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Cannibalism Can Be Addictive, Expert Says

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Indonesian cannibal Sumanto drinks water at a private rehabilitation center housing those with mental and emotional problems in central Java.
Indonesian cannibal Sumanto drinks water at a private rehabilitation center housing those with mental and emotional problems in central Java.

Several brutal crimes allegedly involving face biting, dismemberment and cannibalism have recently offered a chilling reminder that real life can be as bizarre as fiction -- even a horror film.

Trying to explain the psychology behind cannibalism can be even scarier.

Karen Hylen, the primary therapist at Summit Malibu Treatment Center in California, said that, while people have historically resorted to cannibalism for survival or religious reasons, modern interpretations of cannibalism focus on questions of addiction or mental illness.

"People who have engaged in this act report feelings of euphoria or get a 'high' by performing the action to completion," she told The Huffington Post. "These individuals have psychopathic tendencies and are generally not psychotic. They know exactly what they are doing."

Hylen said cannibalism often begins as a fantasy, which the person plays out in his or her head. But when that person gets a taste for real, "the pleasure center of the brain becomes activated and large amounts of dopamine are released –- similar to what happens when someone ingests a drug like cocaine."

Once that happens, Hylen said, the burgeoning cannibal's brain becomes conditioned to seek out the activity in order to obtain the feeling again, which leads to a cycle of cannibalism that can only be stopped through outside intervention.

Cannibals grow addicted not only to the eating aspect, according to Hylen, but to the ritual of hunting the prey as well, "just as a cocaine addict becomes addicted to the process of cutting up lines before they ingest the drug itself."

Unlike other addictions, the chances of the average person becoming addicted to cannibalism are exceptionally low.

"It takes a complete lack of empathy and ability to experience normal human emotions to reach this state," Hylen said. "Generally, less than 1 percent of the population is classified as [a psychopath], although more may possess the tendencies associated with psychopathic disorder."

Even then, Hylen noted, not every psychopath will have a cannibalistic mind-set.

"Only the sickest of individuals would entertain such a notion, let alone act on it," she said. "Just because you or your therapist believes you have psychopathic tendencies does not mean that cannibalism is in the realm of possibility for you. If you are this type of person, you most likely already know it to be true and don't need an outside source to tell you."

As cannibalism is quite rare and, according to Hylen, on the far end of the spectrum of addictive behaviors, getting treatment is difficult.

"To date, there is no effective cure or treatment for these individuals, as no amount of medication or psychotherapy can instill empathy in someone," she said.

But there are success stories, such as the case of a self-proclaimed cannibal in Indonesia named Sumanto, who was sentenced to five years in prison in 2003 for stealing and eating a woman's corpse, an act he believed would give him supernatural powers, according to the Jakarta Globe.

Sumanto was freed in 2006 after receiving several sentence remissions and has lived at a private mental institution since then. So far, he hasn't fallen off the wagon and credits that to a conversion to Islam.

Still, he admits to being lonely and is hoping to find a wife who will accept him for who he is.

"The important thing is, my wife has to be a woman and she has to be religious," Sumanto told the paper.

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