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Those parts of the brain were completely switched off

Imagine being a neuroscientist, and studying brain scans of murderers to look for psychopathic traits. Imagine doing that and looking at scans of family members for comparison purposes, and then finding one that is way at the extreme edge of what you’re finding in the murderers’ scans. Whoops, the scans got mixed up. The techs check and re-check; nope, no mix. So you peel off the code – and the scan is yours.

That’s what the neuroscientist James Fallon found.

He told his wife and she said, “I’m not surprised.”

He laughed at that. Which is kind of psychopathic itself.

The BBC discussion is slightly odd, because they simply talk about murderer or not murderer. He’s not a murderer, despite having all the alleles for being a psychopath, so what gives? (The answer is environment.)

But murder isn’t all there is, for cryin out loud. There’s cruelty, there’s bullying, there’s manipulation, there’s chronic lying. Professor Fallon isn’t a murderer, good, splendid, but it would have been interesting if the BBC person had asked him why his wife said that, or if he himself in fact thought he was deficient in the empathy department.

I once knew someone who ticked a lot of the psychopathy boxes. I never thought “murderer?” But I thought a lot of things short of that.

Comments

  1. says

    I had the same reaction — I wanted to know why his wife was unsurprised.

    Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test digs into this, with regard to CEOs of major corporations (as well as covering the history of the study of psychopathy, as well).

  2. smrnda says

    I’d imagine many clinical psychopaths don’t kill but find other means of indulging the same instincts. I wonder how much prison guards would differ from the inmate population.

  3. sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d says

    He’s not a murderer, despite having all the alleles for being a psychopath, so what gives?

    Perhaps “all the alleles for being a psychopath” aren’t all the alleles for being a psychopath after all. It’s interesting that he is so dedicated to his hypothesis that he is more willing to accept that he himself is a psychopath- albeit a defective psychopath- than that he’s wrong.

  4. says

    The article title is misleading. When you read his actual quotes, he is careful to explain that in fact he is not a psychopath, that having the genetic markers for it only means he had the propensity, but environment didn’t activate it. Previous research shows that psychopathy is a diminished fear response (beginning in childhood) which results in failing to learn empathy (by not fearing disappointing people, like parents, for example) when in a sustained environment of inconsistent rewards and punishments (a form of bad parenting). In a family environment of consistnt rewards and punishments, potential psychopaths can learn empathy through motivation pathways other than fear, and consequently don’t become psychopathic.

    His wife’s remark is probably diagnostically irrelevant. In American culture males tend statistically more often than females to develop and exhibit lower empathy generally. It doesn’t make them psychopathic, but people can easily just assume it’s the same thing, when in fact psychopathy entails a vastly more diminished empathy than even bell curve male norm. Unless she was informed enough to know that the genes for psychopathy do mean diminished fear response (and thus higher risk taking) throughout life and was referring to her knowledge that her husband exhibits that attribute. But that has nothing to do with diminished empathy, much less it’s absence. Note that people who develop diminished fear response later in life (e.g. due to damage to fear centers of the brain) do not become psychopaths either because they already learned empathic responses in childhood.

  5. Pen says

    In American culture males tend statistically more often than females to develop and exhibit lower empathy generally. It doesn’t make them psychopathic,…

    Also, in British culture, no spouse worth their salt would miss such an amazing opportunity to make the obvious remark. Get real, everybody who’s decided to diagnose him as a closet wife-bullier!

  6. says

    I think Fallon showed remarkably poor judgment in labeling himself as a psychopath, when what he appears to have are a variety of genetic and neuroanatomical markers associated with callous-unemotional personality traits that are frequently elevated in people who commit antisocial acts and show little remorse or regard for relationships with others.

    Sure, he may be a callous and unemotional person, and I suspect his family members are very well positioned to see those traits. But he is not a psychopath unless he’s doing stuff that is quite far along on the bell curve of human cruelty, which he does not seem to be doing, Not being able to experience empathy (the feeling, not the cognitive awareness) for the feelings and experiences of others is a disability that makes one’s relationships difficult, often painful for those others, and perhaps unsatisfying for all concerned. Hurting other people deliberately and for fun is psychopathy.

    By conflating callous-unemotional personality traits with psychopathy, Fallon did a disservice to non-criminal adults and children with such personality traits, to the families and friends of such people, and to the researchers and clinicians who work with them.

  7. brianpansky says

    um

    @8
    A Surprise to Many

    Hurting other people deliberately and for fun is psychopathy.

    By conflating callous-unemotional personality traits with psychopathy, Fallon did a disservice to non-criminal adults and children with such personality traits, to the families and friends of such people, and to the researchers and clinicians who work with them.

    hurting people deliberately and for fun is *sadism*. You can be sadistic without being a psychopath. You can even do it with consent. Maybe you haven’t heard of BDSM.

    also, are you saying psychopath should only be used to describe criminals? there is actually so much variety in the definition of “psychopath” and i really did think someone could be a psychopath without being criminal.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psychopathy#Measurement

    @4
    sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d

    He’s not a murderer, despite having all the alleles for being a psychopath, so what gives?

    a defective psychopath

    are you joking? someone can be a psychopath without being a murderer.

  8. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    @4. sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d :

    .. albeit a defective psychopath ..

    As opposed to what an effective one?

    Maybe the wife was joking, maybe not. Incomplete information but cause for pause for thoughtonhow efefctiev or defective these scans might be.

  9. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    @3. Ophelia Benson :

    And the internet is just a paradise for psychopaths, because they can lie and bully with complete impunity. A new era in human history!

    Well, not quite complete immunity – they can after all be blocked and mocked and fought online.

  10. says

    I remember this fellow from a few years back, in an average-so-so documentary that pick-and-chose what research to quote from (while ignoring the some of the mutually incompatible claims made elsewhere in the research). Although he could have been acting for the camera, his smile had my “oh, he’s one of those” radar blipping.

  11. Shatterface says

    Empathy is over-rated. 1% of people are psychopaths, 0.6% are autistic (like myself) and 98.4% have neurotypical levels of empathy – and people still starve to death while others sit by.

    Responses to suffering aren’t based on biological factors, they’re based on social factors. Perfectly ‘normal’ people are willing to give electrical shocks if men in white coats tell them to, and they’ll physically abuse ‘prisoners’ in role-playing experiments. Psychologists demonstrated this decades ago.

  12. Shatterface says

    Most psychopaths aren’t murderers, most murderers aren’t psychopaths. It just serves the interest of people in power to demonise those with different neurotypes.

  13. Gordon Willis says

    Thanks to Z at #12. I think PZ gets it right:

    But one thing he [Fallon] doesn’t consider? That maybe PET scans and genetic tests aren’t as robust and interpretable as he thinks. What I find personally chilling is that he so blithely considers a scan or a gene so definitive that he will defend a diagnosis of psychopathy in himself ; does he also judge the subjects of his research on the basis of these abstractions rather than on their behavior?

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