Wednesday, November 13, 2013

James Fallon: The Psychopath Inside Q&A

Professor James Fallon has written an exciting new book combining his background in neuroscience with his personal experience having many characteristics (and the brain scan) of a psychopath. THE PSYCHOPATH INSIDE: A Neuroscientist’s Personal Journey into the Dark Side of the Brain (Kindle version here) is part memoir and part scientific review of both the recent genetic and neuroscience research that has been done on psychopaths.

As a special offer to this blog's audience, Dr. Fallon has graciously offered to answer some of your questions. If you have a question for Dr. Fallon, please post it in the comments addressed to "Dr. Fallon:". I will collect your questions (or a representative sample) and send them to him. When I receive his answers, I will post them in a future blog post.

Here is an except from his book:

I was thinking about putting something up about the book and then asking my readers and twitter followers if they had any questions in particular that they would like to ask him. I could select a representative sample, if he would be willing to give his thoughts? 

One October day in 2005, as the last vestiges of an Indian summer moved across Southern California, I was inputting some last-minute changes into a paper I was planning to submit to the Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law. I had titled it “Neuroanatomical Background to Understanding the Brain of a Young Psychopath” and based it on a long series of analyses I had performed, on and off for a decade, of individual brain scans of psychopathic murderers. These are some of the baddest dudes you can imagine—they’d done some heinous things over the years, things that would make you cringe if I didn’t have to adhere to confidentiality agreements and could tell you about them. 

But their pasts weren’t the only things that separated them from the rest of us. As a neuroscientist well into the fourth decade of my career, I’d looked at a lot of brain scans over the years, and these had been different. The brains belonging to these killers shared a rare and alarming pattern of low brain function in certain parts of the frontal and temporal lobes—areas commonly associated with self-control and empathy. This makes sense for those with a history of inhuman violence, since the reduction of activity in these regions suggests a lack of a normal sense of moral reasoning and of the ability to inhibit their impulses. I explained this pattern in my paper, submitted it for publication, and turned my attention to the next project. 

At the same time I’d been studying the murderers’ scans, my lab had been conducting a separate study exploring which genes, if any, are linked to Alzheimer’s disease. As part of our research, my colleagues and I had run genetic tests and taken brain scans of several Alzheimer’s patients as well as several members of my family, who were serving as the normal, control group. 

On this same October day, I sat down to analyze my family’s scans and noticed that the last scan in the pile was strikingly odd. In fact it looked exactly like the most abnormal of the scans I had just been writing about, suggesting that the poor individual it belonged to was a psychopath— or at least shared an uncomfortable amount of traits with one. Not suspicious of any of my family members, I naturally assumed that their scans had somehow been mixed with the other pile on the table. I generally have a lot of research going on at one time, and even though I try to keep my work organized it was entirely possible for things to get mixed up. Unfortunately, since we were trying to keep the scans anonymous, we’d coded them to hide the names of the individuals they belonged to. To be sure I hadn’t mixed anything up, I asked our lab technician to break the blind code. 

When I found out who the scan belonged to, I had to believe there was a mistake. In a fit of pique, I asked the technician to check the scanner and all the notes from the other imaging and database technicians. 

But there had been no mistake. 

The scan was mine.

Reprinted from THE PSYCHOPATH INSIDE: A Neuroscientist’s Personal Journey into the Dark Side of the Brain by James Fallon with permission of Current, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright (c) James Fallon, 2013.

38 comments:

  1. What advice does he have for someone who is pretty far along on the dictator/serial-killer spectrum?

    E.g. suppose you have a guy who has serially-poisoned dogs and/or cats in his neighborhood. At first our guy had practical reasons (problem animal, fear of retaliation from owner if he went through legal channels), but then our guy noticed that is is thrilling and relieves stress to do it, and he feels great about himself afterwards (egosyntonic aggression), so now he's addicted and does it when he's drunk (lower inhibition), stressed (more cravings) or friends complain that there's a problem animal in the neighborhood (wants to be a team player).

    Or imagine our guy realizes he's a pickup addict. He's continually gaming women systematically. E.g. shows up to a date with a big object, takes them back to his place, says they can't come in, cools heels in the lair for a few minutes (to build curiosity/anticipation), takes her around to some bars in the neighborhood (get her drunk), invites her back. She comes in (curious) and "sucker punches" (rapidly escalates physically) to have sex (no condoms, ever). Continues to have sex with them for as long as she'll keep doing it - but no desire to commit. Lots of lies to keep the sex flowing. Spends all free time on this "hobby". Career is permanently in low gear due to lack of time to work. Gnawing sense that maybe this isn't the right way to live, but no hope of stopping.

