Narcissism and the Fractured Amygdala

There is an interesting article on new research examining whether Narcissists know they are Narcissists . The article is actually more interesting because of the comments, where several Narcissists are reveling in their Narcissism. The actual answer to the question of course, is that Narcissists will acknowledge their Narcissism, but only if it is not perceived by their brain as negative in some way. Let me explain.

When I was younger, an individual with a profound personality disorder lived with my family for a time. I will call him Bob. He would be best described as an extreme Narcissist, though among personality disorders there is a variation in traits. Suffice it to say, he was one weird dude.

Throughout my youth, time and again, I found myself encountering odd behavior, which seemed off, in that I could not picture why one would behave in such a manner. I would dismiss it, and him, by saying, “He’s just weird.” But I ended up with a whole library of videos in my head, of things which just didn’t fit. There they sat, a childhood puzzle I had failed to solve, but which I hung on to because of its bizarre curiosity.

I ended up dealing with him again later in life, when suddenly it hit me. He had real psychological problems, and saw an entirely different world than I did. Suddenly, all of the odd videos in my head, all of the information about his past which he and his family had divulged, everything about him fell into place, and fit perfectly into one neatly organized psychology. I could see how he formed, why he did what he did, even how he saw and felt the world.

Although the study of him could fill multiple volumes, I want to discuss one aspect of his life here briefly, since my understanding of him would indicate he has some neurological similarity to many of the individuals who make up the modern Liberal movement. Details will be changed to protect the guilty, but the essence of events will be as unaltered as possible.

The first time I realized he had real problems was the day after he did something weird right in front of me. The next day I asked him why he did it, and he looked at me confused. “I never did that! Not only didn’t I do that…. I would never do that!” His voice rose to a crescendo, his arms waved in the air, and his insistence, combined with the genuinely puzzled and confused look on his face, made me think he literally didn’t remember doing something very memorable the day before. Otherwise, how could he deny it, and think I would acquiesce?

Inside, I recoiled. What was this? He knew I was standing right next to him when he did it. Did he have some sort of multiple personality disorder? Did a personality named “Jack” do what I saw him do in front of me yesterday, but today “Bill” was in control of his mind, and didn’t know about any of it?

This was my first clear introduction to the concept of “False Reality.” Narcissists inhabit what is called a false reality. In this false reality, they are as near to perfect as a human being could possibly be. Of course this false reality usually diverges from real reality, where they often will have difficulty in the simplest of relationships over the long term – and most who know them well view them as, for lack of better words, evil, damaged, and crazy.

In Bob’s case, his brain believed what it wanted to, regardless of reality. If something bad happened, his brain wrote an alternate storyline where it didn’t happen, planted it in his memory, and then believed it to be real. How did this arise? It is tough to say for sure, but I assume it began in his childhood. Although he had a number of unfortunate events in his childhood, describing one here should offer more than sufficient insight to understand how this arose.

When Bob was nine years old, he ended up in a physically restrictive orthopedic device. He could only ambulate by hobbling, and his arms were restricted from free movement as well. He still had to attend school however, and the other children quickly discovered they enjoyed surrounding him at recess and torturing him. He had always been a bully, but now the worm had turned, and the other children had the power.

As Bob hobbled around to try and fend off the surrounding mob, those to whom his back was turned would zoom in quick, kick him in the back of the calf, and then run out before he could hobble around to face them. Just as he got turned around, the kids on the other side would take their shots, and the game would continue throughout recess. Bob turning to protect himself, only to open himself up to new attacks from another quarter. My assumption has always been that those in authority did not stop it because they had seen him torture kids before, and felt now he would learn his lesson.

I am sure after the first week, each morning of school was spent with all of the kids laughing and hitting each other in class, in eager anticipation of the wonderful game at recess which awaited. Making things worse, as an adult, Bob would actually get so angry at times that he would stomp his feet, make a sort of growling, “OOOOUUUURRRRRRRRRHHHHHHHHHHH!” noise, and turn in circles, while holding his arms bent so his fists were in front of him. I am sure that when he was a kid, after a half hour of being kicked and being unable to stop it, he would erupt like that, parading around in a growling, stomping rage, probably to the great amusement of the crowd, who would break out laughing, and only intensify their attacks in the future to produce this spectacle.

I don’t know how long he was in the restrictive device but it was long enough that his brain eventually began exhibiting some sort of gross dysfunction in response to the teasing. After the torture, his visual field would become distorted, prismatic, and almost hallucinatory. Within an hour of the visual symptoms, he would be in the nurse’s office vomiting profusely and would have to go home sick. I assumed he was experiencing something akin to a seizure, but in a part of the brain unassociated with muscular movement. Clearly, the torture was burning new neurological pathways in his brain which were not conducive to normal love and trust of others, or even happiness. And with each new stimulation, these neural pathways and the Hebbian Synapses connecting them grew stronger, and their effects became more powerful.

In short, Bob’s brain was conditioned by the torture. Each agonizing moment of adversity triggered negative sensations. Each negative sensation strengthened the structures which produced them, like a muscle being used repetitively to move a weight. As adversity upon adversity piled upon one another, his brain developed in such a way as to produce an overwhelming “bad” feeling, to the point that it would destroy his ability to see, and make him physically vomit.

If his adult self was any indication, this strengthening of these pathways also entailed an enhanced sensitivity to such negative stimuli as had produced the effect. The slightest criticism would freak him out. He would become overwhelmed with a negative, panicky, aversive stimuli, which would quickly turn to rage, combined with a desperation to make everyone agree on the criticism’s falsity. If he could bully everyone into agreeing with him, or even just abandoning the argument, he would noticeably relax, as if he felt his false reality reinforced and his amygdala assuaged.

