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The scientist who saw a brain scan and discovered he was a psychopath
Professor James Fallon was scanning EEG scans of psychopathic killers, including one paedophile serving 1,700 years for a grisly series of murders. The brains of such killers have ‘marks’, four abnormalities clearly visible on an electrocardiogram scan – and Fallon believed that these distinctive ‘flaws’ might mean such people were born to kill.
Fallon leafed through 70 EEG scans of convicted criminals. A particular gene, detected in a separate scan, also seemed to be closely associated with violent, psychopathic behaviour.
The scan showed all the ‘markers’ of a classic psychopath. But it was Fallon’s own brain – included in the study as a comparison. He double checked, and found he had the gene, too.
Fallon is not a psychopath – or at least, he doesn’t think so. The discovery shook up his ideas about behaviour profoundly, he said.
“I am a successful happily married man who married my childhood sweetheat and have a fully functioning family of three kids and five grandchildren,” Fallon says.
So, are you a psychopath?
You don’t have to be Hannibal Lecter to be a psychopath – in fact, you can find out in five minutes whether you have some (or all) of the traits that make for a killer (or business leader). This test was designed by an Oxford University psychiatrist.
Psychopaths are scary – but sociopaths can be even scarier. Psychopaths are given to impulsive, risky behaviour – the reason up to 15% of the prison population is thought to be psychopaths – while sociopaths can plan crimes for years, and like psychopaths, are unlikely to feel any remorse afterward.
Books such as Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work, by psychiatrist Robert Hare, have inspired a huge amount of water cooler conversation – by pointing out that among business leaders, rates of psychopathy are triple those in society at large. Overconfidence? Lying? A complete lack of emotions? Sound familiar? CNN and Hare devised a test for your boss here.
In Albert Hitchcock’s Psycho 1960, killer Norman Bates’s split personality involves impersonating his mother – and while having the ‘psychopath gene’ won’t make you act like Anthony Perkins, it IS passed from mother to son. Fallon has tested his own family, he says, and says he found signs in himself, including the fact that he cheats at Scrabble with his own children, all under ten.
Can psychopaths be cured?
Some people believe so – including some psychopaths. ‘Four years later, with sessions no less frequent than once or twice a week, I came out of therapy unrecognizable from when I went into it. In the end, psychopaths need to be given that very thing everyone believes they lack for others, empathy,’ one psychopath said after treatment, talking to journalist Jon Ronson.
In prison, around 15% of people are psychopaths, according to Robert Hare – but the question of whether people are simply ‘born’ psychopaths remains controversial. Professor Fallon says he at first believed psychopaths are simply born, but now believes the answer is more complex. Psychology Today answers the question, ‘What is a Psychopath?’ here.
“I have met full-blown psychopaths who are out in society,” Fallon says. “I have met some truly dangerous ones – the top being a paedophile rapist in solitary, doing 1,700 years in the joint.”
Fallon recommends the more advanced, newer online ‘tests’, “These can give a good ballpark sense for those curious if they may have such traits – if done by yourself, or someone close and honest. Try out an online Psychopathic Personality Inventory test.”
There are a huge amount of these to try- because so far, most of the people who have been tested are full-blown psychopaths, after arrest. Is there a sliding scale? This detailed test might help you understand – and help science too.