There’s a cliché that psychology students will self-diagnose or diagnose their friends with whatever they’re currently studying. Usually they’re woefully incorrect about their housemate’s narcissism or their own OCD, but every now and then people will research something that sometimes becomes altogether too personal.
James Fallon is one of those people. Fallon studied the biological basis of behaviour and became interested in criminals and more precisely in sociopathic/psychopathic killers. He was one of the first to look for a biological difference between these killers and normal people and his research identified a number of interesting areas.
For one, psychopathy seemed to be partly genetic; he found 12 genes that were linked to aggression and violence. One, MAO A or monoamine oxidase A, regulates serotonin, a ‘happy’ chemical in your brain. It was found that a lot of the killers had altered MAO A genes that made them more resistant to serotonin.
It was found that a lot of the killers had altered MAO A genes that made them more resistant to serotonin.
As well as the genetic differences there were also differences in the brains of the killers. Using PET (Positron Emission Tomography) imaging, Fallon was able to see which parts of the killer’s brains were active and, more importantly, which weren’t. It turned out a lot of the psychopathic killers had very little activity in the orbitofrontal cortex. This area is believed to be involved in empathy and decisions, and is believed to exert control over the amygdala, which is often seen as a source of aggression, violence and impulsiveness. In these killers there was nothing stopping the amygdala from controlling this behaviour.
Upon hearing about his research, his family mentioned to Fallon that they themselves were related to serial killers, allegedly including Lizzie Borden (an American woman who was tried and acquitted for the axe murders of her father and stepmother in Massachusetts in 1892).
Having just learned psychopathy was hereditary, Fallon took scans and blood samples he’d collected from his family for Alzheimer’s research and tested them for his new found psychopathy-markers. It turns out there was a single member of his family that had both the altered MAO A gene, a couple of other genetic markers and an inactive orbitofrontal cortex – himself.
Social problems, such as a problematic childhood for example, seems to contribute far more to the likelihood of people becoming serial killers.
Fallon claims he’s not a murderer, which is probably true. Most sociopaths don’t murder people, and in fact many tend to become very successful. About 1% of the population are sociopathic which increases to 4% in CEOs. It seems this is often the case of nurture beating out nature. Social problems, such as a problematic childhood for example, seems to contribute far more to the likelihood of people becoming serial killers than their genetic disposition or brain abnormality.
So the next time your psychology friend starts noticing what they’re studying in you, perhaps they’re actually on to something. Who knows, maybe you’re destined to be a future CEO.
Image: Andreas Billman