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Authors: James Fallon

The Psychopath Inside

BOOK: The Psychopath Inside
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Published by the Penguin Group

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First published by Current, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, 2013

Copyright © 2013 by James Fallon

Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader.

Photographs by the author.

ISBN 978-1-101-60392-5

Penguin is committed to publishing works of quality and integrity. In that spirit, we are proud to offer this book to our readers; however, the story, the experiences, and the words are the author's alone.

To my parents, Jennie and John Henry, who recognized my true nature very early on, and nurtured it anyway


ne October day in 2005, as the last vestiges of an Indian summer moved across Southern California, I was inputting some last-minute changes into a paper I was planning to submit to the
Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law
. I had titled it “Neuroanatomical Background to Understanding the Brain of a Young Psychopath” and based it on a long series of analyses I had performed, on and off for a decade, of individual brain scans of psychopathic murderers. These are some of the baddest dudes you can imagine—they'd done some heinous things over the years, things that would make you cringe if I didn't have to adhere to confidentiality agreements and could tell you about them.

But their pasts weren't the only things that separated them from the rest of us. As a neuroscientist well into the fourth decade of my career, I'd looked at a lot of brain scans over the years, and these had been different. The brains belonging to these killers shared a rare and alarming pattern of low brain function in certain parts of the frontal and temporal lobes—areas commonly associated with self-control and empathy. This makes sense for those
with a history of inhuman violence, since the reduction of activity in these regions suggests a lack of a normal sense of moral reasoning and of the ability to inhibit their impulses. I explained this pattern in my paper, submitted it for publication, and turned my attention to the next project.

At the same time I'd been studying the murderers' scans, my lab had been conducting a separate study exploring which genes, if any, are linked to Alzheimer's disease. As part of our research, my colleagues and I had run genetic tests and taken brain scans of several Alzheimer's patients as well as several members of my family, who were serving as the normal control group.

On this same October day, I sat down to analyze my family's scans and noticed that the last scan in the pile was strikingly odd. In fact it looked exactly like the most abnormal of the scans I had just been writing about, suggesting that the poor individual it belonged to was a psychopath—or at least shared an uncomfortable amount of traits with one. Not suspicious of any of my family members, I naturally assumed that their scans had somehow been mixed with the other pile on the table. I generally have a lot of research going on at one time, and even though I try to keep my work organized it was entirely possible for things to get misplaced. Unfortunately, since we were trying to keep the scans anonymous, we'd coded them to hide the names of the individuals they belonged to. To be sure I hadn't made a mistake, I asked our lab technician to break the blind code.

When I found out who the scan belonged to, I had to believe there was a mistake. In a fit of pique, I asked the technician to
check the scanner and all the notes from the other imaging and database technicians. But there had been no mistake.

The scan was mine.

•   •   •

Imagine with me for a moment.

It's a bright, warm Saturday morning and you decide to take a stroll through the park near your home. After a brisk walk, you sit down on a bench in the shade of an oak tree next to a nice-enough-looking chap. You say hi, and he says hi, and then he says what a nice day it is and how good it is to be alive. As you talk to him for the next fifteen minutes, you form an opinion of him as he forms an opinion of you. There is much you can glean from someone in this brief window of time. You might learn what he does for a living, whether he is married or has children, or what he likes to do in his spare time. He can appear to be intelligent, charming, open, funny, and a generally pleasant conversationalist who can tell an interesting little story.

But depending on who this person is, the second fifteen minutes can be dramatically more telling. For instance, if he is in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease, he might repeat the same exact interesting little story, with the same exact facial and body movements and punch line as before. If he is schizophrenic, he might start to shift in his seat or lean in a little too close as he talks to you. You might start to feel uncomfortable and will get up and leave, glancing back to make sure he isn't following you.

