Arielle Baskin-Sommers is a professor of psychiatry and psychology at Yale. Her research specializes in psychopathology and disinhibitions. Her most recent article concerns cognitive remediation for prisoners with psychopathologic disorders. In spring 2016, she will be teaching a course examining the psychobiology of crime. The News sat down with Baskin-Sommers to talk about psychological disorders and devising interventions for disorders and diseases that many consider untreatable.
Q First off, do you mind briefly summarizing the main conclusions of your research?
A Most of my work at this point has been looking at subtypes of disinhibited individuals, like psychopathic or general externalizing individuals, or people who are impulsive with personality or social disorders. In our research, we’ve discovered that psychopathic people have trouble multitasking; they have difficulty switching from one task to the next or integrating multiple pieces of information at once. That’s why they tend to be so goal-focused on one component — why they can probably be callous or disregard others’ feelings. That’s different than the general externalizing form of psychopathology, like substance abuse. [That] tends to be more related to difficulty regulating context, so these individuals tend to get really reactive to threats, insults and stress queues because they feel uncomfortable or overwhelmed. Because of that, they have trouble inhibiting behavior and making appropriate decisions.
Q What is unique about your research on the biological underpinnings of psychopathological conditions?
A What is unprecedented about our work is two things. Increasingly, there is an interest in looking at mechanisms trans-diagnostically — the desire to look at the core underlying mechanisms and which individuals have particular mechanisms. What is also quite new about our work is the idea of looking at these mechanisms as a way to develop interventions. No one has taken these externalizing concepts and determined neural interventions to try and change their behavior.
Q What is your most recent study?
A My most recently published study is the cognitive remediation study. Most research for the study was done in a prison. We took inmates, and we characterized them to determine their diagnostic status — to see if they were psychopathic or had externalizing mechanisms. We developed computer game programming in an attempt to see if we could change their behavior and could apply that change in other settings. This is exciting because we are targeting a specific process and we are able to see change — it helps us find a foothold for potential treatment in what many consider to be a nontreatable population.
Q What was the most striking discovery you made during your research?
A My research concerning psychopathic behavior was surprising to me. The prior research discovered that psychopathic people were unable to experience emotions, especially fear. But there is another line of research that [shows that] psychopaths — when not in an emotional context — generally have trouble focusing on multiple things at once. I did a series of studies that used electric shock therapy on prison inmates, where we looked at neurological responses to boxes that could either shock or not shock. I discovered that psychopathic individuals can experience emotion when they focus on goals, but when that information is peripheral, or if there is a complex array of information, the psychopaths show a deficit of emotion. This shows that psychopaths are not innately fearless, and that there is potential for change and integration, but you have to change how they consider processing information. I was able to show that you can change this neurobiological target for individuals through cognitive remediation, so that now they are showing some ability to improve over six weeks. This is super exciting because it shows these inmates are not innately psychopathic, but rather malleable.
Q What is the best part about conducting this research?
A My most memorable work was with cognitive remediation with the prison inmates [the study previously referenced]. Initially, the inmates would complete computer sessions. When I spoke with them, they started to use language that they were beginning to see results, that they were noticing their environments, noticing when they were irritated just from computer games. They talk about it in their daily lives, and are getting really engaged in the treatment we are providing. Part of this was that we weren’t packaging this as treatment, but rather packaging it as teaching skills. How do we help these people be the best person they can be? Some people might be frightened to go speak with psychopaths and murderers, but the inmates were so happy to talk to me because this was probably the first time in their lives that anyone had sat down with these inmates and asked them for their life story and really cared. It was really an eye-opening experience, and it helps you see the complexity in the world and see the similarities. Even though I might have a murderer sitting in front of me, there were things we could connect on, and obviously things we could not. But having appreciation for that connection and not being afraid of it is a very special experience.