Bookmarks: The Psychopath Test

In my first year of university, I worked as a research assistant in a psychology lab. The particular lab was focused on the emotion of disgust, and one of my tasks was to administer the "disgust test." Lured by the promise of $15, participants (usually students) came into the lab for the hour-long study, which involved viewing a series of images on a computer screen and ranking them on a scale of disgusting from 1-5. I'd sit in the staff-only office to the side, watching the participant from a camera in the room. 

The study eventually involved fMRI scans, but I left before it got that far. I had come to dread my job, which was essentially to disgust people for several hours each week. Some participants couldn't finish the study because the images were too disturbing. There was also the fact that I wasn't fully convinced in the reliability of our data. If someone's responses revealed a low level of disgust, was it that he wasn't disgusted easily, or that he wasn't giving the test his earnest attention?

Books like Jon Ronson's The Psychopath Test rekindle my uneasy fascination with the field of psychology. In The Psychopath Test, Ronson chronicles his encounters with convicted criminals, influential corporate executives, and psychologists to address a complex question: what makes someone a psychopath? As Ronson encounters various potential psychopaths, he tests them against the criteria set by psychologist Bob Hare's psychopathy checklist. Hare's landmark book Without Conscience is sort of like a field guide to psychopaths; he presents a checklist of their defining traits along with anecdotal evidence of how destructive and manipulative they can be. Ronson reveals the grey area of diagnosing psychopathy: some of the people he profiles are clearly psychopaths who commit atrocious crimes without remorse, but others aren't so easy to figure out, like the inmate at the high-security psychiatric hospital Broadmoor who claims he faked psychopathy in order to escape jail time. Ronson intersperses horrific stories with more humorous chapters in history, such as previous attempts to cure psychopathy with LSD, or the madness of MI5 agent turned conspiracy theorist David Shayler.

A common criticism of The Psychopath Test is that in weaving together so many stories and characters, Ronson seems aimless in his investigation. To a certain extent, this observation is fair, but his hesitation in arriving at firm conclusions and labels is precisely the point. In contrasting a manual of symptoms against his interactions with complicated individuals, he expresses his ambivalence about the way we categorize individuals by their psychological traits. He suggests that it's easy to over-diagnose mental conditions based on the presence of certain "defining" characteristics in a checklist or the DSM. The more he learns about mental disorders, the more signs of neuroses he observes in everyone, including himself. This indefinite border between madness and sanity -- between the traits of a psychopath and the skills of many powerful individuals -- makes The Psychopath Test an unsettling and enthralling read.

For more information, watch Jon Ronson's TED Talk.

Noteworthy

Have you listened to the sensational podcast "Serial"? I am totally addicted; this week I marathoned all 8 episodes within 24 hours. "Serial" investigates a case from the 90s in which high school student Adnan Syed was charged with the murder of his classmate and ex-girlfriend. The podcast's co-creator and narrator Sarah Koenig examines the ambiguous evidence that led to Syed's eventual conviction, interviewing Syed himself and many other individuals involved in the case. It's so captivating that I find myself deliberating the events at random points throughout the day. Luckily I'm not the only one: there's an entire Reddit forum dedicated to the case (spoiler alert).

I've added some of these nonfiction books to my reading list.

Persimmons are one of those foods you probably either love or loathe. They're in season right now, so if you're a fan like me, now's the time to get your fix. This year I learned the hard way that there are two main varieties of persimmons, Fuyu and Hachiya; do not eat a Hachiya until it's soft and pulpy! Here's how to tell them apart.

If you've always wanted to learn calligraphy, I highly recommend Molly Jacques' course on Skillshare. I've been following along and practicing sporadically, and it's so therapeutic! As per Molly's recommendation, I ordered my supplies from Paper & Ink Arts

Two dogs, one ice cream cone

Happy weekend!

Beyonce x Botticelli

What do you get when you mix classic art and hip hop? The blog and apparel line Fly Art Productions, whose graphic tees, tanks, and sweatshirts combine lyrics from Beyonce, Kanye, Fergie et al. with the masterpieces you studied in art history 101. Created by Gisella Velasco and Toni Poteciano, the mashups lead to some hilariously (ir)reverent spins on famous paintings and their subjects. Here are a few of my favorite pieces: though I'm not usually a wearer of graphic tees, I'm ordering the Beyonce x Botticelli sweatshirt and wishing for this Destiny's Child number in a canine-sized tee. #RenaissanceSwag

// Shop Fly Art at Rad.co and see more at flyartproductions.tumblr.com

A Way of Life

I'm pretty sure I've started the last few months by resolving to post more in this space. And then I post a grand total of approximately twice per month. So, new month, same vow: I really am going to make more of an effort to blog more regularly! 

These days, I've been a sponge for "general life advice." I'm not sure if it's because I'm trying to make career-related decisions, or because I've been taking a hand lettering course and thus am especially attuned to words of wisdom that I might like to turn into an art project. When I stumbled upon this advice from the late writer Hunter S. Thompson, I felt like it was the very thing I needed to read: 

"A man who procrastinates in his choosing will inevitably have his choice made for him by circumstance. So if you now number yourself among the disenchanted, then you have no choice but to accept things as they are, or to seriously seek something else. But beware of looking for goals: look for a way of life. Decide how you want to live and then see what you can do to make a living within that way of life. But you say, “I don’t know where to look; I don’t know what to look for.”
And there’s the crux. Is it worth giving up what I have to look for something better? I don’t know—is it? Who can make that decision but you? But even by deciding to look, you go a long way toward making the choice."
- Hunter S. Thompson

I gravitate towards this idea of seeking a "way of life" rather than goals, at least where the bigger picture is concerned; goals can be useful but also rather statistical. As someone who engages in "lifestyle" blogging (for lack of a better term), I think this quotation touches on the "crux" of lifestyle: how we reconcile our values and interests, our desires and others' needs, to construct a way of life. Thompson wrote this life advice in a letter to a friend when he was just 20 years old, but everything he says in it pertains to my twenties thus far. You can read more from the letter here

Happy Halloween

Happy Halloween! Before I go work out a last-minute costume and carve some pumpkins, I wanted to share my tillandsia jack-o-lantern, who looks curiously pineapplesque. I hope your day is full of treats!