How I discovered I have the brain of a psychopath
James Fallon: I found I had the brain imaging pattern and genetic make up of a full-blown psychopath while conducting research and yet, I turned out to be a successful scientist and family man
I first discovered my hidden psychopathy in 2006 during a series of scientific and clinical studies of murderers and patients with psychopathy and schizophrenia, as well as a separate imaging genetics study of Alzheimers disease in which I happened to be a control subject.
In that study, we were more than a little surprised to find that I had the brain imaging pattern and genetic make up of a full-blown psychopath. But it wasnt until 2010, following a public talk in a University of Oslo symposium on bipolar disorder, that I first took my psychopathic traits seriously.
Upon returning to my home in Southern California, I started to ask people close to me what they really thought of me, and if they believed me to be psychopathic. And tell me they did.
The people who knew me well, including family, friends and psychiatrists who examined me all, with the exception of my mother (who later relented and told me secrets of my early life problems that she had kept to herself for over 50 years), finally told me what they felt about my psychopathic behaviors. When tested for psychopathy, I consistently scored as a pro-social psychopathic, and borderline to being a categorical psychopath.
There were early signs, but these disturbances were largely offset by my otherwise cheerful, positive and agreeable outgoing traits, ones that would mark me as both class clown in my high school class and Catholic boy of the year in my post-pubertal years. I was athletic, funny, good looking, and popular, often being asked to take on leadership positions from high school to this day as a professor.
But throughout those years, there was always the odd clinician, cleric, or teacher here and there who told me point blank that there was something decidedly evil about me. I always blew them off. While I laughed at their comments, they never even cracked a smile. After all, I knew my constant manipulation of people and of situations was all in good fun.
Although I made pipe bombs as a kid, and did some joy riding in stolen cars and broke into some liquor cabinets as an early teen, we always returned every piece of stolen property. And any time we were stopped by the police, my lack of anxiety meant the police always let me go, even while my buddies were hauled off for questioning. I was devilish for sure, but a sort of tolerable lovable devil. The pranks and manipulations and party mayhem got riskier and would involve tens and hundreds of others as I got older.
One thing pointed out to me was that simply taking on highly risky behaviors by myself was hardly psychopathic. It was when I endangered the lives of others, unwittingly sucked into my games, that they started to resemble psychopathy.
One example occurred in the 1990s when I was living in Africa. One of my brothers from New York visited me and I took him to the Kitum Caves in Mt Elgon, on the border of Uganda and Kenya. After the trip, about two years later, my brother called me in a fury, and really has not trusted me since. He had found out that I had taken him to the abandoned mountain and caves because that is where the deadly Marburg virus was thought to originate. Knowing he would have refused to go if I told him about the virus there (let alone sleeping around a campfire surrounded by close-in lions, hyenas and a leopard all night), I never said a word. Until he found out.
This pattern of dangerous behaviour throughout my life was a telltale sign. I had justified it, and still do, by pointing out that I always engage in the same activities as those I put in danger.
Of the 20 traits of psychopathy on the Hare psychopathy checklist, I score very high on the traits associated with positive behaviours within factor 1, or Aggressive Narcissism, and what is called fearless dominance in the psychopathic personality inventory. Some of these traits are prevalent in the most successful CEOs and world leaders. A recent study done on US presidents shows that those such as JFK, FDR, and Bill Clinton, with high scores on this psychopathic trait, are also perceived as the best leaders (even though they lied to us).
Can psychopathy be cured? I know of no case of a teenager or adult who has ever reversed categorical, full blown psychopathy. At present pre-pubescent children with signs of emerging psychopathy are undergoing behavioural re-training and although early results are promising, the real test of permanence is not yet known.
For myself, I decided to try to treat my wife and other loved ones with more care. Each time Im about to interact with them, I pause for a moment and asked what would a good person do here? and notice that my instinct is to always do the most selfish thing at that moment. My wife started noticing this and after two months said what has come over you?. When I told her that I was trying to use my own narcissism to show that I could, against all odds, overcome my psychopathy, she said she appreciated the effort even though I was not sincere. I still dont understand how she can accept that insincerity. Perhaps people just want to be treated with respect and kindness. I find that astonishing.
But why, in the light of the fact I have all of the biological markers for psychopathy, including a turned off limbic system, the high risk genetic alleles, and the attendant behaviours, including well over half of those listed in the psychopathy tests and low emotional empathy, did I turn out to be a successful professor and family man? One most likely reason is that although I have the genetic makeup of a born psychopath, some of those very same risk genes in someone showered with love (versus abuse or abandonment), from childbirth through the critical first few years of life, appear to offset the psychopathy-inducing effects of the other risk genes.
This is why I tell my 97 year old mother that the book I wrote about a young boy who could have turned out to be quite a danger to society is just about someone who will do anything to beat you in a game of Scrabble, or follow you into a deadly cave. She still doesnt realise that the book is not about me, it is about her.
James Fallon will be on Insight at 8.30pm, Tuesday on SBS ONE