Science and nature

The neuroscientist who found out he was a psychopath

Matt Cover

, Rare Staff

Posted on

Rare Take

Matt Cover

Hello, Clarice. - Matt

Talk about a bad day at work. Neuroscientists James Fallon was just plugging along, comparing brain scans of various lunatics, murderers, and other folks when he came across one that was obviously the brain of a psychopath: his own.

Fallon, who swears he’s never raped or killed anyone, was surprised to find out he had the potential to be an axe-wielding serial killer instead of the grouchy grandfather he claims to be.

From Smithsonian Magazine:

One afternoon in October 2005, neuroscientist James Fallon was looking at brain scans of serial killers. As part of a research project at UC Irvine, he was sifting through thousands of PET scans to find anatomical patterns in the brain that correlated with psychopathic tendencies in the real world.

“I was looking at many scans, scans of murderers mixed in with schizophrenics, depressives and other, normal brains,” he says. “Out of serendipity, I was also doing a study on Alzheimer’s and as part of that, had brain scans from me and everyone in my family right on my desk.”

“I got to the bottom of the stack, and saw this scan that was obviously pathological,” he says, noting that it showed low activity in certain areas of the frontal and temporal lobes linked to empathy, morality and self-control. Knowing that it belonged to a member of his family, Fallon checked his lab’s PET machine for an error (it was working perfectly fine) and then decided he simply had to break the blinding that prevented him from knowing whose brain was pictured. When he looked up the code, he was greeted by an unsettling revelation: the psychopathic brain pictured in the scan was his own.

Yikes. I’m sure his wife was just delighted to see him that evening. Still, the discovery has led Fallon to study the effects of good parenting on psychological development, crediting nurture for allowing him to be the kind of psychopath that doesn’t kill people.

Of course, it got worse for Fallon, who after some genetic testing found out he was a distant relative of Lizzie Borden, the infamous Massachusetts ax murderer. Still he and his wife aren’t concerned, saying that if Fallon hasn’t bludgeoned anyone to death with a mallet yet, he probably never will.

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