James Fallon has the brain of a psychopath. But you wouldn’t know it from his behavior; Fallon is a loving family man with a successful career studying a range of human behavior, including the neurological correlates of psychopathy. After learning of his violent family history, he and his relatives underwent PET scans and genetic testing in search of possible inherited abnormalities. Everyone in Fallon’s family had the low-aggression variant of the MAO-A gene, important in regulating serotonin, and normal brain functioning – expect Fallon. He held up his results and was immediately alarmed. “I look just like one of those killers,” he exclaimed, “I have the pattern, the risky pattern.” Fallon’s brain has decreased activity in the orbitofrontal cortex, an area important for moral decision-making and impulse control. How is it that Fallon’s neurological and genetic proclivities for antisocial behavior have no observable influence, and what does this mean for the future of neurolaw?
Fallon’s case parallels findings from a 2009 study led by Diego Iacono, popularly referred to as the Nun Study. Looking at evidence of Alzheimer’s in the brains of elderly sisters, Iacono and his colleagues found that “there’s a special group of people who at autopsy have the same about of pathology in the brain, but for some reason don’t show any clinical manifestations of the disease.” By analyzing the diaries of nuns from their young adulthood, the researchers found that the asymptomatic individuals exhibited superior language abilities, conveying ideas and deeper reflections in their writings. Conclusion: Biology is not omnipotent. Early experiences in learning and communicating fortified the brain in ways powerful enough to overcome the expression of neurological degeneration in Alzheimer’s.
Numerous studies document the ways in which criminal psychopaths neurologically and behaviorally differ from control subjects, but relatively little attention has been paid to individuals, like Fallon, who are psychopaths only in biology, not behavior. In 2008, Mehmet Mahmut led a team to investigate this population and found that despite sharing the same neuropsychological profile as criminal psychopaths, non-criminal psychopaths are somehow protected from developing antisocial tendencies, such as emotional and financial havoc. They speculate that an individual’s upbringing, in particular the lack of parental attachments, may steer biological underpinnings.
Clearly, brain patterns and genetic makeup are not sufficient causal factors for psychopathy; experience shapes the expression of biology. So what does this mean for the courts? This research shows that individuals with similar neurological capacities can make different choices, undermining the idea that “my brain made me do it”. But if uncontrollable experiences (e.g. childhood neglect) are directing those choices, are they any less culpable? The issue of volitional control remains complicated in cases where a poor environment contributed to psychopathic actions, but do offer insight into prevention. Neurological abnormalities are not a condemnation to crime. By promoting positive activities and relationships for at-risk children in violent environments, we can help keep psychopathy a dormant trait. We need to focus on what Iacono admits we cannot see – “the connection between cognition and pathology.”
MAHMUT, M., HOMEWOOD, J., STEVENSON, R. (2008). The characteristics of non-criminals with high psychopathy traits: Are they similar to criminal psychopaths?. Journal of Research in Personality, 42(3), 679-692. DOI: 10.1016/j.jrp.2007.09.002