College College Mind, Brain, and Behavior TSS

Being a Born Psychopath: Psychopathic Traits vs. Actual Psychopathy

In 2005, James Fallon found out that he has the brain of a murderous psychopath.

In 2005, James Fallon found out that he has the brain of a murderous psychopath (1). Fallon, a neuroscientist at UC Irvine, was looking through brain scans in his files when he came across a particularly interesting scan that showed a brain with extremely low activity in the temporal and frontal lobes, which are linked to our morals, self-control, and empathy (2). When Fallon discovered that the scan was his own brain, he decided to get genetic testing and found out that he also has a gene that makes him at high risk for violence and aggression (2). Specifically, Fallon carries the “warrior gene,” a gene formally called MAOA, on the X-chromosome, which is associated with violence and controls the amount of serotonin in the brain (1,3). In other words, James Fallon discovered that he was born a psychopath prone to committing murder.

When he looked further into his family, he found that he is a descendant of the infamous murderer Lizzie Borden, as well as six other alleged murderers on his dad’s side of the family (1). It would make sense for Fallon to be a convicted murderer or rapist, but he’s not. He’s a normal father, researcher, and professor at the top of his field (1). This is probably due to nurture rather than nature. It turns out that most psychopaths are a product of nurture. To be a psychopath and for the warrior gene to express itself, you must experience something extremely traumatic before puberty (4). This is why most psychopaths are victims of childhood abuse or trauma. Fallon might have the genes of a psychopath, but he believes his happy and stable childhood is the reason he is not a killer (1).

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James Fallon, Image from NPR, from Fallon’s Ted Talk

This still isn’t a perfect explanation for why Fallon isn’t a psychopath, because doctors can never confirm whether he would’ve been if he was abused as a child, but it’s a start to many questions. How do we classify psychopathy? Can it be inherited? Can it be avoided? Are murderous actions excusable if someone is clinically psychotic? How do we draw the line between criminally insane and just insane? Should a mentally ill person be able to avoid jail time by citing psychopathy? There are so many different ways to categorize mental illnesses because they don’t look the same for everyone, and psychopathy is no different. The inactivity in James Fallon’s frontal and temporal lobes, combined with the “warrior gene” made him a born psychopath, but he didn’t act on it because of his stable childhood. How are we sure that there hasn’t been a born psychopath with an abusive childhood who hasn’t acted on it? Most people have experienced psychopathic traits like apathy, need for stimulation, and superficial charm (5), so why are only certain people diagnosed psychopaths?

21% (1 in 5) of CEOs are said to be psychopaths, and it’s hard not to be a little bit psychopathic in this capitalistic society (6). I’m not talking about murdering people, but I am talking about acting apathetic to seem cool on social media, being charming to get ahead in workplaces, not having realistic long-term goals, or being impulsive or irresponsible. Lack of empathy, superficial charm, unrealistic long-term goals, impulsivity, and irresponsibility are all traits that have been used to diagnose a psychopath (5). There have been so many cases in which patients have claimed to be misdiagnosed with psychopathy but claiming to be misdiagnosed makes them seem manipulative and cunning, just like a psychopath (7). When James Fallon found out he might be a psychopath, he started actively being nicer to his family and friends to not be seen with these traits, even though he was already a good father and professor (1).

Most of us haven’t been tested for the warrior gene and won’t ever be, so James Fallon’s experience is only a cornerstone in our minds and in psychopathy research. Psychopathy is hard to understand and sometimes slippery to define, so next time you throw around the word “insane,” ask yourself what you mean by insane. Is it psychopathy, or is it a psychopathic trait? Should it be both?


References

(1) Mount, Harry. “Scientist who found he’d the brain of a psychopath… and what it taught him about human nature.” Daily Mail, https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2514670/Scientist-James-Fallon-hes-brain-psychopath-related-Lizzie-Borden.html. Accessed 5 January 2018.

(2) Bluestone, Gabrielle. “Neuroscientist Related to Lizzie Borden Finds Out He’s a Psychopath.” Gawker, https://gawker.com/neuroscientist-related-to-lizzie-borden-finds-out-hes-1470770331. Accessed 5 January 2018.

(3) Powledge, Tabitha M. “Do the MAOA and CDH13 ‘human warrior genes’ make violent criminals—and what should society do?” Genetic Literacy Project, https://geneticliteracyproject.org/2016/07/29/does-the-human-warrior-gene-make-violent-criminals-and-what-should-society-do/. Accessed 5 January 2018.

(4) Fallon, Jim. “Exploring the Mind of a Killer.” YouTube, uploaded by TED, 16 July 2009, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u2V0vOFexY4.

(5) “Hare Psychopathy Checklist.” Encyclopedia of Mind Disorders, d., http://www.minddisorders.com/Flu-Inv/Hare-Psychopathy-Checklist.html.

(6) Marks, Gene. “21 percent of CEOs are psychopaths. Only 21 percent?” The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/on-small-business/wp/2016/09/16/gene-marks-21-percent-of-ceos-are-psychopaths-only-21-percent/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.270c9657a898. Accessed 5 January 2018.

(7) Ronson, Jon. “Strange Answers to the Psychopath Test.” YouTube, uploaded by TED, 15 August 2012, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xYemnKEKx0c.

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