The Dark Side of the Human Psyche
Write what you know, they say. It’s good advice that I sometimes wish I followed better.
My current series features co-protagonists: Tai, my gun-shop-owning narrator, and Trey, her ex-SWAT partner. Their lives are filled with murder and mayhem, corpses and criminals. My life is filled with laundry and three pets that need feeding. Therefore, I spend a lot of time deep-diving into research on Ferraris, 19th-century firearms, and snipercraft.
Trey is especially challenging to write. Forced to leave the police department after suffering a traumatic brain injury (TBI), he began his life on paper when I read an article in Scientific American about aphasia, which is the loss of speech that can result from certain types of brain damage.
I learned a surprising fact that day: people with aphasia were more skilled than average at being able to tell when others were lying. In fact, their deception-detection abilities rivaled those of CIA-trained operatives. Wow, I thought, I would love to write a detective character dealing with such a complex injury.
And so I did. That was eight years ago. As I continue the series, I’ve developed a research obsession with all things cognitive and psychological and neuroscientific, especially how they relate to the darker aspects of the human psyche.
Here are just a few of the more mysterious brain science tidbits I’ve learned along the research way. If you too are the owner/operator of approximately two pounds of wrinkled gray matter, perhaps you’ll find them as interesting as I did.
- You are what you wear.
Did you know that if you are asked to wear a white lab coat, your IQ will go up? But if you’re told that the white coat is an artist’s smock, your intellect takes a hit, but your creativity improves? These are just two revelations from the study of enclothed cognition, the effect that our clothes have on various psychological processes, including our intellect, personality, and emotional state. Why do both bad guys and SWAT cops like to wear black? Perhaps enclothed cognition will one day provide the answer.
- You can be a psychopath and not know it.
In The Psychopath Inside, neuroscientist James Fallon describes how he learned that he had a series of alleles—often described as “warrior genes”—that increase aggression and lower empathy. According to his MRI scans, he possessed the brain of a psychopath, yet he was happily married with kids, friends, and a steady job. Fallon’s research led him to the conclusion that being raised in a positive, nurturing environment—as he was—helped those genes avoid “switching on” in a violent fashion. Are you an adrenaline junkie? Do you like taking risks? Have friends or family ever described you as self-centered or narcissistic? Then be warned—you too may be harboring an inner psychopath.
- Or you could be a hero just waiting to happen.
What makes a person rush into a burning building to save complete strangers? How do we explain such extreme altruism? Scientists have two clues. One, the right amygdalas of such individuals (like those who donate kidneys to people they don’t know) are very different from average folks’ and exactly the opposite of diagnosed psychopaths, indicating that empathy has a neuroscientific foundation. Studies also show that acts of selfless bravery were performed not at the conscious level, but on an instinctive, automatic one. “I didn’t think; I just acted,” people often say after risking their own lives to help others. The conclusion: moral behavior has less to do with deliberate choices than it does with unconscious brain function.
- One of psychology’s most interesting discoveries began with a bank robber called The Lemon Juice Bandit.
You have probably heard of the Dunning-Kruger Effect, the cognitive bias where lack of knowledge prevents people from knowing how very little knowledge they possess. Did you know that it was prompted by a bank robber convinced that if he rubbed lemon juice on his face, he’d be invisible on security cameras? He was wrong…and also dumbfounded to be wrong. His story prompted social psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger to wonder how incompetent one must be to be unaware of one’s incompetence. And we’ve been pondering the ramifications ever since.
- Eyewitness testimony is inherently untrustworthy, yet jurors consider it rock-solid evidence.
We think of the brain as a flesh-and-blood video recorder, laying down events as they happened, then storing and recovering those events as we remember them. Alas, that’s not how memory works at all. Memories are reconstructed each time they are recalled, sometimes with new (and often false) pieces incorporated into them. Each time a memory is “played,” it becomes more and more corrupt, yet paradoxically feels more “correct.” Perhaps it is best to heed the warnings of Edgar Allan Poe and “believe nothing you hear, and only one half that you see.”
Writing my character’s struggle with his TBI has been a challenging yet personally rewarding endeavor. The more I study neuroscience and cognitive psychology, the more I appreciate the nuts and bolts of my own brain. Understanding how those pieces add up to make me, however—how my ghost got into this particular machine—remains ever elusive, no matter how much research I do.
Tina Whittle’s Tai Randolph mysteries, featuring intrepid gunshop owner Tai and her ex-SWAT partner Trey, have garnered starred reviews in Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly, Booklist, and Library Journal. Published by Poisoned Pen Press, the sixth book in the series, Necessary Ends, debuts April 2018.
A two-time nominee for Georgia Author of the Year, Tina enjoys boxing, sushi, and reading tarot cards. She is a proud member of Sisters in Crime and serves as both a chapter officer and national board member. Visit her website to follow her on social media, sign up for her newsletter, or read additional scenes and short stories at her website: www.tinawhittle.com