Neuroscientist James Fallon discusses how he came to discover, and how he’s learned to live with, the fact that he’s a borderline psychopath.
This is a memoir and it’s a mix of a personal story and what the science is, that is, the psychiatry and the genetics and the neuroscience behind what the subject is which is psychopathy. But it’s really a story about somebody, me, who at 60 finds out he’s not really who he thought he was all along in his whole life. And not until I had just by serendipity, by chance, started to run across biological evidence first from PET scans, positron emission tomography scans, that I was involved with — acted as a control in one study in Alzheimer’s disease and also had my genetics done. So it was just as a control and to compare to other people with Alzheimer’s. And so it was through that about, oh, seven years ago that I found out something very strange. And this something strange both in terms of my brain pattern and genetics happened to run, it intersected with another study I had been doing — a minor study on looking at PET scans and MRIs, another kind of brain scan, and SPEC scans of killers, really bad murderers.
And these are particularly bad hombres and some serial killers, et cetera. And I had looked at these and had been asked to analyze them over the years from the early 1990s onward. And about the same time, 2005, when I was doing my own scans for this Alzheimer’s study I had a whole group of these killers and also psychopaths and looked at a pattern. I said, “My God, there’s a pattern in the brain for these guys.” And so I started to talk about it, give talks and, you know, at academic institutions and psychiatry departments, law schools, et cetera, just to kind of vet the idea. But at the same time, I got this pile of scans back that included my own and these other controls. And I was looking through — I got to the last scan of that study of the Alzheimer’s and I looked at it and I asked my technician. I said, “You’ve got to check the machine because this is obviously one of the killers.” One of the murderers. It looked like really a severe case of brain activity loss in a psychopath.
And so when I ultimately they said, “No, this is part of — it’s in this control group.” And I had to tear back the name on it because I always do everything blind but this was like something’s really wrong. And it turned out to be my name. So it was like, you know, Gandalf shows up at the door and you’re it. So that started this whole trajectory. Now at first, I laughed at it and I just didn’t care. We were so busy working on the genetics of Alzheimer’s and also schizophrenia and I had just started an adult STEM cell company. And so I was so busy with stuff I kind of let it go for a couple of years really — about a year and a half. But then the genetics came back and I had all the genetic alleles, the forms of the genes that are associated with high aggression and violence, psychopathy, and a low kind of empathy, that intrapersonal emotional empathy. And low anxiety.
And when I got that back I started to take a little bit of note but I still didn’t care about it. And it wasn’t until I ended up giving a talk. I was asked to give a talk with the ex-prime minister of Oslo who had bipolar disorder. And so I went to Oslo to give a public talk with him, the clinician, on bipolar. You know, what’s the brain patterns. And I had to use my own example of how you do imaging genetics. Take imaging of the brain, genetics, put it together in a mathematical model and how we figure it out so it can be used for all sorts of psychiatry medicine. And in the audience were all these psychiatrists there and I went through my own pathologies if you will and near clinical syndromes and my genetics and my brain scan. And at the end, the head of the department there said, “You don’t even know this I bet but you’re bipolar first of all because you don’t have the kind of bipolar in the United States that they use, one of the kinds.” So this is interesting.
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Sean Fargo is the Founder of Mindfulness Exercises, a former Buddhist monk of 2 years, a trainer for the mindfulness program born at Google, an Integral Coach from New Ventures West, and an international mindfulness teacher trainer. He can be reached at [email protected]
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