If I were the man sitting next to you on the bench, you would probably find me a generally interesting person. If you asked me
what line of work I'm in, I'd say that I am a brain researcher, and if you pressed further I'd say I am a professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior and affiliated with the Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology in the School of Medicine at the University of California, Irvine. I'd tell you how I've spent my career teaching medical students and residents and graduate students about the brain. If you seemed interested, I would then tell you about my research with adult stem cells and animal models of Parkinson's disease and chronic stroke, and that the basic research from my lab has led to the creation of three biotech companies, one of which has been netting profits consistently for the past twenty-five years, and another that just won a national award from its peer biotech companies.

If you still seemed interested, I might mention that I am also involved in organizations and think tanks that focus on the arts, architecture, music, education, and medical research, or that I have served as an adviser to the U.S. Department of Defense on what war does to the brain. If you asked further, I might mention the TV shows and films I've acted in or that I thoroughly enjoyed my past jobs as a bartender, a laborer, a schoolteacher, and a carpenter, and still have my out-of-active-duty Teamsters' card from my days as a truck driver.

At some point you might start thinking to yourself that I'm a blowhard or even that I am making this stuff up, especially if I also mentioned that when I was fourteen years old I was named Catholic Boy of the Year for the diocese of Albany, New York, or was a five-sport high school and college athlete. But although you
might think I talk way too much or am something of a bullshitter, you would also find that when I talk with you, I look you in the eye and listen carefully to everything you say. In fact, you might be surprised at how interested I am in your life, your opinions, and how you view the world.

If you agreed to meet me again, we might end up becoming friends. Over time, you might notice things about me that rub you the wrong way—I may occasionally be caught in a lie, or I might disappoint you from time to time by not showing up at an event you invite me to. But despite my mild narcissism and regular bouts of selfishness, we'd probably have fun together. Because, at the end of the day, I am basically a regular guy.

Except for one thing. I'm a borderline psychopath.

•   •   •

I agreed to write this story, a true if not wholly complete story, in part to share with my family, friends, and colleagues the biological and psychological background of my family. By necessity, this exposition is based on comprehensive scientific data from brain imaging, genetics, and psychiatry, but also emerges from brutally honest and sometimes disturbing admissions and discussions about myself and my past. (I hope my family doesn't disown me once they're done reading.) My aim here is not simply to tell a story or to espouse some new scientific findings. I hope that by telling my story, I will illuminate the conversation surrounding a subject that has received a lot of attention in our culture despite a general lack of understanding and consensus: psychopathy.

Beyond the basic science and personal story, I hope that the
research I've done and the theories I've put forth about the way our brains, genes, and early environment determine how likely we are to be psychopaths might be useful, not only to individual readers, but also within the larger realms of parenting and criminal law. As strange as it sounds, the science discussed in the following pages could even help us achieve world peace. I've hypothesized that in areas with chronic violence, from Gaza to East L.A., the concentration of genes associated with psychopathy might be increasing as women mate with bad boys for protection and aggressive genes spread, increasing the violence and repeating the loop. Over generations, we end up with warrior societies. It's a speculative idea but one that's important to consider and study further.

I'm a committed scientist—a neuroscientist who studies the anatomy and function of the brain—and this fact has shaped the way I view behavior, motivation, and morality for my entire adult life. In my mind, we are machines, albeit machines we don't understand all that well, and I have believed for decades that we have very little control over what we do and who we are. To me, nature (genetics) determines about 80 percent of our personality and behavior, and nurture (how and in what environment we are raised) only 20 percent.

This is the way I have always thought about the brain and behavior. But this understanding took a stinging, and rather embarrassing, blow starting about 2005, and I continue to reconcile my past belief with my present reality. I have come to understand—even more than I did before—that humans are, by nature, complicated creatures. And to reduce our actions,
motivations, desires, and needs to absolutes is doing each of us a disservice. We are not simply good or evil, right or wrong, kind or vindictive, benign or dangerous. We are not simply the product of biology, either, and science can only tell us part of the story.

Which brings me back to the story at hand.

BOOK: The Psychopath Inside
9.08Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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