In my post apocalyptic world, a virus has spread, essentially changing the roles, with infected animals gaining sentience and intellect close to a human and humans degrading into a more animalistic, instinctive version (plus the violent physical changes cliché) . Patient zero, however, was an exception to the rule. Patient zero kept his sentience, but his mind did change.

Patient zero has a relative detachment from the uninfected humans, tending to favor infected organisms over them. However, I want patient zero to be capable of emotion, even if limited.

To put it more in perspective, patient zero sees no one on equal grounds, he sees the infected as one would see a random small child or even a dog they care a lot about, and humans mostly as an annoyance, but interesting and almost cute in rare occasions. Patient zero has his memories of his time as a human, but due to having changed at the age of 12 and having a poorly structured family, his emotions and maturity weren't properly developed, suffering something similar to a slight atrophy after the mutation.

I'm having trouble defining a proper condition regarding this. The way se acts towards humans is in part similar to a psychopathy, but rather than a lack of emotion, it's a feeling of detachment and lack of emotional empathy. So summing up, we have as main symptoms:

  • lack of emotional empathy to humans, along with a weak connection, not recognizing them as a member of the same species.

  • empathic feelings, although still limited, towards other infected, but still not seeing himself as one of them.

  • difficulty with understanding emotion (underdeveloped emotional empathy).

  • a tendency to rationalize his actions and behaviors, mostly as a way to compensate for the limited emotional capacity.

  • overall poor emotional capabilities, despite an understanding of social and emotional cues.

My question is: Is it possible to "rewire" a human brain to make it start viewing his own species (if patient zero reproduces with a human, the offspring is a normal human, so technically he didn't become a different species) as something lesser without making it completely incapable of emotion? I failed to find a proper condition that reflected the behaviors I'm looking for, with pseudopsychpaths being the closest I've found, but not quite what I'm looking for.


4 Answers 4


Yes. I don't think you need to narrow it to a specific diagnosis; it will be good drama just to describe it. You will have more trouble getting your audience to empathize with an unemotional character than in justifying his lack of feeling towards others (and even this sounds only partial). I'd recommend this book series (Becoming Alien) as an interesting place for inspiration about a man who comes to empathize more with aliens than people https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rebecca_Ore

  1. You infected everyone with a virus that rewires how the brain works. That alone allows you to justify rewiring patient zero any way you want.
  2. Lots of animals are able, when raised with humans, to empathize with people and care more about humans than their own species. Humans are MORE flexible than animals in this, since almost all behavior is learned, and there's almost no instinct.
  3. Humans are incredibly variable. Look at a serial killer and a Buddhist monk. A paranoid schizophrenic and surfing CEO. People are amazingly good at disregarding the humanity of others, especially if those others don't behave all that much like our expectations of "normal" humans.
  4. People who have suffered serious brain injuries are capable of and have undergone complete personality changes. Illnesses are often the catalyst for these changes.
  5. A lot of people on the Autistic spectrum have a very different way of relating to others than "normal" humans. Many are far less bothered by (for example) social distancing and lack of physical interaction. Add to this other kinds of beings your character may have much better interactions with, and I could easily see a character who despises humans and loves sentient cats. There are plenty of folks out there now who love their cats more than other people.

Unfortunately, you don't need a virus to do what you want. Empathy is a cultural trait, not an inherent emotional one.

Many are absolutely horrified at the darkness of the Holocaust. How could it happen? In particular, how was it encouraged, or systems designed and put in place, by 'normal' people who were brought up in much the same way as other people around the world?

The answer, unfortunately, is that evil detachment, and loss of empathy with fellow humans, is possible with very little effort, and indeed with 'banal' feelings. Indeed, in the Nuremberg Trials, observers were startled at the complete disparity between a cultured, coherent personality at the same time as being a dispassionate mass murderer: Rudolf Hess rationalised killing 2.5 million people, at the same time making a point he did not tolerate any lack of good judgement. Gustav Gilbert, a US psychologist at the time, found a combination of respect for authority with a complete lack of empathy were in those who participated.

So look no further than Nazi Germany, and in particular the actions of the SS, and how they 'self-rationalise' their actions. Keep in mind they are not the monsters often depicted in media and movies, but are completely 'rational' people.

For your story, it is possible that your protagonist is quite 'ordinary', but with no cultural reinforcement of recognition of other people as equals, quite possible would have the tendencies of what you describe already.

  • $\begingroup$ Nice examples but the OP is after a sudden change, what you mention is peer pressure and parental/social influence that takes years of building up and existing psychology $\endgroup$
    – user69935
    May 2, 2020 at 4:20
  • $\begingroup$ @RandySavage The question is: Is it possible to "rewire" a human brain to make it start viewing his own species as something lesser without making it completely incapable of emotion? No time frame stipulated (except a reference of 'having changed since age 12'). My point is the boy / adult may already have this tendency without the need for a 'virus', by simply self-rationalising. This could happen quickly, within the space of months. $\endgroup$
    – flox
    May 2, 2020 at 4:34
  • $\begingroup$ no its a good example I don't disagree but it involves persuasion not a single minded biological reason. $\endgroup$
    – user69935
    May 2, 2020 at 4:44

I think because this is a new condition don't give it an existing term, create a new one.

The Virus could cause over stimulation of the senses dulling emotions because their hormone receptors have been over used. The virus caused over production of hormones like testosterone, adrenaline, serotonin and dopamine, leaving patient zero numb, capable of feeling brief moments of emotion, at times over emotional and frantic but in general numbed to the world, all stimulation and cognitive reasoning. (Narcissist behaviour)


He did not change as much because he was already mostly there.

Your virus destroys sentience, but it gets leverage for its destruction from the emotional and feeling part of the brain. Those people who the most human before (compassionate, empathetic) are the ones are the ones who get the greatest cognitive impairment. They become basically animals. But they do not lose their compassion and empathy.

People in between lose a lot of cognition but not necessarily all. Psychopaths like your character lose very little because the virus gets no leverage.

Should you be interested in writing high science fiction, it would be a good framework to establish what makes us human. Which society will do better - the intelligent psychopaths, or the empathetic animals? And most important for the persistence of a species - which will most effectively rear their children?


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