Saturday, October 18, 2014

A psychopath kisses and tells

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, psychology, neuroscience, psychopaths, memoirs

I find, looking back over earlier reviews, that I have a certain fascination with psychopathy and abnormal psychology in general. My prior reviews on the subject:

When a little craziness helps
Sing like a nightingale, sting like a scorpion
A pet to one, a monster to another
Broken brain, maimed mind

So how could I pass up a book by an eminent brain scientist who has discovered that he is a psychopath? He could have kept his silence, but perhaps his grandiose sense of self-worth overcame caution, so he has published The Psychopath Inside: A Neuroscientist's Personal Journey Into the Dark Side of the Brain. Just like the process of developing a relationship with a psychopath, I found that in the earlier parts of the book the author seemed normal enough. But as the narrative continued it became evident that Dr. James Fallon is far from normal.

Just nine years ago Dr. Fallon was comparing PET brain scans of incarcerated serial killers with scans of ordinary people. For the comparison he took PET scans of a set of "normal" people: his immediate family, including himself. It was pretty clear which scans belonged to the killers, as this image demonstrates.

Front is to the left, so the Prefrontal Cortex is seen to be comparatively silent in the brain of a psychopath. This area includes our "judgment center", and a lack of function here leads to poor judgment. There is also a total blank near the center of the brain, in an emotional center that is related to caring (As the author states late in the book, he realized that, while he could understand the pain some of his behavior had caused, he truly didn't care). After studying and comparing the brain scans, he was writing up his results when he realized that he seemed to have an extra scan. There was an extra killer's brain scan, or so he thought. He had already made his analysis on each coded scan, so he asked his fellow researcher to reveal the true name for the code on each scan. The extra "killer brain" was himself. As he tells us through the course of the book, he gradually came to know that he is truly a psychopath. Not a killer, but definitely a different sort of person than he had thought himself to be. A psychopath.

Somehow, he has had a successful academic career (he is now 66 and on the verge of retirement), has been married 44 years, and has raised three children (to tell the truth, his narrative makes clear that his faithful wife did most of their raising). He is well liked by colleagues, though he royally ticks some of them off at times.

This book is not about a psychopath, it is the memoir of a psychopath. He seems to have been extraordinarily lucky: his parents and close relatives loved him and cared for him. He eventually realized that they'd known he was somehow chilly inside, but resolved to love him the best they could anyway. It worked. Of four major areas in which a psychopath differs significantly from most folks, he is most "normal" in sociability. Where a criminal psychopath is antisocial and specifically hotheaded, delinquent, and prone to lawbreaking, he is more social, levelheaded, and generally prone to obey the law (though he tends to double park whenever he thinks he'll get away with it). He almost credits his family environment for keeping him from going totally off the rails, but not quite, probably because he lacks the mental machinery to credit environment in the first place.

For all his career he felt that our behavior and character are 80% genetic, or more, and at most 20% environmental. On the nature-nurture question, where most psychologists and neuroscientists favor close to a 50-50 mix, he was avidly pro-Nature. His journey of self-discovery amounted to a series of embarrassments to such a stance. Environment and experience has had a lot more to do with his development than he could admit at first, and he reluctantly acknowledges that later in the book. However, he also comes from a long line or two of fighters, having a few psychopathic killers in his ancestry (as detailed by two cousins devoted to genealogical study). He has the genes of a killer and the parents of a saint. The mix became extraordinary!

We read of his behavior after going to college, continuing almost to today, and find a certain persistent irresponsibility. It is almost a sure thing that, when he has a scheduled engagement, such as a funeral, conference meeting, marriage or graduation, there is a large chance that he won't go at all or will arrive late. Why? Because he got a better offer in the meantime. He doesn't seem to be a drunk, but prefers a rousing drinking party to any more sedate event, particularly if he has a chance to flirt. His family has simply become accustomed to this, and learned to work around it. Not so his colleagues, and after several had called him psychopathic to his face, he could no longer just blow it off and attribute it to their disappointment and anger. These are all respected scientists of the mind, after all. When such a one uses the word "psychopath", you'd do well to listen.

Listen he did, and thus this memoir. Yes, in many ways, his stellar upbringing must have made a dent in his irresponsible nature, and his wife is remarkably tolerant. But he can be a real jerk. What saves this narrative for me and enhances its value for us all, is that he doesn't descend into any "poor me" drivel. He does his best to tell his own story, warts and all, and to explain the best he knows how what it is like to be a psychopath among a population that he once thought he belonged to, but now knows differently. It is a remarkable tour de force.

I found two sections to be of particular value. A necessary fact is that in Western society 3% of men and 1% of women are psychopaths. Early on he discusses how certain populations might favor an increase in psychopathy. In a dangerous and chaotic environment, larger numbers of women will favor marriage, or at least partnering, with men who can protect them and their children. Psychopathic men thrive in such environments, and the genetic traits that favor psychopathy will thus increase the longer the troubles continue. Regions such as Kosovo and Somalia come to mind. Since young adult women outnumber men, a certain amount of polygamy, formal or not, will also result, but any women with psychopathic traits will also be more likely to survive and so the progeny of a smaller but still significant number of female psychopaths will also be retained in the gene pool.

Secondly, he also discusses whether there is a need for psychopaths even in a very civil society, and thus evolutionary pressure to produce them in some low proportion. We certainly have little "need" for murderous psychopaths. I suppose they make excellent executioners, but we put so few "death row" inmates to death these days, executioners are hardly needed.

One friend of mine is a policeman in Chester, Pennsylvania. The murder rate there is 0.1% yearly. That is 30 in a population of 30,000. Just to the south, Wilmington, Delaware has been called the most dangerous small city in America, yet its murder rate is one-third that in Chester, or about 0.036% yearly (26 out of 72,000). Why isn't Chester named the worst? It is too small! Less than 50,000 population.

The national average murder rate is 5 per 100,000, or 0.005%. Shakespearean London had twice that, and 4-5 centuries earlier, it was another two times higher at 0.02%. Thus, while Wilmington and Chester clearly are quite murderous, in the nation as a whole murder is only a fraction of the problem it was in Colonial times and earlier.

Progress requires a certain adventurousness, and also a feeling of self-rightness coupled with a lack of caring what others think. Perhaps in a younger America we needed psychopaths such as Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie and Col. George Custer. The kind of psychopaths we need today are more like Dr. Fallon: bold and fearless, with plenty of initiative, but at least amicable and definitely not murderous.

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