Published November 25, 2013
A well-respected neuroscientist whose research into the biological underpinnings of psychopaths fatefully revealed -- of all things – that he is one.
Neuroscientist James Fallon recounts in his new book, “The Psychopath Inside,” the story of how the University of California, Irvine researcher and faculty member came to the startling conclusion in 2005 while reviewing PET scans of murderers, schizophrenics, depressives, along with other, normal brains.
Specifically, Fallon was looking at the scans to learn about the functionality of areas of the brain linked to empathy, morality and self-control. In psychopaths, he believed these areas exhibited little activity.
“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,” Fallon told Smithsonian Magazine. “I got to the bottom of the stack, and saw this scan that was obviously pathological.”
The scan, it turns out, was of his own brain.
Fallon double-checked his laboratory’s PET machine, but was unable to find any malfunctions.
“I’ve never killed anybody, or raped anyone,” Fallon, who earned a doctorate from the University of Illinois in 1975, told the magazine. “So the first thing I thought was that maybe my hypothesis was wrong, and that these brain areas are not reflective of psychopathy or murderous behavior.”
But then the pieces slowly began falling into place.
Fallon – a married father – is reportedly related to seven alleged murderers, including Lizzie Borden, tried and acquitted of killing her father and stepmother in Massachusetts in 1892.
NPR also reports one of Fallons’s great-grandfathers, Thomas Cornell, was hanged more than 300 years ago in the then-American colonies for murdering his mother. In a 2010 piece, Fallon's then-88-year-old mother, Jenny Fallon, recounted for the radio network how she had once asked her son at a family barbecue to look into the matter regarding Borden and Cornell.
"I said, 'Jim, why don't you find out about your father's relatives? I think there were some cuckoos back there," she reportedly said at the time.
And subsequent genetic testing supported his mother’s theory, as well as what the PET scan had shown. “I had all these high-risk alleles for aggression, violence and low empathy,” Fallon told Smithsonian.
“I’m obnoxiously competitive. I won’t let my grandchildren win games…and I do jerky things that piss people off,” he reportedly said. “But while I’m aggressive...my aggression is sublimated. I’d rather beat someone in an argument than beat them up.”
Fallon, who previously believed one’s genetics predominately determined their life path, now has reportedly changed his tune on the issue.
“I was loved, and that protected me,” he told Smithsonian of the nurturing childhood he received from his doting parents, while also crediting the role free will plays in overcoming biology.
“Since finding all this out and looking into it, I’ve made an effort to try to change my behavior,” Fallon reportedly said. “I’ve more consciously been doing things that are considered ‘the right thing to do,’ and thinking more about other people’s feelings… At the same time, I’m not doing this because I’m suddenly nice, I’m doing it because of pride -- because I want to show to everyone and myself that I can pull it off.”