Dr. Fallon, a self-identified successful psychopath has written a book: ”The Psychopath Inside, A Neuroscientist’s Personal Journey into the Dark Side of the Brain.” We comment on this, and his interview with the Atlantic.
Dr. Fallon, a friend of the blog, has popped in here with comments from time to time (available until this blog was so spammed up that we had to delete all the comments. *Sigh*). We read everything he writes, and watch every time he’s on video. We find him a wildly productive living laboratory. To be able to cognitively analyze himself as he thinks and behaves psychopathically is extremely efficient. We don’t have to wait for that Iagoesque dénouement — Dr. Fallon makes it easy.
His new book tells his story – and what it’s like to be him. (We haven’t read the book but we will.* So this keeps in tradition of our book reviews of books we haven’t yet read but comment on anyway. Actually, we saw it on Audible, and so we’ll listen to it next time we drive down the 6+ hours down the 101 to SoCal.)
The story is compelling. Imagine you’re a neuroscientist studying the brain images of criminals, and you’re spending all day seeing things like this**:
Then, through a series of events, you realize the brain of your spouse or your father or your mother or your child or your boss also looks like this. You’d be alarmed, no?
Say it’s your own brain; you’re the neuroscientist. What’s your reaction?
Dr. Fallon, the neuroscientist in question, said what we’d expect a psychopath to say: “I don’t care.”
As it turns out, he tells us in the Atlantic interview, he doesn’t much care that he’s a psychopath. No particular remorse, no particular guilt. He does care, however, about being wrong. Wrong about what? Wrong in assuming his friends and family thought he was an OK guy. They didn’t. They told him he was psychopathic. Did he listen? No. So now he cares – he cares about proving them wrong. About proving that he actually is an OK guy.
So, he tells us, he’s working hard trying to change his behavior. Working at acting like a nice guy.
And this brings up a question explored the Atlantic interview: Can a psychopath change? Regrow their wiring — permanently? Or is it temporary, and people revert back to their old ways?
Dr. Fallon notes that childhood nurture has a greater role than he first thought, having the genes-make-the-man bias. Nevertheless, because he had a warm family upbringing, without abuse and malnutrition, he grew into a psychopath who could stay the straight and narrow pretty much. (He alludes to epigenetics.)
But after childhood, he says, everything is pretty much set. Dr. Fallon opines, in the Atlantic interview (emphasis added):
My bias is that even though I work in growth factors, plasticity, memory, and learning, I think the whole idea of plasticity in adults—or really after puberty—is so overblown. No one knows if the changes that have been shown are permanent and it doesn’t count if it’s only temporary. It’s like the Mozart Effect—sure, there are studies saying there is plasticity in the brain using a sound stimulation or electrical stimulation, but talk to this person in a year or two. Has anything really changed? An entire cottage industry was made from playing Mozart to pregnant women’s abdomens. That’s how the idea of plasticity gets out of hand. I think people can change if they devote their whole life to the one thing and stop all the other parts of their life, but that’s what people can’t do. You can have behavioral plasticity and maybe change behavior with parallel brain circuitry, but the number of times this happens is really rare.
So I really still doubt plasticity. I’m trying to do it by devoting myself to this one thing—to being a nice guy to the people that are close to me—but it’s a sort of game that I’m playing with myself because I don’t really believe it can be done, and it’s a challenge.
So, rewiring adult psychopath brains? Not gonna happen, according to Dr. Fallon. But, with extraordinary persistence, they can change behavior. In other words, acting.
This is totally consistent with our experience. The psychopaths we know that had court orders, rehab, anger management — whatever cognitive training, still couldn’t quite get it together. (Even with meditation, which they usually fake and then quit altogether.) Couple that with a short fuse (low frustrational tolerance), and aversion to delayed gratification — and change is just too tough. The more they put themselves through the motions, the more pissed off they get. So, while they fake their therapeutic activities, they occupied themselves with petty revenge against those who told them to shape up.
One of our former psychopathic frenemies (who is now dead) used to complain to us how we didn’t “appreciate” them. At the time, we had no clue what they were talking about – appreciate what?
The Jekyll and Hyde act. When they felt energetic, they’d put in the effort to give the performance of being a human — of acting normal (say, neurotypical for lack of a better word). Then, they’d get all tired, take off the human mask, revealing the scaly, neck-thrashing, forked tongue-flicking reptile. And so the expected “appreciation” was for their “human” act. We forced them to act that human, they would think, and but for our deviousness and unrealistic demands, they’d be living the good life. Psychopath logic.
So, even if you can identify psychopaths upfront, telling them to change is like telling a snake not to be snakey. Yeah, biology.
* As an aside, we tried to get a self-aware psychopath frenemy to write a book (before they died). This person acted as our tour guide through the psychopathic way of thinking in 2002-2003, when there wasn’t a lot in the published literature about high functioning psychopathy. We thought that the help given to us should be shared, when so many message boards (mostly borderline-personality type discussions) filled with people looking for answers in dealing with their disordered loved ones. So, 10+ years on, it’s being discussed mainstream. We think that’s progress.
** The image is from the Atlantic, we hope they don’t sue us for using it. We assume it is a photo from Dr. Fallon’s data that is a photo from an fMRI machine, not rising to the level of authorship.