Neuroscientist James Fallon’s Work & Life Shed Light on How Psychopathic Killers are Made…and Perhaps Prevented
One of the most challenging and important questions in ponerology is whether conditions associated with reduced empathy and conscience, and thus with increased likelihood of harmful malicious and neglectful activity, are caused by nature (genes, biology, etc.) or nurture (environment, upbringing, etc.)
Most who work in the fields that study aspects of this question take the view that the answer involves some combination of the two.
But this still leaves us with another question. In what proportion do each of these factors contribute in which people?
One remarkable case offers some fascinating insight on the subject.
Dr. James Fallon
James Fallon, Ph.D. is a highly decorated neuroscientist and Professor Emeritus of Anatomy and Neurobiology at University of California, Irvine. Dr. Fallon has several areas of expertise. One is adult stem cells. Another is psychiatry. Specifically, he is interested in the relationships between brain imaging (he has served as Director of UC Irvine’s Human Brain Imaging Center), genetics and various psychiatric conditions, including schizophrenia, depression and addictions.
An Extraordinary Experiment
Aware of his specialties, for many years, Fallon’s colleagues have sent him brain images they wished to have him analyze.
At one point this interchange took the form of an experiment.
Colleagues sent him 70 MRI scans of brains belonging to people ranging from healthy to mentally ill. Included in the batch were scans of brains belonging to killers, including some notorious ones. But Fallon had no idea which scanned brain belonged to whom.
Nonetheless, he was able to identify differences in five of the scans so dramatic that he could recognize them as the markers of psychopathy. And it turned out that he was correct. The five scans on which he zeroed in actually were those from the brains of psychopathic serial killers.
Signs of the Psychopath’s Brain
- A lack of activity in the orbital cortex, the brain area just above the eyes, which he says is in the circuit coding for ethics, conscience and impulse control
- A lack of activity in the anterior part of the temporal cortex, where we find the amygdala, a structure deeply involved in processing emotion
- Underfunctioning in the narrow strip of limbic cortices that connect the orbital cortex with the amygdala, namely:
- The cingulate cortex, which codes for social cues
- The hippocampal area, which, along with the amygdala, codes for emotional memories
- The insula, which processes empathy and “gut feelings”
This makes sense. These areas are considered part of the limbic system, the brain complex primarily responsible for our emotional lives. When these areas are underactive or inactive, a person might feel driven – like many killers – to compensate by repeatedly pursuing extreme activities simply to feel satisfied and alive.
In addition to his study of killers’ brains, Fallon has also studied the genetics of aggression and violence.
Psychological traits are affected by multiple genes. And Fallon says that perhaps a dozen have been identified as high-risk, violence-related genes. These include genes affecting dopamine and norepinephrine neurotransmission and androgen (testosterone) receptors.
The most well-known of these violence-related genes is a particular version of the Monoamine Oxidase A (MAOA) gene. Because it was the first such gene discovered, it was labeled, and has become popularly known as, “the Warrior Gene,” although Fallon stresses that this nickname can be misleading since all of the various genes associated with violence and aggression could be considered, in a sense, warrior genes.
Most humans have an MAOA gene and it helps regulate serotonin, a neurotransmitter that Fallon says helps relax and calm us. But those with the “Warrior Gene” form of it receive too much serotonin during development in utero, which desensitizes the brain to its effects. That means that later in life, when serotonin would otherwise inhibit behavior, it is unable to do so, resulting in impulsivity and violence.
The MAOA gene is on the X chromosome. This has important implications for how its effects express themselves in males vs. females. Girls get an X chromosome from both their mother and father, so even if one parent passes along the “Warrior Gene” variant, they are likely to get a normally functional MAOA variant from the other parent that offsets its potentially dangerous consequences. But boys get only one X chromosome – the one passed down from their mother. If that X chromosome has the “Warrior” version of the MAOA gene, that will be the only version of it that the boy receives.
