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What’s the Difference Between a Psychopath and a Sociopath?

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You see them on the movie screen; you read about them in the news. They’re calculating, charismatic, cold-hearted. But are they psychopaths or sociopaths?

Look to pop psychology for your answer and you’ll get a lot of conflicting opinions. Some folks believe that psychopaths are born, while sociopaths are made, the products of difficult childhoods and traumatic home environments. Others say “sociopath” is just the latest buzzword for “psychopath.” There’s no real consensus.

But there may be a reason for that: neither “psychopath” nor “sociopath” is a clinical diagnosis. They're common terms for people who exhibit "pathological" personality traits. In the U.S., such traits fall under the diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder, or APD, according to the American Psychiatric Association, which issues the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, now in its 5th edition (DSM-5). The World Health Organization calls this dissocial personality disorder, or DPD.

APD and DPD are essentially the same thing. In order to be diagnosed with either, a person must exhibit “disregard for and violation of others’ rights.” The DSM-5 lists 6 major criteria [PDF]:

  1. Impairments in personality including a lack of remorse, egocentrism, "goal-setting based on personal gratification," and the inability to form mutually intimate relationships;

  2. Pathological personality traits, including manipulativeness, deceitfulness, callousness, hostility, irresponsibility, impulsivity, and risk-taking;

  3. These personality traits and impairments must be stable and consistent over time;

  4. These personality traits and impairments are not normal for the person's developmental stage (many toddlers could easily be described as psychopaths) or cultural environment;

  5. The person's personality and behavior are not explained by a medical condition or substance abuse; and

  6. The person has to be at least 18 years old—a contentious criterion, since many psychologists feel that children can begin displaying signs of APD at a very young age

Another frequently used "psychopath test" is the Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised, or the PCL-R, a 20-question checklist used by researchers, clinicians, and the courts to measure antisocial tendencies. (You can see the list to check yourself, or your boss, here.)

It's worth mentioning that there is a big difference between psychopathy and psychosis. The two words sound similar and are both used as slurs, but that's where the similarity ends. Unlike psychopathy, psychosis describes the condition of losing touch with reality, undergoing rapid personality changes, and having trouble functioning. The terms are typically mutually exclusive; most people with APD will never experience psychosis, and vice versa.

Scientists are still not sure what causes APD. Some recognize two forms of psychopathy, primary and secondary, each with its own set of causes [PDF] and manifestations. Traumatic childhoods and difficult home environments can definitely contribute, but there’s also a clear physiological component. A genetic variant called MAOA-L has been linked with an increased risk of violent and aggressive behavior, and brain scans of people with APD have shown low activity in areas related to empathy, morality, and self-control. 

This does not mean that all people with APD are violent, nor does it mean that they’re bad people. Many cases of APD go undiagnosed because the people in question are living successful, ordinary lives. 

For proof, just look at neurologist James Fallon: Fallon has spent decades researching the anatomical side of so-called psychopathy. His research has helped identify areas of difference in the brains of people with APD. One day in 2005, Fallon was looking at the brain scans of people with APD, as well as those of people with depression and schizophrenia. Sitting on his desk at the same time were a stack of scans from Fallon’s family members taken as part of a study on Alzheimer’s disease. 

“I got to the bottom of the stack, and saw this scan that was obviously pathological,” he told Smithsonian. The brain in the image appeared to belong to a psychopath—but the scans at the bottom of the pile belonged to his family members. Shaken, he decided to look up the code on the scan to determine whose brain he was looking at.

It was his own brain.

Fallon couldn’t quite believe it. His first thought was that his research had been wrong, and that low activity in those brain areas had nothing to do with APD. Then he talked to his family. Duh, they told him. Of course you’re a psychopath. His mother, wife, and children had recognized and been living with his personality issues all along.

Fallon underwent more tests, which confirmed the diagnosis. Over time, he realized that he’d known all along. Throughout his life, he wrote in an op-ed in The Guardian, strangers had commented that he seemed “evil,” and while he was never violent, he did have an icy streak. He had put other people in danger. He had also just generally been “kind of an a**hole,” he admitted to Smithsonian.

“I’m obnoxiously competitive,” he told the magazine. "I won’t let my grandchildren win games … I’m aggressive, but my aggression is sublimated. I’d rather beat someone in an argument than beat them up.”

Fallon believes his relative success may be the result of growing up in a healthy, stable environment with a lot of support. He was raised in a loving home, which, he says, may have helped him overcome some of his ugliest impulses.

