The Scientist and the Sociopath
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His particular allele for a serotonin transporter protein present in the brain, for example, is believed to put him at higher risk for psychopathic tendencies. But further analysis has shown that it can affect the development of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex the area with characteristically low activity in psychopaths in complex ways: It can open up the region to be more significantly affected by environmental influences, and so a positive or negative childhood is especially pivotal in determining behavioral outcomes.
Subscribe or Give a Gift. Who is the New Jamestown Skeleton? Science Age of Humans. The Art of Secrets and Surveillance. At the Smithsonian Visit. Photos Submit to Our Contest. Photo of the Day. Subscribe Top Menu Current Issue. A giant killer hornet war is waged between two colonies, and the resources, territories, and survival of a new generation are at stake. Watch the battle unfold as these huge hornets risk their lives for their kingdoms. Comment on this Story. Well, it's light and bright and is a presence that's very benevolent.
This is a demonic character. So there are many things that, in retrospect, add up to all of this, especially with my older brothers and friends. I put them in lots of harm's way, you know? One of the best examples of this is when he exposed his brother to a cousin virus of Ebola. Not Mark, the brother we heard from earlier, but another one of his brothers. It's called the Marburg virus, and it's every bit as gross and terrible and tragic as Ebola. James was doing some research in Africa.
I was working at the University of Nairobi hospital. And a guy had come in there just recently bleeding out from every - you know, his ears and his eyes. And I knew where he got it. James suspected that it came from the bat dung in a cave on a nearby preserve. When his brother came to town to visit him, James thought where better to take him than to those caves? I said, let's go on a safari.
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I said, nobody goes here. And I know nobody goes there because of what happened. And then we went to the Kitum Caves where I thought probably it was there in the, you know, bat dung or something in the cave - walls of the caves - is where the virus was blatant. Turns out, that's true. But I brought him to the caves. We went in there, and it was - all these, you know, elephant carcasses, bats, millions of bats all around us.
And I just told him - I said, don't touch the ground. What James did not tell him was that if he did touch the ground, he might die after hemorrhaging from every orifice of his body. Once he got home, James's brother realized where he'd been, and their relationship has never been the same. But when before this didn't mean much to him, now James saw his behavior as psychopathic. So because he was a highly achieving person, the type that when he set goals he reached them, he set himself a particularly lofty new goal - to be a good guy. I said, what - you know, how does this - what do I do now?
Now I had to deal with myself. Because I - you know, she likes half of what I do and the other half she absolutely hates. Every day, all the interactions with her, without letting her know what was going on, I was - I just thought to myself, what would a good guy do here? It could be who gets to pour the wine first, but also, do I go to her aunt's funeral, you know? And after about a month of this and two months of this, I found out about hundreds of times a day I was doing - you know, in the interactions, I was doing the most selfish thing possible.
James's wife was surprised and happy to see her longtime husband doing nicer things. And she didn't even really care that he was just faking it. But while she was loving his new generosity and selflessness, James wasn't having nearly so much fun. It would just slow me down.
I wasn't so glib or smart or, like, da-da-da-da-da ph because I was thinking of this. When I actually thought, you know, how am I affecting this other person, and it was exhausting. And I said, well, it must be exhausting being, like, a regular, nice guy, you know? I slip up every once in a while. But I'm still trying. I got to, you know, right myself, say, OK - but absolutely exhausting.
While I listened to James talk, I felt an unexpected feeling come over me. That feeling was jealousy because here's the thing about being someone like James.
Manipulating situations to come out to your benefit or for your own entertainment, not caring about people's feelings, it may seem kind of monstrous. But caring, it's true; it takes up a lot of time and energy. Imagine for a second if you didn't care about your boss's disapproval. If someone's expecting you home tonight, what if his or her disappointment didn't scathe you? What would you do instead? You would do whatever you wanted, that's what. And if someone got mad at you, well, you wouldn't care about that either. But still, most of us, we do care because we have no other choice.
James, on the other hand, can choose. And I - in talking to this one psychiatrist, he goes, this is the problem. You really, really don't care. You know what you are, and you don't care. It's not a problem? I said, yeah, I really don't. At the end, I just didn't care. Maybe to some people, it would seem - this seems absurd, right?
I guess I'm just trying to wrap my head around the experience of hearing that and then getting to know it and also knowing - you know, people saying that you're not there, and especially the narcissism. Like, for example, I got worried that I was a narcissist the other day, so I went and took a narcissism test online. I scored very low. It's - like - it was a very stupid test.
But it - you know, I was just like, what if I'm selfish? And that was really scary to me. And maybe that's what people do. Regular people, they say, what am I doing now? Is this going to hurt this other person's feelings?
Getting Psychopaths to Empathize | The Scientist Magazine®
I don't think about that. James continues to try to emulate generosity and kindness today. And at least, when it comes to the small things, he's been successful at it. But he has a line in the sand that he will draw if the time ever comes - if ever making other people happy makes him less happy, that's it. The good-guy game is over. He may try to do the right thing, but at the end of the day, there's no cure for psychopathy.
A long-term colleague of mine, who I was very close to for many, many years, he had a memorial.
The Scientist And The Psychopath
And you had - it's a Saturday. And you have a choice between sitting there in a suit coat and tie and listening to a bunch of talks about somebody who's dead, OK? I just went down to Blackie's bar down in Newport Beach and had a couple of beers and watched some sorts. But I said the hell with it, you know? I'm not going to do it. I'll just do something else. And I'm smiling like I'm really happy about this, but it's just - I think it's so funny 'cause it's just like - why, you know - you just are - that's who you are.
It was just too much work on a hot day to do the right thing. And I - that's - so I went down where there was air conditioning, you know, and a couple of beers. James Fallon - he's written a book about his own experience as well as the science of the psychopathic mind. If you didn't catch the name earlier, it's called "The Psychopath Inside.
The Neuroscientist Who Discovered He Was a Psychopath
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