Which leads us to the origin of Bob’s adaptive mechanism, the false reality. My assumption is, when Bob returned home after a day of being tortured, he had a horrible reality to confront. The next day, he was going to find himself confined within a restrictive device again, and tossed right back into a Lord of the Flies environment. If his brain contemplated this as the future reality he faced, if he imagined what awaited him tomorrow, he would be so overwrought, he could lose his vision, and begin to vomit. His amygdala would fire off, and his whole body would be filled with the terror of an aversive stimulus on neurological steroids.

Bob had, probably through much effort in search of relief, developed a neurological workaround, bypassing the amygdala by developing the ability to change what his brain saw as reality. Under this stress, Bob’s brain eventually discovered how to actually control what his brain acknowledged as reality.

As a result, what happened didn’t happen, if it’s having happened would stimulate his amygdala. What would happen wasn’t going to happen, so his amygdala wouldn’t fire off. He was happy, and nothing bad could befall him. “Tortured? He wasn’t tortured. Moreover, he would never be tortured!”

Suddenly, the aversive stimuli retreated. Every time his brain correctly perceived reality, it was shocked by the amygdala. Every time he denied reality, his amygdala’s psychic pain abated, and he was rewarded with normalcy. His brain quickly trained itself. His face still carried a perpetual grimace beneath every emotion, but he could function, at least temporarily.

Most people seek to assuage their amygdala through modifying the reality around them. You’re going to lose your job unless you complete a report by tomorrow? Your amygdala will fire off, and you will feel panic, at least until you take measures to prevent the outcome which triggers your amygdala, by beginning work upon your report. In Bob, his actual reality was unalterable, so he could not take a physical measure in the real world to shut off his amygdala. This left his mind one last option to shut off his amygdala. Learn to alter his perception of reality, and bypass the amygdala, or face an excruciating agony he could not possibly endure.

Unfortunately, once that workaround existed, it would become easy to alleviate any uncomfortable reality by ignoring it, and with time his brain trained itself to do just that. Like a dog corrected with a snap of it’s choke for each deviation from trained behavior, his amygdala snapped his mind each time he began to honestly assess the reality around him, and he was conditioned to avoid that. As an adult, he assiduously denied the existence of anything troubling about himself, and even had the ability to create new impressions of reality in his mind, to bolster his belief in his own superiority and greatness.

The rest of his family wouldn’t talk to him because he was caught screwing them over? That’s ridiculous. He didn’t screw them – moreover he would never screw them! They were bad people who had wronged him, and they were just angry he wasn’t letting them continue to wrong him.

In short, Bob had developed the ability to turn off the one structure which attaches us to reality. He had turned off the one structure which allows us to avoid bad consequences, by making us experience them prior to our actions inflicting them upon us. The one structure which gives us a chance to avoid bad consequences entirely by changing the behaviors which produce them, before they produce them.

I should be clear, Bob was a unique case. Not all liberals are like him (though many probably are to some degree, or they wouldn’t have denied the threat Osama bin Laden posed prior to 9/11). I mainly highlight this case to show a mechanism, however exaggerated, by which individuals can rewire their brains to bypass such a vital structure as the amygdala, and what some of the neurological and psychological motivations of doing so are. I suspect this effect will be engendered primarily among the very young, whose brains are more plastic, and malleable, though I have wondered if some aspects of hypnosis use a similar neurological trick.

Obviously this would also, almost certainly, operate upon genetic predisposition. Some individuals may come out so sensitive to adversity that they will rewire their amygdala at the slightest hint of anxiety. Others may come out stronger, yet the degree of terror they are exposed to will force them to seek out some sort of neurological change, or they will literally feel as if they are going to die from stress all of the time.

Obviously, as the post on dopamine here demonstrated, the level of dopamine signal activity is a variable with profound effects upon one’s tolerance of adversity, likely through it’s effect upon baseline mood. High dopamine signaling elevates mood, making adversity more tolerable, while lower dopamine signaling will depress mood, making every problem seem as if it is an insurmountable, eternal failure. Again, we see a juncture, where genetic predisposition meets environmental stimuli, and together these two factors will mold the structures of the brain to produce specific behavioral tendencies.

One will recognize reality and move to confront the bad to avoid the consequences. It will seek to endure unavoidable hardships, so as to secure a positive future in a hostile world.

The other will ignore reality and the threats it presents. It will tell itself that a simple life of endless hedonistic pleasures, without a hint of adversity or hardship, is just over the horizon, and anyone who sees danger is imagining the threat. One is adaptive to adversity and reality, one is not, unless the reality contains no adversity.

An addendum:

There may be those who will view Bob as solely a victim, and maybe even attempt to excuse what he became. In the interest of condensing this story, elements were eliminated which would indicate his peer’s torture of him was in retaliation for his prior highly antisocial behavior towards them, as well as his family. There was always the element of a desire to hurt others about him, and this behavior is likely why he was targeted by the mob so aggressively. Have no illusions, he was a bad seed from the start.

Indeed, multiple members of Bob’s family have postulated that had he not been imbued with a very deeply seated fear of the mob turning upon him, through his childhood torture, he could easily have been a serial killer. An instinctual, illogical, ardent hatred triggered by innocent, happy women was a constant aspect of his personality which he spent his life concealing, but which nevertheless bubbled forth on occasion.

Given Bob’s case, and how often the bullied become bullies, I am prone to believe that bullying may often find itself focused upon those who do not innately constrain their behavior into socially acceptable norms by themselves. In Bob’s case, several innocent young women may have grown up and enjoyed a happy, fulfilling life, because of specific neurological pathways laid down in his brain by a childhood social circle which saw what he was instinctively, and acted without conscious thought to constrain his behavior in adulthood.

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