(noun) The term “Semantic Aphasia” was used by Dr. Hervey Cleckley, in his book The Mask of Sanity, as an analogy to describe the seeming inability of psychopaths to understand the deeper meanings of words.
Semantics is the study of meanings, while aphasia refers to the inability to speak. Psychopaths, though, are unable to speak OR hear any meanings in words. In 1962 Johns and Quay wrote that psychopaths, “know the words but can’t hear the music.”1 This apt metaphor refers to the psychopath’s inability to “feel” what a word means. For example, the word “truth” has an apparent meaning which imparts the feelings of confidence and trust due to the grounded nature of what it symbolizes. Yet, one day I asked a psychopath what she would tell her therapist and she responded, “I’m going to tell her the truth. The truth I made up.” Of course I went into a WTF? Moment. That use of the word “truth” is so disconnected from it’s meaning it was apparent that she has no idea what the “truth” means. She knows what the truth is, but not what it means.
For psychopaths the only function words serve is as a tool for manipulation. They understand that words can make people respond. They don’t care why this is, they just know it works. For a psychopath, words are like passwords; random sequences which when strung together in the correct order, can open doors. Sometimes words are delivered with fake emotions for added impact but they have no effect on the psychopath himself. When every day is a game or a theatrical performance, words are just well rehearsed lines that have more effect on the audience than on the player himself.
Semantic aphasia aptly describes the psychopath’s inability to communicate meaningfully, because the psychopath has nothing meaningful to communicate; it isn’t just words that lack meaning for psychopaths, nothing has any meaning to them. Because they feel no emotions, life is an empty landscape devoid of meaning for a psychopath. Without meaning, life has no purpose. This is why they are perpetually bored and why they chase after thrills and play games, because during the game, they have a purpose — at least temporarily — and that purpose is: To Win.
It’s easy for a psychopath to lie, because the lies are as equally meaningful as the truth. Neither lies nor truth mean anything. They are both just a means to an end, but the lie is preferred because it disconnects the victim from reality. The more immersed a victim becomes in the fantasy world of the psychopath, the more meaningless the victim’s life becomes. In this way, the psychopath begins to transform the victim into someone like himself, a meaningless being. Once the mask is revealed, the victim finds himself unable to trust, nor to know what is true and what isn’t, just like the psychopath.
- Johns JH. Quay HC. Effect of social reward on verbal conditioning in psychopathic and neurotic military offenders. Journal of Consulting Psychology. 1962;26:217–220. [PubMed]