    Note: both cases are a lot like the serial killer. The MO is predatory, addictive and anti-social. Our hero has the malignant narcissism and sadism, very low emotional empathy. Very disagreeable and amoral, so he only wants to change to avoid negative consequences (for himself).

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Dr. Fallon:

      What advice does he have for someone who is pretty far along on the dictator/serial-killer spectrum?

      E.g. suppose you have a guy who has serially-poisoned dogs and/or cats in his neighborhood. At first our guy had practical reasons (problem animal, fear of retaliation from owner if he went through legal channels), but then our guy noticed that is is thrilling and relieves stress to do it, and he feels great about himself afterwards (egosyntonic aggression), so now he's addicted and does it when he's drunk (lower inhibition), stressed (more cravings) or friends complain that there's a problem animal in the neighborhood (wants to be a team player).

      Or imagine our guy realizes he's a pickup addict. He's continually gaming women systematically. E.g. shows up to a date with a big object, takes them back to his place, says they can't come in, cools heels in the lair for a few minutes (to build curiosity/anticipation), takes her around to some bars in the neighborhood (get her drunk), invites her back. She comes in (curious) and "sucker punches" (rapidly escalates physically) to have sex (no condoms, ever). Continues to have sex with them for as long as she'll keep doing it - but no desire to commit. Lots of lies to keep the sex flowing. Spends all free time on this "hobby". Career is permanently in low gear due to lack of time to work. Gnawing sense that maybe this isn't the right way to live, but no hope of stopping.

      Note: both cases are a lot like the serial killer. The MO is predatory, addictive and anti-social. Our hero has the malignant narcissism and sadism, very low emotional empathy. Very disagreeable and amoral, so he only wants to change to avoid negative consequences (for himself).

      Delete
  2. People have "pictures" of themselves. We fight for the preservation
    of these "pictures" because we believe our lives depend on them.
    But are the pictures accurate? And if we really buy into them, aren't
    we imposing unnessasary limitations on ourselves?
    The baseball player Mickey Mantel's male realitives suffered from a
    genetic disease called "Huntington's Chorea." At a certain age, men
    suffering from this disease are doomed to become vegtables.
    Not all male heirs contract this disease. But Mantle was terrified
    that he had it, and drunk himself sick while crying in his beer. He
    often smacked home runs in a drunken stoper. Boys and men idolized
    Mantle. What did he think of himself? On his deathbed, (He lived to his
    70's) he lamented his drinking and carousing. "If only I had behaved
    differently, I would have been just as great as Ruth or Ghering."
    M.E., (And other folks here.), use the "sociopath stisct" for as long as
    it serves your interests, but DON'T believe the label. You're dooming
    yourself to a half life if you do.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I wish we could have a lottery for guessing the demographics of sociopathy. Percent overall? Percent by race, nationality, class, sex? When this data becomes publicly available I foresee a very interesting public extension to the dialog that goes on here every day. It's going to end up where nationality's who are highly enriched for sociopathy become the champions of its merits (paging UK/Middle East)- And those populations with low sociopathy/high empathy getting all "ah ha! burn the witches." The purpose of my non profit is to steward this conversation in a way that exploits the essential benefits and potential of a neurodiverse world.

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  4. Dr Fallon-
    I bought and finished this book within the last 48 hours. Very interesting. I definitely subscribe to your "three legged stool" hypothesis. A quick question for clarification purposes: There's the genetic link and the environmental link- the "brain functioning" link has typically been folded into the genetics (warrior gene) part- are you suggesting that the brain functioning piece is the part of the stool most open to modification? (The recent research on neuroplasticity seems to indicate that you can change your brain functioning to a certain extent.) If that is the case- for those who have similarly "complicated" brains as yours and were not fortunate to have your loving upbringing- might this be the angle to pursue if treatment is desired/mandated?

    One other observation: You strike me as a very happy person. Most antisocial types are miserable human beings, IMO, especially after they pass middle age. I wonder if you are happy because of your brain or because of the love in your life. Your generally positive affect seems to keep you from having an obsession with control (I didn't pick up that you are the controlling type) which to me seems to be the basis of the worst psychopathic tendencies. It also destroys he capacity for lasting attachment/love. Clearly this is not the case with you. Did you just not write about your need to dominate or is it really not a defining part of who you are?

