November 30, 2013
Neuroscientist Concludes He Is A Psychopath
Imagine sitting at a desk, studying a plethora of brain scans taken from criminals, serial killers, and other dangerous types deemed unstable by society. You’re familiar with the bits of the frontal and temporal lobes containing empathy, morality, self-control and all those other wonderful emotions that keep you from actually strangling obnoxious interns and impossibly insufferable colleagues. As would be expected, most of the serial criminals have little to no brain activity in those regions, a neuroscientific explanation for why they would do the horrible things that they do.
But then you stumble across a surprise. You’ve been researching Alzheimer’s as well, so you happen to have scans of your family available too., While sifting through those, you discover a disturbing similarity. One of the brains on your table shows the very same voids as many of the serial killers. Stomach knotting, you pull back the blind hiding the name of your psychopathic relative … only to discover your name resting underneath.
Meet James Fallon, neuroscientist, professor, and self-proclaimed psychopath. When he discovered these patterns, his first instinct was, understandably, to question whether the brain patterns he’d been studying were actually the indicative factor of psychopathy. However, it didn’t take long for him to confirm his findings. Follow-up testing revealed several other genetic predispositions towards aggressiveness and low-end empathy. Eventually Fallon had to concede the point. He was, by his own technical definition, a psychopath.
Despite this discovery — and even the slightly disturbing fact that his family line contained seven alleged murders (including the infamous Lizzie Borden) — Fallon is a perfectly functional member of society. He is, by his own admission, “obnoxiously competitive” and “kind of an asshole,” but he has no history of violence, nor has he ever felt the urge to seriously harm other humans. He credits a loving childhood for protecting him from darker paths, and discusses the fascinating concept of a pro-social psychopath, someone who may struggle empathizing with others, but still understands the importance of these concepts enough to act on them and stay within societally acceptable boundaries. It brings up an interesting conundrum with the term “psychopath.” According to the Smithsonian’s blog entry, psychopathy doesn’t show up anywhere in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. “Psychopath” contains a wide variety of disorders, each with varying degrees of intensity, somewhat similar to the Autism spectrum, and Fallon is living proof that not everyone who falls into the medical category of psychopath is destined for crime, violence, and bloodshed.
If nothing else, it certainly proves an interesting point when discussing socially volatile mental disorders. If a man who is technically a psychopath can function just fine in his day-to-day life, what does this say about the potential for early discovery and treatment? While we may not get any answers to that question today, it certainly suggests some interesting conversations to come.
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