For years, neuroscientist James Fallon had been studying the brain scans of psychopathic murderers. As part of a separate study, he analyzed brain scans from members of his own family, including his own. One of them looked strikingly similar to the scans of psychopaths. Fallon assumed it has been misplaced. It hadn’t. The scan was his own.
At first, Fallon admits, he just blew off the new information as nothing more than a curiosity. He wasn’t worried. He knew a lot about psychopaths, and he was missing one of the defining characteristics — he was not a violent person and had no criminal record.
Eventually, though, he did want to know more. He researched his family, back through the generations, and discovered “at least two lines of killers and one line of wife abandoners.” In a TED talk, he decided to include some family history and his brain scan at the end. As soon as the talk was posted online, it went viral. A reporter from the Wall Street Journal came calling, and published a story titled, “What’s on Jim Fallon’s mind? A family secret that has been murder to figure out.” An episode of Criminal Minds was written based on the information in the talk, and Fallon got to guest star as himself, giving a lecture on the warrior gene and the orbital cortex of the brain.
The Psychopath Inside is Fallon’s account of his in-depth exploration of his own life and the meaning of that brain scan, along with a thoughtful and deeply-researched examination of what is known about psychopaths. Except for lengthy digressions in which Fallon explains brain structures and functions, genetics, drugs, and such, the book is riveting.
In his quest to understand himself better, Fallon did something that most people would not dare: He asked his close friends and family members to tell him exactly what they thought of him. He asked fellow professionals who had gotten to know him well, including a psychiatrist, to share their assessment of him. He also submitted to days of formal testing.
Across these many sources of feedback, there was a lot of consensus. What they all described were three of the four sets of characteristics commonly ascribed to psychopaths. Fallon exhibited “the superficiality, the coldness, and the unreliability — but not the antisocial tendencies.” He calls himself a Psychopath Lite or sometimes a “prosocial psychopath” because he finds socially acceptable ways of expressing his aggressive urges. However, I’m not persuaded that “prosocial” and “psychopath” belong together.
I was particularly interested in Fallon’s account of how other people reacted to him once it became public knowledge that he had the brain scan of a psychopath and some troubling family history, too. I also appreciated Chapter 1, “What Is a Psychopath?” (there is no such official psychiatric diagnosis; the closest thing is antisocial personality disorder), as well as the last two chapters, “Can You Change a Psychopath?” and “Why Do Psychopaths Exist?”
There were just a few aspects of the book that were disappointing. First, as an expert on psychopathy, Fallon surely knows how many of them are married with children. Yet over and over again, when he explains why, for so long, he never worried that he might be a psychopath, he points to the fact that he is married with kids. Second, perhaps related to the first, he occasionally discusses women — particularly single women — in demeaning ways. For example, in explaining that other people sometimes appreciate having a psychopath in their lives when they want to be lured into doing something reckless, he said this: “Maybe an old maid who’s been good all her life wants to have that one super-wild fling so she can feel she’s lived her life fully.” That made me wonder where his editor was, but maybe she deliberately let that sit on the page.
Overall, though, this book is one of a kind. No one has a story like James Fallon’s. I’ve been thinking about it ever since I started reading it, and I suspect it will stay with me for quite some time.
The Psychopath Inside: A Neuroscientist’s Personal Journey into the Dark Side of the Brain
Current, October 2013
Hardcover, 246 pages