A neuroscientist with a hint of a psychopath

Sunday, 9 December 2012 - 4:29am IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: dna
Internationally-acclaimed neuroscientist James Fallon, who is a professor of neurobiology at University of Irvine, California, spoke about how he discovered scans of his brain were remarkably similar to those of psychopaths.

When an internationally-acclaimed neuroscientist like James Fallon declares that he is a psychopath, you don’t argue. When he visited Mumbai recently, Fallon, who is a professor of neurobiology at University of Irvine, California, spoke about how he discovered scans of his brain were remarkably similar to those of psychopaths.

On the face of it, the 65-year-old professor looks every bit the respectable scientist that he is. But when his mother suggested he look up their family tree, Fallon discovered there’s a strong genetic tendency towards homicide. Ezra Cornell, Fallon’s uncle from the 17th century was hanged for murdering his mother, in what was possibly the first documented matricide in the US (it’s documented in the book Killed Strangely — The Death of Rebecca Cornell). Lizzi Borden of Massachusetts, who was sent to the gallows for killing her father and foster mother with an axe in the nineteenth century, is also related to Fallon. 

A few months after these revelations, Fallon, who has profiled over seventy criminals for the FBI, was mulling over some brain scans. He was labelling them to point out the traits of a serial killer.

“On studying my scans, I realised that there was a distinct black patch in the orbito frontal cortex in my brain, right behind the temple,” Fallon explained. “This pattern is noticed in brain scans of serial killers. However, brain patterns and genetic makeup are not enough to make anyone a psychopath. You need a third ingredient: abuse or violence in one's childhood. I had a very sheltered and a safe childhood. The traits exhibited in my brain although inched close to that of being a secondary psychopath.” 

Although secondary psychopaths do not exhibit criminal behavior, such people are excessively aggressive, hot-tempered and have trouble handling boredom. Fallon told DNA that he had spent most of his childhood on a farm and for years, he would deliberately goad a bull into chasing him, just for the sake of adrenaline rush. 

In the past, his risk-taking behaviour has even put the lives of his loved ones in danger. For example, under the pretext of holidaying at a wildlife sanctuary, he escorted his brother uphill to a cave in thick jungles of Kenya where cases of hemorrhagic fever due to the fatal Marburg virus are a common occurrence. “I never told my brother that we were taking the hike uphill only to test if one of us got afflicted by the fever,” confessed Fallon.

When his son was 16, Fallon made his son to come with him on a dangerous sea trout fishing trip in Kenya. His research has made him more sensitive to the impact his unusual behaviour has upon his family.

“When BBC was filming my story, my wife made a startling revelation. She said that I could be very hurtful and distant at times. Though it’s difficult for me because of the very nature of brain structure, I willfully make an effort to provide emotional warmth and love to my family. Nothing is stronger than the human will!” he said and gulped some cold beer.




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