipe bombs, started fires – when we got caught by the police I showed no emotion, no anxiety”. Yet he is highly successful, driven to win. He tells me things most people would be uncomfortable saying: that his wife says she’s married to a “fun-loving, happy-go-lucky nice guy” on the one hand, and a “very dark character who she does not like” on the other. He’s pleasant, and funny, if self-absorbed, but I can’t help but think about the criteria in Hare’s PCL-R: superficial charm, lack of emotional depth, grandiose sense of self-worth. “I look like hell now, Tom,” he says – he’s 66 – “but growing up I was good-looking, six foot, 180lb, athletic, smart, funny, popular.” (Hare warns against non-professionals trying to diagnose people using his test, by the way.)

“Psychopaths do think they’re more rational than other people, that this isn’t a deficit,” says Hare. “I met one offender who was certainly a psychopath who said ‘My problem is that according to psychiatrists I think more with my head than my heart. What am I supposed to do about that? Am I supposed to get all teary-eyed?’ ” Another, asked if he had any regrets about stabbing a robbery victim, replied: “Get real! He spends a few months in hospital and I rot here. If I wanted to kill him I would have slit his throat. That’s the kind of guy I am; I gave him a break.”

And yet, as Hare points out, when you’re talking about people who aren’t criminals, who might be successful in life, it’s difficult to categorise it as a disorder. “It’d be pretty hard for me to go into high-level political or economic or academic context and pick out all the most successful people and say, ‘Look, I think you’ve got some brain deficit.’ One of my inmates said that his problem was that he’s a cat in a world of mice. If you compare the brainwave activity of a cat and a mouse, you’d find they were quite different.”

It would, says Hare, probably have been an evolutionarily successful strategy for many of our ancestors, and can be successful today; adept at manipulating people, a psychopath can enter a community, “like a church or a cultural organisation, saying, ‘I believe the same things you do’, but of course what we have is really a cat pretending to be a mouse, and suddenly all the money’s gone”. At this point he floats the name Bernie Madoff.

This brings up the issue of treatment. “Psychopathy is probably the most pleasant-feeling of all the mental disorders,” says the journalist Jon Ronson, whose book, The Psychopath Test, explored the concept of psychopathy and the mental health industry in general. “All of the things that keep you good, morally good, are painful things: guilt, remorse, empathy.” Fallon agrees: “Psychopaths can work very quickly, and can have an apparent IQ higher than it really is, because they’re not inhibited by moral concerns.”

So psychopaths often welcome their condition, and “treating” them becomes complicated. “How many psychopaths go to a psychiatrist for mental distress, unless they’re in prison? It doesn’t happen,” says Hare. The ones in prison, of course, are often required to go to “talk therapy, empathy training, or talk to the family of the victims” – but since psychopaths don’t have any empathy, it doesn’t work. “What you want to do is say, ‘Look, it’s in your own self-interest to change your behaviour, otherwise you’ll stay in prison for quite a while.’ ”

It seems Hare’s message has got through to the UK Department of Justice: in its guidelines for working with personality-disordered inmates, it advises that while “highly psychopathic individuals” are likely to be “highly treatment resistant”, the “interventions most likely to be effective are those which focus on ‘self-interest’ – what the offender wants out of life – and work with them to develop the skills to get those things in a pro-social rather than anti-social way.”

If someone’s brain lacks the moral niceties the rest of us take for granted, they obviously can’t do anything about that, any more than a colour-blind person can start seeing colour. So where does this leave the concept of moral responsibility? “The legal system traditionally asserts that all people standing in front of the judge’s bench are equal. That’s demonstrably false,” says the neuroscientist David Eagleman, author of Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain. He suggests that instead of thinking in terms of blameworthiness, the law should deal with the likelihood that someone will reoffend, and issue sentences accordingly, with rehabilitation for those likely to benefit and long sentences for those likely to be long-term dangers. The PCL-R is already used as part of algorithms which categorise people in terms of their recidivism risk. “Life insurance companies do exactly this sort of thing, in actuarial tables, where they ask: ‘What age do we think he’s going to die?’ No one’s pretending they know exactly when we’re going to die. But they can make rough guesses which make for an enormously more efficient system.”

What this doesn’t mean, he says, is a situation like the sci-fi film Minority Report, in which people who are likely to commit crimes are locked up before they actually do. “Here’s why,” he says. “It’s because many people in the population have high levels of psychopathy – about 1 per cent. But not all of them become criminals. In fact many of them, because of their glibness and charm and willingness to ride roughshod over the people in their way, become quite successful. They become CEOs, professional athletes, soldiers. These people are revered for their courage and their straight talk and their willingness to crush obstacles in their way. Merely having psychopathy doesn’t tell us that a person will go off and commit a crime.” It is central to the justice system, both in Britain and America, that you can’t pre-emptively punish someone. And that won’t ever change, says Eagleman, not just for moral, philosophical reasons, but for practical ones. The Minority Report scenario is a fantasy, because “it’s impossible to predict what somebody will do, even given their personality type and everything, because life is complicated and crime is conceptual. Once someone has committed a crime, once someone has stepped over a societal boundary, then there’s a lot more statistical power about what they’re likely to do in future. But until that’s happened, you can’t ever know.”

Speaking to all these experts, I notice they all talk about psychopaths as “them”, almost as a different species, although they make conscious efforts not to. There’s something uniquely troubling about a person who lacks emotion and empathy; it’s the stuff of changeling stories, the Midwich Cuckoos, Hannibal Lecter. “You know kids who use a magnifying glass to burn ants, thinking, this is interesting,” says Hare. “Translate that to an adult psychopath who treats a person that way. It is chilling.” At one stage Ronson suggests I speak to another well-known self-described psychopath, a woman, but I can’t bring myself to. I find the idea unsettling, as if he’d suggested I commune with the dead.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/10737827/Psychopaths-how-can-you-spot-one.html

Thanks to Steven Weihing for bringing this to the attention of the It’s Interesting community.