    ReplyDelete
  5. Dr Fallon,

    Do you think that adult children of psychopaths can ever lead a normal, healthy life and have fulfilling relationships? Bear in mind gaslighting was the backdrop of their entire childhood. The psychopathic parent pretended to love them, went through the motions, but the children could never feel that love because it didn't exist. Can the lost sense of self ever be recovered?

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  6. On a separate note, does anyone else here think Alec Baldwin is a raving psycho? I read a report of a court case he's involved in where he's suing a Canadian actress for stalking him. He denies ever having had a sexual relationship with her, claiming she just started texting and emailing him out of the blue. She says she just wanted closure after he dropped her and refused to discuss it. Hmmm... I call BS Alec. You have form. What say the rest of you?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. he's a manipulative entitled narcissist for sure with a bad temper.

      Delete
  7. Hey Dr. Fallon,

    When we think of psychopaths, generally we think of them solely in terms of personality characteristics (low empathy, highly manipulative, etc). Has modern neuroscience uncovered any of the "closer to the hardware" aspects of psychopathic individuals? Do they, for example, process psychomotor signals/memory differently? If so, how? Also, for those interested in "spotting" psychopaths, would one be capable of picking one out of the crowd according to signals which do not directly speak to the sociopathic personality? I ask because many victims of sociopaths seem to say that there was simply something "off" about their victimizer which they are unable to adequately verbalize.

    Thanks for doing this!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Psychopaths are excellent at recognizing each other.

      Delete
    2. The difference between black with white stripes & white with black stripes is dismal, but a difference nevertheless.

      Delete
  8. Quick-spotting stereotype psychos: many have a "glow" surrounding them, many "create a stir" around them wherever they go & many act like pigs but make the situation look like it was others persecuting them, they are the victims & martyrs etc, which led to the drama in question.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Dr. Fallon,

    Recent studies have suggested a link between sociopathy and alexithymia. The communicative right hemisphere of the brain is out of sync with left hemisphere, this miscommunication could be caused by a decreased corpus callosum or simply a traumatic event within a person's adolescence. Do you believe there is a relation between the two?

    Thank you

    ReplyDelete
  10. Can people "lose" empathy or become more callous due to brain injuries? How common is that?

    Examples:strokes, Multiple Sclerosis, dementia, Azheimer's , Even alcoholism?

    Thank you.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Google "Phineas Gage".

      Delete
    2. Also cases where prefrontal lobes have been damaged by disease or injury. I can't remember the name but there was a documentary probably by discovery channel, where a mother had drastic personality change after her brain injury. The patient herself described the situation is if she had lost her 'soul' as she could no longer connect to her family and young children as before.

      Delete
  11. Dr. Fallon,

    Do you have any suggestions for someone who loves and cares about a sociopath, but because of the unpredictable and painful experiences, has to end the relationship? Do you think there is any hope for these situations? It's terrible to loose a friend. Maybe someday neuroscience can help us with these kinds of questions?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Why ask a self-described "borderline psychopath" this question? What answer do you think you are going to get from Dr. Fallon?

      You hit a nerve. I just lost a friend and former lover because I sent her excerpts of Fallon's book. He talks about doing a bunch of helpful and reckless things, in an emotionally detached way. I have done those things. Women think that stuff is sexy, but they fear that in a long term relationship, they'll get hurt (which is true).

      She's decided she no longer feels safe about being around me.

      Hard to blame her - women and empaths in general err on the side of moving away from potentially dangerous, unpredictable, impish people. They can't tell when we regard people very highly compared to everyone else (whom we might allow to perish without a second thought).

      Of course, after a few run-ins with someone like me, they know that like a cat, even if I like belly scratches 1 through 4, I might bite and claw you after scratch 5, without much warning.

      Here's my advice: end the relationship. Don't look back. Whatever is in front of you, do exactly that. If you must look back, look back and see what warning signs you missed.

      When you believe a lie, it is typically a volitional thing. There were likely warning signs. You craved something - attention, flattery, admiration, thinking of yourself as helpful, etc - and you got that. In return you lost your credit rating, some money, time, etc. If you hadn't wanted the other person to make you happy, complete, etc you never would have gotten victimized. That's why you yearn to have that "friend" back.

      If, after examining things, you conclude there were no warning signs, then clearly you'd best end things and never look back. In the same way that if you got hit by a bad flu, you'd move on.

      Delete
    2. I basically agree with you and have ended the relationship.

      Dr. Fallon also talks about how his sister and daughter were hurt and how this really bothered him. (He clearly cares about his sister and Daughter.)

      Wouldn't it be beneficial if we could find a way to improve the quality of life for everyone involved? Including you and your friend?

