I guess you really are an ATLA geek if you see the title Can You Call a 9-Year-Old a Psychopath?
and immediately think of Azula. The NYT article is about prepsychopathic, or callous-unemotional (C.U.), children and the research into possible treatment options. It looks like the ATLA writers really did their homework with Azula's behavior. Some interesting bits:
- L., a little girl who appears in the article, seems quite the mini-Azula herself. Enrolled in a summer camp for C.U. children (how is it a good idea to put these kids together for two months?), she snuck toys into the camp and handed them out to children who misbehaved at her command. She also played other children off each other, and Michael, the main kid featured in the article, was taken to detention screaming L.'s name.
- About 50% of C.U. children go onto become psychopathic adults, but more importantly, 50% do not. Warm, nurturing parenting has been shown to improve their behavior. The hard part is, parents sometimes find it hard to emotionally engage with C.U. children. Remember Ursa's "What is wrong with that child" moment? For all the occasional whining about Ursa somehow causing Azula's issues by favoring Zuko, I actually find Ursa's a very human reaction. Trying to connect to a child seemingly incapable of empathy is an act of patience that does not come easily.
- C.U. has a heavy genetic component (I say Azula totally got it from Ozai) and C.U. individuals' brains actually work differently. The parts responsible for empathy and moral decisions are not as active, which is not surprising. The amygdala, which processes emotions like fear and shame, is also less active. Basically the negative stimuli for bad behavior, like scolding, don't have the same effect on these kids. This would explain Azula's total indifference to Ursa's attempts at discipline, and her unusual lack of fear in situations of personal danger such as infiltrating Ba Sing Se.
Again, just because there's a genetic component doesn't mean it can't be treated. There are genetic predispositions for depression, anxiety, diabetes, cancer etc. etc., all of which are treatable. Genetics do not equal destiny.
- C.U. kids might not be much for emotional empathy, but they can grow to gain cognitive empathy: They might not feel others' emotions, but they can recognize (and manipulate) emotions. Coupled with the lack of empathy or morals, I can see how that can turn scary very quickly.
- Maybe C.U. kids will not grow up to have the same emotional motivations for morality, but they can be taught a kind of intellectual morality. I can totally see a prepsychopathic or psychopathic person acting morally if they come to see it in their own best interest, which I believe is basically the plot of the Azula Trilogy
(reviewed by me here
). This was something Ursa might have done for her daughter, but with her gone and Ozai's influence predominating it became a lost cause.