Psychopaths are a rare breed. They make up one percent of the general population and are harder to spot than a needle in a haystack. Outwardly, psychopaths can appear charming and normal. Yet their lack of conscience and empathy makes them wolves in sheep’s clothing.
In October 2005, neuroscientist James Fallon was studying serial killers’ brain scans. He was looking for patterns in the brain that signify if a person has psychopathic tendencies or not.
Dr. Fallon introduced other anonymous scans into the study. These included his own and those of his family members. The idea was to contrast the brain of the psychopath with those of normal people.
One of the brain scans showed patterns consistent with psychopathy. There was low activity in key areas of the brain that govern empathy and self-control.
The only problem was the scan in question came from the pile of his family scans. Thinking one of the lab staff was playing a joke, Fallon checked who the scan belonged to. To his shock, he found it was his.
He immediately did further tests and discovered that he had a variant of the MAO-A gene. Also called the Warrior Gene, it’s linked with aggressive behavior.
Fallon has never physically attacked anyone. Yet he’s always identified with certain psychopathic traits. He says he has always been motivated by power and the need to manipulate others.
He explained, “I’m obnoxiously competitive. I won’t let my grandchildren win games. I’m kind of an asshole, and I do jerky things that piss people off. I’m aggressive, but my aggression is sublimated. I’d rather beat someone in an argument than beat them up.”
Fallon’s life is filled with examples of psychopathic behavior. Yet he’s also a respected and successful scientist. Can there be such a thing as a good psychopath?
There are many people with similar genetics and brain patterns to Fallon’s who are now behind bars. What makes Fallon different?
Fallon believes it was nurture over nature. He feels his childhood helped prevent him from taking a wrong turn in life. The love and attention his parents gave him helped him deal with his aggressive urges.
Since finding out he is a psychopath, Dr. Fallon has made some key changes to his behavior. He is now thinking more about other people’s feelings and trying to do the right thing. As Fallon explains, “I want to show everyone and myself that I can pull it off. It’s exhausting though – it’s hard to be a nice person.”