‘The Psychopath Inside’ – The Neuroscientist that discovers that he has the brain of a psychopath
Within the field of modern psychiatry, antisocial personality disorder (ASPD) is marked by signs of severe manipulative behavior and a lack of empathic concern, guilt and remorsefulness. In this context, the term ‘anti-social’ refers to the violation of social rules and norms, as individuals diagnosed with this disorder commonly exhibit socially irresponsible and reckless behaviors, frequently violate the law and have a general disregard towards security and personal accountability. Additional symptoms characteristic of ASPD include frequent lying, impulsivity, a lack of affective relationships, pathologic egocentricity and the inability to understand the difference between right and wrong (Lindberg, 2019).
Similar to other mental disorders, ASPD is a spectrum varying in the severity of its symptoms. Psychopathy is considered to be a severe class of ASPD and is characterized by an accumulation of maladaptive and dysfunctional personality traits. Interestingly enough, only one-third of ASPD patients fulfil the criteria for psychopathy. Regarding the neurobiological basis of psychopathy, neuroscientists have determined that decreased activity within the prefrontal cortex, specifically the ventromedial and anterior cingulate areas, which are involved in social and emotional decision-making processes, seem to be disrupted in psychopathic patients (Koenigs, 2012).
While searching for further information regarding the symptomology of psychopathy, I came across a fascinating article discussing the life of a neuroscientist by the name of James Fallon who coincidentally discovered that he himself has the brain of a psychopath. While examining brain scans of criminals to look for any abnormal patterns linked to psychopathy, Fallon discovered that his own brain scan matched the ones of the psychopathic patients, displaying a decreased neural activity in specific regions within the frontal and temporal lobes which are associated with “empathy, morality and self-control” (Stromberg, 2013). In his book ‘The Psychopath Inside: A Neuroscientist´s Personal Journey Into the Dark Side of the Brain’, Fallon seeks to find an explanation for how he, being a successful neuroscientist and happily married husband, could display similar brain activation patterns which have been previously observed in some of the most notorious criminals alive.
After further research into psychopathy and a substantial analysis of his past interpersonal relationships and childhood, Fallon has determined that he is a so-called “prosocial psychopath”, a person who generally lacks empathic concern for other people but does not express socially deviant behaviors. For someone who was once a self-appointed biological determinist, Fallon has reconsidered his beliefs and now accepts the importance of environmental influences on mental development and behavior. While many serial killers have been reported to be victims of child abuse, neglect and bullying at the hands of their own parents and peers, Fallon has had a joyful childhood with loving parents, which prevented him from developing further psychopathic tendencies. Therefore, he claims that his happy and stable childhood has protected him from spiralling down a darker path in life.
I was immediately intrigued while reading the story of James Fallon and how he has come to terms with his ‘diagnosis’ as a psychopath. Whilst other people might prefer to hide their diagnosis due to fear of social rejection and judgement, Fallon has publicized his findings, which has truly helped me understand more about psychopathy, the differences in the classifications and severity as well as the causes of this personality disorder.
Gong, X., Brazil, I. A., Chang, L. J., & Sanfey, A. G. (2019). Psychopathic traits are related to diminished guilt aversion and reduced trustworthiness during social decision-making. Scientific Reports, 9(1). doi:10.1038/s41598-019-43727-0
Koenigs, M. (2012). The role of prefrontal cortex in psychopathy. Reviews in the Neurosciences, 23(3). doi:10.1515/revneuro-2012-0036
Lindberg, S. (2019, January 9). Psychopath: Meaning, signs, and vs. sociopath. Healthline. Healthline Media. https://www.healthline.com/health/psychopath. Accessed 23 October 2021
Stromberg, J. (2013, November 22). The Neuroscientist Who Discovered That He Was A Psychopath. Smithsonian.
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