Michael Trust, an evolutionary biologist, freelance political writer and author of the 2014 book "How To Deal With Narcissists", has written an account focusing on a Narcissist who he knew intimately in both his childhood years and in his adult life. This article examines the Narcissist's past and utilizes his acquired knowledge of the human brain's operations to explain how Narcs become the damaged people they are. I share it with Personality Cafe because I know many people will find this fascinating:
When I was younger, an individual with a profound personality disorder lived with my family for a time. I will refer to him by the pseudonym "Bob". He would be best described as an extreme Narcissist; among personality disorders there is variation in severity. Suffice it to say, he was one weird dude.
Throughout my youth, time and again, I found myself encountering odd behavior from Bob. It 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 memories in my head, of things about him 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 for an extended period, when suddenly it hit me: He had real psychological problems, and saw an entirely different world than I did. Suddenly, all of the odd memories 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, logical psychology. I could see why he did the things he did, and even how he saw and felt the world.
My memories of Bob could fill multiple volumes, but I want to discuss one aspect of his life here briefly: 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. He said: “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 confused look on his face, made me think he literally didn’t remember doing something very memorable the day before.
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 “Bob” 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 introduction to the concept of the “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 diverges from real reality, where they often will fail at even the simplest of relationships – and most who know them well view them as, for lack of better words, "damaged", "crazy", or even "evil".
In Bob’s case, his brain believed what it wanted to, regardless of reality. If something bad happened to him, his brain created a false reality where it didn’t happen, planted it in his memory, causing him to believe it was real. How did this arise? It is tough to say for sure, but I assume it began in his childhood. He had a number of unfortunate events in his childhood, and this seems to be the one that yields the most sufficient insight:
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 were bullying him.
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, 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, “OOOUUUURRRRRHHHHH!” 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 extreme 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 conductive 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 after 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 hostile 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 terror.
Bob had, probably through much mental exercise 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's case, 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 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.
There may be those who will view Bob as solely a victim, and maybe even attempt to excuse what he became. In response to this: it should be emphasized that his peers torture of him was in retaliation for his highly antisocial behavior towards them, as well as his family. There was always a desire to hurt others inside 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 become 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 to the surface on occasion.
Given Bob’s case, and how often the bullied become bullies themselves, I am prone to believe that bullying may often find itself focused upon those who do not innately constrain their behavior into socially beneficial norms by themselves. Several innocent young women may have grown up and enjoyed happy, fulfilling lives, because of specific neurological pathways laid down in Bob's brain by childhood peers who saw what he was instinctively, which caused him to restrain his behavior in adulthood.