      Delete
    3. P.S. There we're warning signs that I didn't 'catch' till much later.
      Also, although I'm sure my friend is a high-scoring sociopath, I did see a couple "very fleeting"expressions of genuine emotion. My friend also claims the person loved the most is my friend's only child. I'm not saying I have any answers, but I believe there are a lot of questions unanswered.

      The fact that ME is a high functioning sociopath and asking these questions, and people are responding, means there's more to learn.

      Delete
    4. "Wouldn't it be beneficial if we could find a way to improve the quality of life for everyone involved? Including you and your friend?"

      As a utilitarian, that's obviously true.

      Basically, even when a psychopath likes you, the deal is, they don't connect with your subjective experience, in the sense of, "what does it feel like to be in a universe where this person does what they do?"

      E.g. I do something anti-social, because I want to. E.g. someone pissed me off, and I use my position at a university to make their life hell. I have a rationalization as to why it was OK; it was my job. My hands were tied & I had no choice.

      You come to me and say I did something wrong and cruel. You say it with a lot of emotion, because you are bothered at the thought of living in a universe where people like me do calculatedly cruel things. I might easily get bothered at you and say, "you know, I was going to go easy on him, but you've reminded me that I really need to follow the rules, so I'm going to cut him even less slack now."

      That happens partly because a psychopath rarely asks, "how do people think/feel when they see me do what I do?" He doesn't think to ask himself, "how does it feel for these people to be around me?" but if he does, in his head there's mostly a very long silence.

      I recently reflected on what it must be like for people to be around me. Outrage and the question, "why are there such evil people in this universe?" came to mind.

      It is no wonder normal people eventually wage campaigns of elimination against people that make them feel the universe is fundamentally broken; that's exactly what I'd do, and probably in a way that would frighten/disgust/shock you with its energy, focus, intention and creativity.

      Delete
    5. Clearly, we always have choices. Skid row drunks turn their lives around and get 30 years sober and find contentment in their lives.

      Our brains are truly wired differently. The research shows the pre-frontal cortex and amygdala operate differently for empaths/socios.

      Do you really think that means we can't co-exist in reasonable peace together? This is a very educational discussion, I'm learning a lot about the subject. It's hard to get inside your brain and understand, but I do want to understand. Understanding human nature, and how to function optimally, is important for all of us.

      I've had a few relationships with sociopaths in my life-time.(step-father, husband,friend) I loved them all. None of them are in my life any-more...but I'm not giving up hope in improving quality of life for all humans.

      Delete
    6. Given how humanity is, I don't see why you'd expect things to become so different. Evolution works. So given how big the non-sociopathic population is, the sociopaths have the number and qualities to fit with the majority.

      About all I can figure: identify sociopaths and force them into monasteries. Take them out of the rat race. Whetting their appetites, by having them in the rat race, is a mistake. Many of them will be happy to optimize within the constraints of the deal and make the most of it.

      Delete
    7. I agree with what your saying. Evolution is what it is. I've learned a lot from the sociopaths in my life, and I'm a much stronger person for it. I don't think I'll make the mistake again. In fact, it's interesting that I come to sociopath world web-site and get some of the best advice and insight from you!

      Thanks for helping me with this.

      Delete
    8. What you have said is true. I tried to communicate again in a 'logical' fashion. It didn't work. I'm giving up on this and focusing my energies elsewhere.

      Delete
    9. I can't believe how fucked up my brain is. Trying to get love and acceptance from a sociopath. Sometimes it sucks having a heart and not understanding how other people's brains operate. I can't WAIT until this fucking nightmare is over, and I don't care about this person anymore.(and I know that will happen, I've gotten over many other people I loved in my life, it just takes time.)

      Delete
  12. If we know them for years and we care, understand the disorder and able to pinpoint what's wrong, is there a way we can communicate to them our opinions and be understood, is there a way they would care about it and make them aware to a certain degree what needs to be changed, what they do wrong, at least change their behaviour if not their brain and be consistent? I am writing with this quote mind:

    'An important clinical feature of his disorder seemed, nevertheless, to lie in the specific andobdurate difficulty in finding out anything at all about less superficial attitudes or real inner purposes and meanings.'

    Is there anything that matters to them, any way to make them aware or any way they would repeatedly pay attention to something from a moral perspective, with no punishment attached at any end, other than simply knowing is not moral, not nice, just not human? Is there a way for them to 'learn' and be consistent or simply 'get it'?

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    1. In a word, no.

      I have been thinking about myself and my totally busted moral compass.

