• Jenny Brockie and Jim Fallon on the set of Insight in Sydney.
Are you a risk-taker, selfish, charming, narcissistic and manipulative? You might share some traits of a psychopath, but what makes you turn into one? Neuroscientist Jim Fallon delves his hidden psychopathy.
By
Anne Lin

Source:
3 Jun 2014 - 9:00 AM  UPDATED 6 Jun 2014 - 1:08 PM

 

Jim Fallon says he is a psychopath. The American neuroscientist has looked at the brain scans of serial killers and murderers and discovered they all had a common pattern of activity.

Later, by sheer accident while doing a study on Alzheimer's disease, he found that his own PET brain scan showed identical activity to that of a psychopath.

 

Fallon says the part of his brain associated with emotion, empathy and inhibition, is abnormal, and further testing of his genes revealed he had a series of "warrior genes".

"I had my genes tested and I had all these genetic markers associated with low emotional empathy and low anxiety, and also with high aggression and violence. I really had a tremendous number of them," he told Insight.

A Brown University study has found that people with the so-called warrior genes display higher levels of aggression in their behaviour. However, there is also a lot of controversy around warrior genes particularly because the gene's effects seem to vary depending on people's backgrounds.

 

Fallon says he has many psychopathic traits: he's a risk taker, selfish, charming, narcissistic, manipulative and feels no remorse.

He admits he's a bully, but attributes his "wonderful upbringing" as the reason why he did not grow to become a violent individual.

I had my genes tested and I had all these genetic markers associated with low emotional empathy and low anxiety, and also with high aggression and violence

"So [if] they're abused from birth up to two or three years old especially, by the time they hit adolescence they became really problem kids and then that's where many psychopaths were sort of generated. So you're not born a psychopath but kind of the gun is loaded with the genetics and with the brain pattern and then they're activated with the early abuse or abandonment or violence," he says.

What do the experts think?

Dr Eva Kimonis, a professor of developmental psychopathology, told Insight a brain scan wouldn't normally be used to diagnose psychopathy.

"I've also worked with adults who have psychopathy and adolescents with psychopathic traits and so the way that you would typically diagnose psychopathy is we wouldn't use a brain scan for a diagnosis. We would use the most commonly used tool is called the psychopathy check list," she said.

Dr Kimonis explained that participants would need to have a score of 30 out of 40 of the Hare Psychopathy Checklist, to be considered on the psychopathic range. She told Insight Fallon's score of 20, however, would not qualify him as a psychopath.

Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, an expert on emotional intelligence, is not convinced that Jim Fallon is a psychopath.  

"My point is first of all that scientists are trained to be sceptics … And so the first question I would say is about the reliability of the scan. You could get that result for a whole bunch of reasons," Simon said.

"You know, let's assume this brain scan is reliable and … to what extent is it specific to psychopaths or might I see the same pattern for let's say extroverts, or people with OCD?"

He told Insight many of the stories Fallon has shared reflected a personality type, which could describe a lot of people, and he hasn't heard anything to indicate that Fallon is a violent man.

"I'd be very happy to have him living next door," Professor Baron-Cohen says.

"Psychiatry can be a lot about opinion rather than sort of factual," he says, and is quite sceptical about psychiatric diagnoses in general.

Is he or isn't he?

Jim Fallon's claims are the focus of his TED talk and now his book, but what if the diagnosis is wrong? The married father of three told Insight he'll be "absolutely happy" with whatever outcome.

"The first thing is, I have never thought I was a psychopath. So I kind of came kicking and screaming from people, professionals and people close to me. So I resisted this first of all, it's not something I want to be really at all."

"Well I didn't diagnose me … It's psychiatrists who said I'm borderline pro social. So I think it would be probably a relief and it would be a relief to my grandchildren I think and people around me," he said.

Professor Baron-Cohen says what the discussion has pointed out for him is the difficulty in diagnosis because anyone could exhibit psychopathic behaviour but it may not mean that they are a psychopath.

"To be fair to Jim, he's talking about traits rather than diagnosis and traits are common in the population. We all have autistic traits, we all have psychopathic traits … and a lot of these conditions that we're talking about do lie on a spectrum.

"And in a way what Jim is doing for us is kind of highlighting the fact you can have partial syndromes, you can be borderline … which is somewhere between normality and needing a diagnosis. And I think that's kind of been a very refreshing part of this conversation."

 

Jim Fallon will be a Twitter guest during Insight's episode on "What Makes a Psychopath". Jim Fallon faces questions from world experts in psychopathy, host Jenny Brockie and Insight's studio audience to discuss his self-diagnosis and to broadly discuss empathy (or lack of it).