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A Neuroscientist's Personal Journey into the Dark Side of the Brain

by James Fallon

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 2013
ISBN: 978-1-59184-600-0
Publisher: Current

A neuropsychologist makes the shocking discovery that his brain scans are identical to those of serial killers.

In 2005, Fallon (Psychiatry and Human Behavior/Univ. of California, Irvine), a self-described “mechanistic, reductionist, genes-control-all scientist,” was studying the brains of criminal psychopaths when he found a scan of his own brain, which was in use as a control for a research study on Alzheimer's patients. To his surprise and disbelief, he noticed his scan shared identical features with those taken from actual psychopathic killers, which he was analyzing for a different project. Apparently, he “shared [with them] a rare and alarming pattern of low brain function in certain part of the frontal lobes—areas commonly associated with self-control and empathy.” At first, Fallon doubted the validity of his initial hypothesis that such a scan was a valid means of identifying criminals with psychopathic tendencies. He was a well-respected, happily married father of three well-loved children, and he had a thriving research and teaching career. His life belied the characteristics of the typical psychopath, who may be a “glib and disarmingly charming” risk-taker but is also coldhearted, manipulative and cruel. Fallon relates the painful story of how he came to recognize certain traits within himself that did not result in criminal or even immoral behavior but were nonetheless distressing to his friends and family. In the years following the first and subsequent similar scans, he explored his behavior and relationships more deeply and came to a sobering recognition that he was indeed lacking in empathy, “was superficial, grandiose, and deceitful” and had unwittingly hurt people close to him. Yet he had escaped becoming a criminal and instead was a “prosocial psychopath” whose adventurous risk-taking side benefitted society.

Absorbing, insightful and quirky.