APD currently has no cure. Finding successful treatment methods has been tricky, in part because people with APD tend to feel pretty comfortable with their personalities and have little motivation to change. Still, some, like Fallon, are determined to do at least a little bit better.

“Since finding all this out and looking into it, I’ve made an effort to try to change my behavior,” Fallon told Smithsonian. “I’ve more consciously been doing things that are considered ‘the right thing to do,’ and thinking more about other people’s feelings."

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Big Questions
Can You Really Go Blind Staring at a Solar Eclipse?
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A total solar eclipse will cut a path of totality across the United States on August 21, and eclipse mania is gripping the country. Should the wide-eyed and unprotected hazard a peek at this rare phenomenon?

NASA doesn't advise it. The truth is, a quick glance at a solar eclipse won't leave you blind. But you're not doing your peepers any favors. As NASA explains, even when 99 percent of the sun's surface is covered, the 1 percent that sneaks out around the edges is enough to damage the rod and cone cells in your retinas. As this light and radiation flood into the eye, the retina becomes trapped in a sort of solar cooker that scorches its tissue. And because your retinas don't have any pain receptors, your eyes have no way of warning you to stop.

The good news for astronomy enthusiasts is that there are ways to safely view a solar eclipse. A pair of NASA-approved eclipse glasses will block the retina-frying rays, but sunglasses or any other kind of smoked lenses cannot. (The editors at MrEclipse.com, an eclipse watchers' fan site, put shades in the "eye suicide" category.) NASA also suggests watching the eclipse indirectly through a pinhole projector, or through binoculars or a telescope fitted with special solar filters.

While it's safe to take a quick, unfiltered peek at the sun in the brief totality of a total solar eclipse, doing so during the partial phases—when the Moon is not completely covering the Sun—is much riskier.

WOULDN'T IT BE EASIER TO JUST TELL YOUR KIDS THEY WILL GO BLIND?

NASA's website tackled this question. Their short answer: that could ruin their lives.

"A student who heeds warnings from teachers and other authorities not to view the eclipse because of the danger to vision, and learns later that other students did see it safely, may feel cheated out of the experience. Having now learned that the authority figure was wrong on one occasion, how is this student going to react when other health-related advice about drugs, alcohol, AIDS, or smoking is given[?]"

This story was originally published in 2012.

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Big Questions
If Beer and Bread Use Almost the Exact Same Ingredients, Why Isn't Bread Alcoholic?
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If beer and bread use almost the exact same ingredients (minus hops) why isn't bread alcoholic?

Josh Velson:

All yeast breads contain some amount of alcohol. Have you ever smelled a rising loaf of bread or, better yet, smelled the air underneath dough that has been covered while rising? It smells really boozy. And that sweet smell that fresh-baked bread has under the yeast and nutty Maillard reaction notes? Alcohol.

However, during the baking process, most of the alcohol in the dough evaporates into the atmosphere. This is basically the same thing that happens to much of the water in the dough as well. And it’s long been known that bread contains residual alcohol—up to 1.9 percent of it. In the 1920s, the American Chemical Society even had a set of experimenters report on it.

Anecdotally, I’ve also accidentally made really boozy bread by letting a white bread dough rise for too long. The end result was that not enough of the alcohol boiled off, and the darned thing tasted like alcohol. You can also taste alcohol in the doughy bits of underbaked white bread, which I categorically do not recommend you try making.

Putting on my industrial biochemistry hat here, many [people] claim that alcohol is only the product of a “starvation process” on yeast once they run out of oxygen. That’s wrong.

The most common brewers and bread yeasts, of the Saccharomyces genus (and some of the Brettanomyces genus, also used to produce beer), will produce alcohol in both a beer wort
and in bread dough immediately, regardless of aeration. This is actually a surprising result, as it runs counter to what is most efficient for the cell (and, incidentally, the simplistic version of yeast biology that is often taught to home brewers). The expectation would be that the cell would perform aerobic respiration (full conversion of sugar and oxygen to carbon dioxide and water) until oxygen runs out, and only then revert to alcoholic fermentation, which runs without oxygen but produces less energy.

Instead, if a Saccharomyces yeast finds itself in a high-sugar environment, regardless of the presence of air it will start producing ethanol, shunting sugar into the anaerobic respiration pathway while still running the aerobic process in parallel. This phenomenon is known as the Crabtree effect, and is speculated to be an adaptation to suppress competing organisms
in the high-sugar environment because ethanol has antiseptic properties that yeasts are tolerant to but competitors are not. It’s a quirk of Saccharomyces biology that you basically only learn about if you spent a long time doing way too much yeast cell culture … like me.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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