A reader asked the following question this week:
Recently, I’ve started doing more research into sociopaths and have run into a condition with which I’m unfamiliar: dissociation. Do you know if sociopaths/psychopaths have been considered to have this disorder, or if it is part of what makes them who they are?
The term dissociation has two distinct meanings in psychology. These two uses of the same word do not necessarily reflect a similar process operating in each.
The first kind of dissociation is a response to stress, and peritraumatic dissociation (dissociation during a traumatic event) appears to be a risk factor for stress-related illness. Symptoms of this kind of dissociation include disturbed experience of reality related to time, memory and nearly every sensation. For example, during trauma, time may stand still and people report that things do not seem real. Male sex hormones or androgens (that women also have in lower levels) protect against this kind of dissociation. For a good but technical article about peritraumatic dissociation read, Symptoms of Dissociation in Humans Experiencing Acute, Uncontrollable Stress: A Prospective Investigation.
The second kind of dissociation relates to the observation that the mind is modular. That means we don’t use our entire brain circuitry all the time, and during different behavioral and emotional states, different circuits are activated. Testosterone is hypothesized to disrupt the connection between the cerebral cortex and the limbic system, and so enhances this kind of dissociation.
This increase in mind modularity has been related to sociopathy/psychopathy by some experts. In a previous blog I reviewed Psychopaths in Everyday Life, a book by Robert Rieber. There is a great quote from the book that relates to your question. It is,
The true psychopath compels the psychiatric observer to ask the perplexing and largely unanswered question: Why doesn’t that person have the common decency to go crazy?
So why don’t psychopaths have the common decency to go crazy? Dr. Rieber explains, “Since psychopaths act as if they were perfectly normal, i.e. sane, they must be skilled in a cunning manner to dissociate any real guilt that they should feel about their antisocial behavior.” He also says that since psychopaths dissociate, they don’t go crazy. He believes dissociation prevents them from experiencing guilt. He also says that many psychopaths do have some level of guilt they are dissociated from.
So there may be a connection between sociopathy/psychopathy and dissociation, but the connection depends on your definition of the word.