Beating the Psychopathic Brain? It's up to Mom and Dad

Joseph Stromberg's recent piece for Sminthsonian.com, "The Neuroscientist Who Discovered He Was a Psychopath," highlights the tricky connections among the brain, environment, and behavior.

Quick Summary

As Stromberg reports, neuroscientist (not talk-show host) James Fallon was examining PET scans for a project at UC Irvine when he noticed that his own scan was remarkably similar to the brain scans of serial killers. In fact, as Fallon himself recounts in his book, The Psychopath Inside, his brain showed all the markers for aggression and lack of empathy that separate psychopathic brains from normal ones.

Stromberg's piece and Fallon's book go on to speculate why Fallon--despite admitting to being "kind of an asshole" whose aggressive tendencies manifest in dominating others in intellectual arguments--has never killed or raped anyone. The answer, they think, is Fallon's rather good childhood. Raised by doting parents, Stromberg points out, Fallon received the love and attention necessary to provide the conscience his brain would indicate he lacks.

Rather than complicating the classic nature-nurture debate, this actually seems to jibe with the latest brain research. As Stromberg puts it:
This corresponds to recent research: 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.
And now that Fallon knows about these tendencies, Stromberg reports, he is even more actively suppressing his baser aggressive urges, because, well, that psychopathic brain of his really wants him to be right.

Commentary

There are some fascinating intersections here with John Ronson's The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry. In it, Ronson explores the possibilities that psychopaths walk among us as some of the top political leaders and CEOs throughout the world.

If Stromberg's case is not unique, there are likley millions of non-serial killers with psychopathic brains out there. The fact that a psychopathic brain also needs "environmental influences" to unlock true psychopathic tendencies would seem to explain people like the ruthless CEO Ronson profiles in his book. These highly successful individuals who display a lack of empathy may simply have the psychopath's brain without the psychopath's upbringing.

Still, I can't help but find the implied connection between a lack of empathy and success troubling. Whether they're murders or not, I still like to cling to the belief that mean people suck.

But what really bothers me about this whole thing is what it means for parenting. As if raising kids wasn't challenging enough, here's conclusive proof that the only difference between a serial killer and a neuroscientist is Mom and Dad.

Some publisher and pop-psychologist should jump on this and whip up the next big parenting book-- Cracking the Bad Seed: How to Raise a Successful Psychopath.
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