      E.g. I totally agree that stealing is wrong. But somehow, when I really want something, it just doesn't feel wrong at all.

      I know how Russell Williams was thinking, because I unfortunately have a bit of that too. I'm not the sort to get busted with 10,000 pairs of stolen underwear, but pretty close.

      I would guess he thought liberty was important and good - especially his liberty. Private property was important and good - especially his private property. And he would agree, if you are a criminal, and you violate the liberty of others, or take their stuff, you must be punished.

      But suppose he starts with peeping. That's not violating the liberty of anyone, and it isn't taking. You get to see hot women taking their clothes off and putting it on. Maybe you've got a wife and career, so you can't be sleeping around get caught; it would torpedo your career.

      So you peep. After a while, you are really addicted. Then your brain thinks - hey, you could steal her panties when she's away. That seems really thrilling, because it is so transgressive. There's not fear of getting busted and being found out. But there is the thrill.

      So you break in and steal the panties. The first time there's lots of fear and a huge thrill. You jack off in them a bunch. Then you get rid of them. Somehow they aren't arousing any more, and if your wife found them, you'd be in trouble.

      But then you've got a big problem: you are now addicted to stalking (observing) cute women that you can't approach, breaking into their homes and stealing their panties. You've got an insane craving to do that.

      You don't crave their money. You'll pass that right by when you are in their house. You just want the panties.

      Now, suppose you catch the guy. You sit him down. You ask, "is peeing wrong, is stealing wrong?" He'll say, "yes". If you ask him, how do you feel when you do it, he might say, "a bit of shame, mostly a giant thrill."

      In order for him to feel the moral weight of it, he'd have to think, "what would it be like to be this weak woman, stalked by a guy like me, and then have her stuff stolen? How would she feel?"

      The odds of him asking himself that question are very slight. And when he's craving a thrill, the odds that it would stop him are very, very low - because he isn't used to thinking at all about how he feels, much less how others feel when they see him doing the shit he does, nor does he feel bad imagining their anger or disgust (esp. if its due to him getting what he wants).

      There's a switch in his head: if it involves him getting what he wants, he sees things without objectivity.

      Delete
    2. Your question is a good one, and am looking forward to his responses.

      Delete
    3. I don't think it's that we don't understand morals, I at least am perfectly aware of them and understand them on an intellectual level, and I can see perfectly clearly the emotional importance some people feel they have. I just have my own set of rules that I think work better. Interesting question though, I don't know how many sociopaths or psychopaths would be interested in learning how to empathise for the purpose of narrowing their moral code, but I guess if you could convince some it might be worth a try....

      Delete
  13. Dr. Fallon:

    Do you have any advice for a sociopath currently in treatment?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Listen. Learn. Seek your higher Self. Are you there because your want to
      be there? Do you want something to change?

      Delete
  14. Dr. Fallon,

    Does having strong emotions about things and people that affect me rule me out as a sociopath?

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    Replies
    1. I'd say no. A guy like Fallon (or me) has feelings, particularly desire and anger/frustration.

      If you feel fear, that doesn't rule it out, because you might not think much of the fact that you don't fear bothering other people (that's just what you do).

      Fallon has had panic attacks. So have I, and another psychopath I know. One I know does reckless things like drive fast the wrong way down one-way streets, so you might think he's fearless - but he's had panic attacks about mundane things, so he'd describe himself as neurotic.

      Here's a question: is it easy for you to see people as stimulus-response machines? Is it easy for you to imagine that people don't have free will? Or do you think people must have souls - because how else could "meat" be alive and see, think and feel the way humans do? If you are in the people-as-machines camp, you might be a sociopath. If you think somehow there must be free will or souls, that's evidence you're normal.

      Delete
  15. interesting watch Jim Fallon: Exploring the mind of a killer. might be of interest to some.

    http://www.ted.com/talks/jim_fallon_exploring_the_mind_of_a_killer.html

    ReplyDelete
  16. I would like to know what Dr. Fallon thinks about someone who has had a reasonably good childhood & growing up with only empathetic peers and family around, yet chooses to be a serial killer with a normal, functional lifestyle, with absolutely no predisposed emotional triggers, such as abandonment, abuse neglect et cetera.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. very good question. maybe possibly just genetic wiring to the brain from our ancestors. id like to know this too. nature vs nuture.

      Delete
  17. Hello Dr. Fallon

    I recently read that high T scores (MBTI) are often indicative of psychopathy. Could you offer some reasons as to why? I'm confused.

    ReplyDelete

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