The Scientist and the Psychopath

Jul 10, 2015
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GLYNN WASHINGTON, HOST:

Much love to the tin man for taking the mic. We do appreciate it. My name is Glynn Washington, and today we're going to kick this SNAP JUDGMENT episode off - the "Tin Man" episode. You start down the road from SNAP studios where our guest, Dr. James Fallon, studies some people who are missing some aspect of themselves, and he spoke to our own Julia DeWitt to tell his story.

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JAMES FALLON: Fair number of the cases - 'cause I didn't know going in, at all, what - who they were, anything - they were very violent murderers, and some were serial killers.

JULIA DEWITT, BYLINE: This is James Fallon.

FALLON: James Fallon, professor of psychiatry and human behavior at the University of California, Irvine School of Medicine, author of the book called "The Psychopath Inside." It has a longer title, but "The Psychopath Inside" will get you there.

DEWITT: James is a scientist who studies the brains of psychopaths. He lives on a cul-de-sac on the UC Irvine campus. He married his childhood sweetheart. When I got there, he was preparing to go to a hockey game with his son. The people he studies feel a million miles away from here. For legal reasons, James can't reveal any details about the psychopaths, but some of them were famous for how heinous their crimes were. James's job was to get inside the minds of these killers.

FALLON: I started receiving PET scans from the early-90s, and those included killers who were psychopaths. And so I looked at them and then took notes on what areas of the brain were kind of dysfunctional. Turns out that the psychopaths had this pattern and I went, oh, man. It was like this - you know, for a neuroanatomist like me, seeing patterns is everything. And so when I saw that I said oh, man, there's a pattern. And nobody had ever really talked about it.

DEWITT: Basically, what James saw were these big, dark spots in the brain - places where there was little or no activity. These were the areas where things like moral reasoning and impulse control come from - the place where we manage our most base instincts. There are also dark spots where empathy originates. That sad feeling you have when you see someone you love cry - psychopaths don't get that feeling. James studied these minds for years, piecing together this puzzle, finding patterns. Then, one day, James was at his desk in his office.

FALLON: I was sitting in my office at the medical school, and I was surrounded by piles of printouts, and the printouts were of different types of scans - all these analyses that I'd been looking at of murderers.

DEWITT: James had a lab of techs and students working with him on this. And on this day, one of them came to his office with a PET scan. The tech was confused about something. This brain was supposed to basically be a healthy brain. The scan should have been glowing with activity.

FALLON: They're colored. They're - you know, they have red and they have blue and they have yellow, they have green, and the buzzer went off, and I went oh, man. And I called in the technician - there were two of them - and I said, this came out of the scanner. It's in the wrong pile - it's obviously one of the murderers here.

DEWITT: The scan he had in his hands had all those big, telltale dark spots on it.

FALLON: And I told the technicians to check the machine and the providence of, you know, all the data as it got to me. I said this is obviously from the pile of these murderers or psychopaths. It looked exactly like it. It was just a pure case. I said, you've got to check this out because somebody's walking around in society who probably shouldn't be walking around - potentially a very dangerous person.

DEWITT: James peeled back the scan to find out who this person was.

FALLON: And I peeled back that last name, and it was my name.

DEWITT: The psychopathic brain belonged to James.

FALLON: And I was oh, ha - you know, that's - the joke is on me.

DEWITT: James had used himself as a control in another study he was doing about Alzheimer's. His brain was supposed to be one of the normal ones. James's first instinct was to assume the pattern he thought he found was wrong. His brain was normal, so if it had those dark spots, then those dark spots didn't mean what he thought they meant. After all, James was a family man and an esteemed scientist, not a psychopath.

FALLON: A basic part of being a - you know, a psychopath is you are a predator on other human beings. And that predation can take different forms. It can be by taking their life or sexually, you know, through rape and abuse and just using people and manipulating. They can ruin people's lives. And that predation is done without a sense of conscience.

DEWITT: There is no formal diagnosis of psychopath in the DSM. But up until that day in the lab, James was sure he knew one when he saw one.

FALLON: It's like art and pornography, you know, it's hard to exactly define but you - you know, you get a marlin on, and you know it's a - you know you have - you got a fish on. And, you know, it's like, exactly when do you know? Well, you know, at some point you know.

DEWITT: Unlike the guys he was studying, James didn't have a criminal record. He had no history of violence, and he certainly hadn't killed anyone.

FALLON: Told my wife - I said that's the damnedest thing. I said I was, you know, looking at these scans, and ours came back, and I said my scan looked just like one of these psychopathic killers. And she said something that was quite curious, I guess, at the time, even though I just laughed at that, too. She goes, it doesn't surprise me.

DEWITT: While I was interviewing James, his brother, Mark, walked into the house, so I asked him what he thought of the news that his brother might be a psychopath.

MARK: Well, it all started making sense.

DEWITT: To him, it also was no big surprise.

MARK: It's a game for him to manipulate a room and a situation. It was a game to him. And if you called him on it - and he would let - you'd see his eyes sparkle - and, you know, he knew that the game had played out. You never get a feeling that he's trying to hurt people. You know, people do get - they do get hurt and he just - he keeps moving on. And if he hears about it, many times he - you know, he can justify it, and he can explain it in a way that it sounds justified. But he's just too smart to - if you think you're going to beat him at his game, you know, forget it.

DEWITT: As James continued to poll his friends and family, he started to get feedback he'd never heard before. He was manipulative, they said. He looked out for himself first. If you're crying and you need someone to be feel bad with you, James definitely was not your guy. Everyone knew that.

FALLON: Normally when I'm hearing tragic stories and seeing terrible things, I - I'm not hit emotionally with it. But I'm interested in it, you see? It's an academic thing. I just don't feel what others feel, it appears. People just - it's not just a matter of not doing bad things it's - if you don't have the capacity to really give them love that they expect, that's - it's part of it - which I don't.

My daughter said the same thing. My wife said the same thing - you ain't there, man. Now, if you look at the picture behind me on the wall, what do you see? There's two people that are painted there. There's one over there, and then there's this one. And our one daughter, she painted that many, many years ago. And that's me, and it's this dark character. I mean, look at that thing. See, she's known all along, right?

DEWITT: And the other one is your wife?

FALLON: Wife, yeah.

DEWITT: And that one's more of, like, a - will you describe that one?

FALLON: 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?

DEWITT: 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.

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FALLON: 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.

DEWITT: 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?

FALLON: I said, let's go on a safari. 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.

DEWITT: 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.

FALLON: I said, what - you know, how does this - what do I do now? Now I had to deal with myself. I said, OK, if I'm doing this, I said how do I treat my wife? 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.

DEWITT: 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.

FALLON: 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? It's absolutely exhausting.

DEWITT: Are you still doing the good-guy thing now?

FALLON: I'm trying. Yeah, I try. I slip up every once in a while. I do. But I'm still trying. I got to, you know, right myself, say, OK - but absolutely exhausting.

DEWITT: 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.

FALLON: And I - in talking to this one psychiatrist, he goes, this is the problem. You don't care. 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?

DEWITT: 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.

FALLON: 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? I don't think about that.

DEWITT: 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.

FALLON: A long-term colleague of mine, who I was very close to for many, many years, he had a memorial. 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.

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WASHINGTON: Dr. 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." We're going to have a link at SNAPJUDGMENT.org. The original score for that piece was created by Leon Morimoto. It was produced by Julia DeWitt. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.