Many neuroscientists have been howling about the media coverage surrounding a new book written by UC Irvine Professor Emeritus, Dr. James H. Fallon. This is because unbeknownst to himself for 58 years (or apparently to anyone else, for that matter), he was secretly a psychopath. How did he finally discover this? Did he complete the Psychopathy Checklist and score over 30?
Instead, he diagnosed himself as a psychopath on the basis of his PET scan.
Compared to a control brain (top), neuroscientist James Fallon’s brain (bottom) shows significantly decreased activity in areas of the frontal lobe linked to empathy and morality—anatomical patterns that have been linked with psychopathic behavior. Image via James Fallon in The Smithsonian.
This is a case of reverse inference, assuming that a certain pattern of brain activity indicates a particular behavioral state (or in this case, a specific psychiatric diagnosis). While it may be true at the group level that activity in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex is decreased in psychopaths, it's not possible to diagnose an individual on this basis (at least not with our current state of knowledge).
In fact, Fallon himself initially doubted the ugly possibility that he's lacking in empathy, morality and self-control:
In [his book], Fallon seeks to reconcile how he—a happily married family man—could demonstrate the same anatomical patterns that marked the minds of serial killers.
“I’ve never killed anybody, or raped anyone,” he says. “So the first thing I thought was that maybe my hypothesis was wrong, and that these brain areas are not reflective of psychopathy or murderous behavior.”
Not with certainty, they're not. The Smithsonian article continues:
Eventually, based on further neurological and behavioral research into psychopathy, he decided he was indeed a psychopath—just a relatively good kind, what he and others call a “pro-social psychopath,” someone who has difficulty feeling true empathy for others but still keeps his behavior roughly within socially-acceptable bounds.
A "prosocial psychopath"? Isn't this an oxymoron? Aren't psychopaths antisocial by definition? Eventually, he came to doubt the classification scheme. Psychopathy doesn't appear in the DSM...
...in part because it encompasses such a wide range of symptoms. Not all psychopaths kill; some, like Fallon, exhibit other sorts of psychopathic behavior.
“I’m obnoxiously competitive. I won’t let my grandchildren win games. I’m kind of an asshole, and I do jerky things that piss people off,” he says. “But while I’m aggressive, but my aggression is sublimated. I’d rather beat someone in an argument than beat them up.”
This is psychopathy??
(Perhaps) in response to a snarky query on Twitter ("There goes Hare's PCL" [to paraphrase]), Dr. Fallon noted:
Tough call because my early behaviors would have scored 1s (on 0-2 scaling) on several of the crime/aspd traits, but different era so got 0s
— James H Fallon (@jameshfallon) November 24, 2013
But he looks like such a genial fellow!
Taking a quick look inside The Psychopath Inside (p. 26), we learn that Fallon viewed himself as a "nice, regular guy" who was popular and able to form close friendships with women.1 Should we rely on his brain scan, or on his behavior, when applying such a stigmatizing label?
Confessions of an Extremely Antisocial Female Psychopath
Another book published this year would make an interesting pairing with Fallon's personal discovery neuroscience / memoir: Confessions of a Sociopath, by the anonymous "M. E. Thomas". If you want narcissistic antisocial [but nonviolent] braggadocio, this is the book for you.2 For starters, the author is female, placing her in the minority of those with antisocial personality disorder. She's also a Mormon law professor in California.
"Ms. Thomas" wears the stigmatized behaviors as a badge of pride, although she erroneously calls herself a "sociopath" (which doesn't exist as a diagnostic label). But what do I know? She's SO brilliant – she passed the bar exam without even studying (while everyone else was crying):
I loved getting high marks in school; it meant I could get away with things other students couldn't. When I was young, what thrilled me was the risk of figuring out just how little I could study and still pull off the A. It was the same for being an attorney. During the California bar exam, people were crying from the stress. The convention center where the exam took place looked like a disaster relief center; people made desperate attempts to recall everything they had memorized over the prior eight weeks—weeks that I spent vacationing in Mexico. Despite being woefully ill-prepared by many standards, I was able to maintain calm and focus enough to maximize the knowledge I did have. I passed while others failed.
And she's oh so charming!
You would like me if you met me. I have the kind of smile that is common among television show characters and rare in real life, perfect in its sparkly teeth dimensions and ability to express pleasant invitation. I'm the sort of date you would love to take to your ex's wedding—fun, exciting, the perfect office escort. And I'm just the right amount of successful so that your parents would be thrilled if you brought me home.
But the best take on the book comes from Patrick Bateman, who reviews it for Slate:
I take the elevator up to my apartment and wash my hands and sit in my cream leather chair and chase an Adderall with a J&B and read the book in one sitting. It begins with a psychological evaluation that describes M.E. Thomas as a “prototypical psychopathic personality” manifesting “a ruthless and calculating attitude toward social and interpersonal relationships, and a relative immunity to experiencing negative emotions.” ...
. . .
...She’s into “the fine art of ruining people,” according to the title of Chapter 7. She seduces with charisma, and she cunningly covers her hollowness with superficial charm. She’s a “Nietzschean machine.”
And she violates social norms like it’s her job. Emotionally she takes no prisoners: The high school teacher she falsely accuses of harassment, the friends whose boyfriends she sleeps with just because she can, the colleagues she mind-fucks—they’re all just roadkill...
I'd much rather read Fallon's memoir. He sounds like an upstanding and sympathetic guy, despite the fact that he's related to Lizzy Borden.
The Disconnection of Psychopaths
Born This Way?
I Feel Your Pain... and I Enjoy It
Can Brain Activity Predict Criminal Reoffending?
Are Cognitive Factors Related to Criminal Reoffending?
"None of us are saints"
The Stylized Neuroscience of Psychopaths
1 Interestingly, on page 28 we learn that he developed OCD in junior high, in particular an obsession with Catholicism and morality.
2 Confessions of a Glib Blogger: I haven't read either book.
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