This means that violence related to the MAOA “Warrior Gene” is usually passed genetically from mother to son. Fallon believes it also explains why boys and men are much more likely to be very aggressive or psychopathic killers.
Moreover, Fallon says that the reduced empathy seen in psychopathy may be associated with the influence of low acting genes related to the hormones oxytocin and vasopressin.
Can Biology Alone Create a Psychopath?
So, putting this together, Fallon recognized patterns in both the brains and genetics of psychopathic killers.
- Loss of function in the orbital cortex, anterior temporal lobes and the strip of limbic cortices connecting the two
- Having one or more of several high-risk, violence-related genes (like the so-called “Warrior Gene”)
But a crucial question remained. Are these biological markers alone enough to create a psychopath?
Fallon suspected not. But little did he know that he would receive some validation for this suspicion from so close to home.
A Shocking Fallon Family Pattern is Revealed
Based on his work, Fallon was giving many presentations about psychopathic killers. His mother said that, since he was doing this, he should probably know about the release of a new book called Killed Strangely: The Death of Rebecca Cornell.
The Cornells, you see, were direct ancestors of Fallon’s father. One of them, for instance, was Ezra Cornell, the founder of Cornell University. But Killed Strangely is about another, more sinister Cornell: Thomas Cornell, who killed his mother, Rebecca, and was hanged for it in 1673, the first case of matricide, Fallon says, recorded in the new American colonies.
Investigating further, Fallon discovered that the rabbit hole went even deeper. There were actually seven murders committed by those within his father’s family line. This line also included Lizzie Borden, his cousin, who was controversially acquitted of killing her father and stepmother with an axe in 1892.
Testing Enlightens the Fallons
After learning of his family’s bloody history, James Fallon decided to have brain imaging – PET scans and EEG’s – as well as genetic analyses carried out on himself and nine family members, including his parents, wife and children, to see if any had the markings of killers.
- All of the images of the family members’ brains were normal when analyzed for markers of potential violence…except for the images of one, Fallon’s own. His scan looked identical to those of the serial killers he had studied, with a malfunctioning limbic system lacking activity in the orbital cortex, anterior temporal lobes and areas connecting them.
- The entire family exhibited a typical mix of genes related to aggression, impulsivity and other relevant traits…except one member. Fallon himself not only had high-risk genes associated with violence, but he had far more of them than many psychopaths and killers. In fact, he says, he had almost all of them.
His family’s reaction to these results is quite interesting:
His son said that he always knew there was something “off” about his father and that, at times, he had feared him because he is a “hothead” with all the traits you’d expect in a serial killer. He said this makes more sense now that he knows that his father has the brain and genetics of a psychopath.
Fallon’s wife said the results were surprising, yet not surprising because he is, in a way, two people, with a funny, gregarious side mixed with a standoffish side.
James Fallon himself does admit to some macabre interests, a predilection for risk-taking and a superficial charm, which you might see in psychopaths and murderers. And he also admits he may sometimes be drawn to behavior that he knows is wrong but “still doesn’t care.”
The Third Ingredient
But, however imperfect, James Fallon is not violent or a killer. And this has enormous implications.
How is it that, despite having so many biological markers for violence, Fallon ended up a scholar rather than an aggressor or even a murderer?
Fallon has come to believe that, in addition to particular brain and genetic patterns, there is a third ingredient involved in the development of a violent psychopath. The environment, he explains, can help determine whether violence-related genes and certain brain processes, such as those involving mirror neurons, are triggered towards aggression. Specifically, he believes that abuse – especially severe early childhood sexual, physical or emotional abuse – is instrumental in this process. And he also believes that the precise timing of when various factors come into play is critically important in determining whether one becomes a psychopath and, if so, exactly what type of psychopathological behavior is exhibited.
As for why he himself is not a violent man, Dr. Fallon credits his upbringing in a highly nurturing environment, in which he was not only not abused, but was showered with wonderfully loving family support.
