Neuroscientist who discovered brain patterns in cold-blooded killers accidentally found out he is a psychopath too – but he insists he’s a ‘nice’ one
- Dr James Fallon is a neuroscientist at the University of California, Irvine, and a psychopath
- He discovered a pattern in scans of psychopaths while studying murderers and serial killers in the 1980s
- Then he accidentally discovered his brain has the same patterns
Dr James Fallon’s ‘professional ADHD’ – as he calls it – led him to discover a pattern in the brains of psychopaths, and begin studying them.
Then he discovered he is a psychopath.
Dr Fallon is a neuroscientist at University of California, Irvine, where he studies how a number of conditions and diseases behave in the brain.
But in the 1980s, he happened to be studying the brains of killers – ones suspected to be psychopaths, using PET scans of their brains.
He also happened to decide to use scans of his family’s brains as the control group for what ‘normal’ brains look like, and included his own.
Among the pile of family scans was one that he was sure had been placed there incorrectly. Its activity patterns were all wrong for a normal person.
But they were identical to those of a psychopath.
Dr Fallon thought someone in his lab was playing a joke. They weren’t. He peeled back the piece of black tape keeping the scan anonymous – and found his own name.
Dr James Fallon is a neuroscientist who discovered brain traits that identify psychopaths, and discovered he is one in the process of his research
Only about one percent of the population are psychopaths, people who have little or no empathy or remorse.
They tend to be egotistical and lack inhibitions.
In other words, they do things like drive their kids into the African Sahara in the middle of the night without a guide to go pick up the skull of a freshly-killed crocodile, with more lurking in the water. Or steal cars in spite of an obsession with a religion that tells them ‘thou shalt not steal’ – and have nothing to say at Catholic Confession.
These are all things Dr Fallon has done, but never thought were particularly strange.
He also holds both a Master’s degree and PhD, has made a number of notable scientific discoveries, has been married for many years and has raised three children.
Dr Fallon is also the type of man who will recruit his family (and himself) to act as controls in a study that might well tell them if they have early signs of Alzheimer’s.
Even though his wife was ‘really cool about it,’ when he asked her how she felt about taking part in the study, Dr Fallon now admits ‘it was kind of a mistake.’
It’s also how he ended up seeing his own brain scan and recognizing all the hallmarks of psychopathy in it.
PET scans of most brains show blood flow and activity in the front orbital cortex of the prefrontal cortex (top two), but a psychopath’s has very little or no blood flow (bottom)
When he saw it, Dr Fallon said to the two technicians he was working with: ‘whoever this is shouldn’t be walking around in society, they’re a very dangerous person.’
But even then, he didn’t care – a phrase he says a lot, and that gives away his true nature.
He did mention it to his wife, however.
‘She said this very seriously, and I didn’t realize it at the time – she’s a very funny gal – she said “That doesn’t surprise me,”‘ Dr Fallon says.
‘There’s no psychopathy genes, but there are traits associated with them, traits that drive them… I had all the genetics.’
But he ‘blew it off,’ he says. ‘I said, “I know who am.”‘
It wasn’t until nearly 30 years later, in 2010, when a former Norwegian prime minister and some scientists turned drinking buddies for the evening told Dr Fallon they thought he might be a borderline psychopath that he decided to take it seriously.
When Dr Fallon underwent psychiatric and psychological analysis, the writing was on the wall.
‘The summary was, “here’s a patient who has all the urges, thoughts and temptations of a full-blown psychopath,” which is true,’ he says.
‘You don’t think, growing up that that the things you think are psychopathic, you don’t know…because what do you have to compare it to?’
But he isn’t what is called a ‘categorical’ psychopath. Dr Fallon is a ‘pro-social’ psychopath.
‘It doesn’t mean your a nice person, it means you have the skills to make people think you’re normal and OK and likable. People think you have charisma and it makes people attracted to you,’ he explains.
Others, those who are ‘categorical’, have antisocial and violent tendencies, have a far harder time hiding their psychopathy and functioning in society.
He credits the positive environment he grew up in and the influence of his family, full of good, smart people – especially his mother – with the skills that have helped him thrive.
‘I was looking at her, sitting out in the yard, on a three-legged stool, trimming the Rhododendrons, and I thought, “that’s it, she’s the third leg of the stool,”‘ recalls Dr Fallon.
‘I have the genes and the brain [of a psychopath] but she is the third leg,’ the reason that he is not dangerous to others, because a worse upbringing would have rounded out the three categories of risk factors for psychopathy.
‘I have all the biomarkers and traits of somebody who should be dangerous, but I’m not.’
Most of the time, that is.
Since learning of his psychopathy, Dr Fallon has tried to emulate his friends and family (pictured) to treat those in his life better and counteract his own disorder
‘I’m not dangerous to strangers, but I tend to be a little too much fun and I get people close to me into predicaments,’ he says.
That’s one of the tendencies of a psychopath, ‘playing with people just for your own thrills,’ he says, that Dr Fallon exhibits.
He name drops countries where his seemingly infinite list of remarkable stories (all true, he says, as he is ‘careful never to lie’) take place, and enjoys the attention it gets him, but it’s a different kind of pleasure than most people get from it.
‘At parties, my wife will be sitting there watching all these gals, young gals in their 20s and 30s, all over me and she’s sick of it – of course, who wants to put up with that sh** – but it’s a sort of manipulating,’ he says.
‘I don’t want their money or their sex. I want to own them, for a moment or an hour or two hours.
‘It’s a kind of manipulation to own somebody.’
But Dr Fallon says he doesn’t have the urge to kill or to rape, and that makes him a ‘lucky’ psychopath.
And since learning of his psychopathy, he’s ‘tried to use my own kind of narcissism’ to be a good psychopath too.
‘I think I can do anything I want – I can’t beat my own psychopathy, but I can, because I’m that good, I can use my own pathology to do it.’
So he tries to ‘mimic’ the behaviors of others and ‘do things like a normal roommate or husband or friend would do.’
His wife has noticed, too.
‘She said, “what has come over you, you’re really nice all of a sudden,”‘ he explains.
‘I said, “don’t take it too seriously, I’m doing an experiment.” She didn’t care, because I’m really treating her better, and I’m trying with others too.’
But there is one unexpected side effect to Dr Fallon’s experiment.
‘I found out I started sleeping more and more,’ he says.
‘It’s exhausting – it’s hard to be a nice person.’