“We’ve always known you’re kind of a sociopath.”
James Fallon is relatively unassuming guy. He’s charming. He was voted the class clown in highschool, and went on his first date when he was 12 years old. That girl went on to become his wife. Fallon, a neuroscientist of 40 years, is the last person you would expect to have the brain of a psychopathic killer, except- he does.
Fallon’s usual area of neuroscience expertise was chemical connections of the brain and adult stem cell research. That is, until some of his colleagues, who worked in psychology and radiology introduced him to a new technology. The PET scan. (It was the 1990s). Fallon described the machine as, “a candy dispenser… It was love at first sight.’
Fallon began developing studies on consciousness, memory, addiction and schizophrenia. That is, until the day the SWAT team arrived with a bus load of serial killers.
After a few months of studying the brains of serial killers, Fallon began to notice a pattern. Different areas of the brain were showing abnormalities in different people. He could identify the ‘normal’ brains easily. But there was a whole other group whose brains showed many different signs of damage and they all had one thing in common: They showed damage in two specific parts of the brain- the orbital cortex and the front of the temporal lobe.
“It made sense,” said Fallon, “because one is the animal instinct part of your brain… and the other is where your ethics and morality are thought to be processed…The balance was off.”
Fallon spent the next few years developing his theory, as a bit of a side project to his professional work. He was undertaking a study into hereditary alzheimers. His wife’s family was prone to the disease, and she had lost both her parents. So Fallon suggested the family submit themselves to testing. It was meant to be an exercise that would put their minds at ease.
“I was going through the pile of my family’s pet scans. And as I was going through I was really, very much relieved, as everyone was normal… And [then] I got to one on the bottom. And I thought it was in the wrong pile, because I also had all these killers’ brains in another pile on the desk. And I said, ‘I’ve mixed them up.’”
“I looked at it, and it looked like the worst case of these psychopathic killers’ brains… And I looked down, and it was… me.”
When Fallon told this story at The Moth, the audience laughed. Albeit uncomfortably, because it’s kind of funny. But then also, really not. This man has dedicated years of his professional life researching, trying to prove that these signs MEAN something. And now he has identified them in himself.
Fallon claims he was the ultimate goody-two-shoes throughout his childhood, and was “hyper religious.” He reflected on his life so far, and the new information about his brain he had just received and decided to laugh it off. “I wasn’t in jail… I didn’t kill anybody.”
But then he was at a family BBQ. Fallon’s mother came over and pulled him aside. She had heard about the talks he had been giving on serial killers’ brains.
And his mother encouraged him to “check your father’s family out.”
It turns out, Fallon’s paternal ancestors, the Cornells, were notorious. Thomas Cornell Junior committed the first recorded crime of matricide in the US, killing his mother Rebecca in the 1600s. In the same line of descendants, there were six murderers.
You can watch Fallon’s TedTalk here (post continues after video):
Understandably, Fallon felt as though he had something hanging over him. He had learned something about himself and his family that he could not un-know. So to put his mind at ease, he dug even further. What he found did not help the situation. “In my own DNA I had all the high risk [genes] for aggression and violence.” Along with this, he noted an absence of bonding capabilities, “cuddling hormones” as he called them.
“So the next mistake I made,” says Fallon, “Is I went around asking everybody what they thought of me.”
He went on to ask his wife, his kids, friends, grandkids and professional colleagues- ‘What do you REALLY think of me?’ A very brave question for anyone to ask of those close to them, an even braver question when their response could make you further doubt your own sanity.
“We’ve always known you’re kind of a sociopath.”
“’Every one of them said you don’t connect to people, your kind of cold and your kind of superficially glib. You’re great at parties and you love strangers and world peace and hunger- Generally. But in terms of being the person really close to you, your mother, your wife… it ain’t such a fun ride,’” He told The Moth audience. “I was quite a disappointing person to be around.”
To find this out at 63 years old, Fallon was perplexed. He was told he was interesting, but not empathetic.
“After I heard all of this,” says Fallon, “ I didn’t care.”
But it did make Fallon think. Think about what being a psychopath means. What if society needs psychopaths? Could we function if our surgeons were sobbing on the table every time they made an incision? Do we want our armed forces to be soft, gentle and deep-feeling, or do we want them to protect us? Fallon felt, maybe there is a need for the psychopaths.
But he also began thinking about his friends and his family.
“I figured, just recently, maybe if I just acted the part, even if I don’t feel it at an emotional level… if I treated the people close to me with kind of caring,… go to all the funerals and weddings instead of the parties…
If I started doing those things maybe just acting them out would be a good place to start.”
Maybe we do need people with psychopathic tendencies- people who are cold and calculated. People who are charming and able to make decisions quickly. But maybe, those people aren’t always nice to be around. So right now, Fallon has decided to concentrate on being “a good companion and a good friend.”
You can listen to Fallon’s story from The Moth in full here.
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