Some of Dr. James Fallon’s Appearances
Fallon has spoken on these topics in a number of forums, including:
- This television interview
- A TED talk entitled “Jim Fallon: Exploring the mind of a killer”
Here, Fallon talks about his research and his story.
He also gives a brief synopsis of a talk he did in Israel about his theory of transgenerational, sex-linked violence in perpetually conflicted world regions. His theory is that severe trauma before the onset of puberty triggers violent expression in those with violence-related genes such as, for example, the “Warrior” version of the MAOA gene. When this happens frequently in an area, the environment becomes increasingly threatening, so aggressive men, capable of physical protection and more likely to carry these genes, become more and more attractive to females. In consequence, violence-related genes become relatively highly concentrated in the population’s gene pool, sparking a vicious cycle.
This theory is consistent with a similar, somewhat stunning, phenomenon that I discussed in my own writings on psychopathy.
- An episode of Reason TV called “Three Ingredients for Murder: Neuroscientist James Fallon on Psychopaths and Libertarians”
Here, in addition to sharing his story, Fallon discusses the implications of work like his for our views of free will and responsibility, as well as for our legal system, especially in regards to psychopaths. He also discusses how our increasing ability to recognize each person’s unique makeup will challenge our capacity for creating standards in public policy and drive us toward individualized medicine. And he explains why he is a libertarian and how that may correlate with the function and/or lack of function in certain brain areas.
- A September 2011 episode of the BBC program Horizon entitled “Are You Good or Evil?”
In these clips from the show, Fallon talks about his research on the brain scans of murderers, the tests carried out on him and his family and his discovery that his results showed the brain and genetic patterns seen in psychopathy.
The first video also contains a quote that I found very powerful which serves to crystallize Fallon’s study of killers:
It really indicated that there was a biological basis – a really hardcore brain basis – for this urge to kill.
The second video includes the comments about his personality attributed earlier to his son and his wife.
- A segment called “Confessions of a Pro-Social Psychopath” produced by the World Science Festival in conjunction with The Moth, a non-profit that promotes storytelling.
The title of this talk grabbed me because I had often wondered whether there could be “pro-social psychopaths,” but I had never heard the term used elsewhere. I also found this to be a nice overall telling of his story by Fallon.
Dr. Fallon also appeared on a November 18, 2009 episode of Criminal Minds, the CBS drama about FBI profilers. In the episode, which was based on his TED talk, he played himself giving a lecture about his theory of transgenerational violence in areas of conflict, which was mentioned earlier.
What Fallon May Tell Us About a Possible Future with Less Psychopaths and Killers
What are the implications of Fallon’s research and his story for society at large?
Well, there are some conditions for which we screen early in life. If we detect that a person has or is at risk for such a condition, we can then intervene in time to prevent or best manage it.
A good example is phenylketonuria (PKU). This is a genetic disorder in which an enzyme needed to properly metabolize a particular amino acid, phenylalanine, is rendered nonfunctional. As a result, a person with PKU who eats a normal diet can experience severe consequences including mental retardation.
Luckily, in most countries, newborns are screened for PKU. If it is detected, they can be put on a special diet in which phenylalanine is restricted and special supplements are provided. As a result, the person with PKU can live a normal, healthy life.
Fallon’s case raises the possibility that, as advocated by Adrian Raine, we may someday be able to screen children for a predisposition to psychopathy and, when they are identified as at-risk, intervene with special measures to prevent or best manage the development of violent or other dangerous propensities in at least some of them. Further research could be done to more specifically identify the types of measures that bring about the healthiest outcomes for such individuals and those around them. But it’s likely that these would include conscientious provision, throughout these youngsters’ upbringings, of the abundance of love and care for which Fallon credits his own nonviolent lifestyle.
In other words, we may someday see a future when all, or at least at-risk, families will be tested for the markers of violence just the way Fallon’s was so that those who do have the brains and genes we find in psychopaths can more often develop into, say, professors like James Fallon rather than killers like too many others – including some of those he has studied for a living and quite a few of his recent ancestors.
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