“Life as a non-violent psychopath”

That’s the title of a truly fascinating article in The Atlantic.  A neuroscientist, James Fallon, discovered that his brain patterns matched those of a psychopath – and learned that during his youth, some had considered him to be one.  The article is an extended interview about his book on the subject and what he’s learned.  Here’s an excerpt to whet your appetite.

While I was writing this book, my mother started to tell me more things about myself. She said she had never told me or my father how weird I was at certain points in my youth, even though I was a happy-go-lucky kind of kid. And as I was growing up, people all throughout my life said I could be some kind of gang leader or Mafioso don because of certain behavior. Some parents forbade their children from hanging out with me. They’d wonder how I turned out so well—a family guy, successful, professional, never been to jail and all that.

I asked everybody that I knew, including psychiatrists and geneticists that have known me for a long time, and knew my bad behavior, what they thought. They went through very specific things that I had done over the years and said, “That’s psychopathic.” I asked them why they didn’t tell me and they said, “We did tell you. We’ve all been telling you.” I argued that they had called me “crazy,” and they all said, “No. We said you’re psychopathic.”

I found out that I happened to have a series of genetic alleles, “warrior genes,” that had to do with serotonin and were thought to be at risk for aggression, violence, and low emotional and interpersonal empathy—if you’re raised in an abusive environment. But if you’re raised in a very positive environment, that can have the effect of offsetting the negative effects of some of the other genes.

I had some geneticists and psychiatrists who didn’t know me examine me independently, and look at the whole series of disorders I’ve had throughout my life. None of them have been severe; I’ve had the mild form of things like anxiety disorder and OCD, but it lined up with my genetics.

The scientists said, “For one, you might never have been born.” My mother had miscarried several times and there probably were some genetic errors. They also said that if I hadn’t been treated so well, I probably wouldn’t have made it out of being a teenager. I would have committed suicide or have gotten killed, because I would have been a violent guy.

There’s more at the link.

I find this particularly interesting because, during my many years serving as a part-time and then full-time prison chaplain, I had a great deal of contact with psychopathic personalities – some borderline, some all the way off the charts into bugnuts psychotic.  I’ve described some of them in my memoir of prison chaplaincy.  Here’s an extract describing a clinically diagnosed psychopath, from the chapter titled ‘Convicts’, in which I describe some of the prison inmates I’ve encountered.

Finally, let’s take Howard. He got drunk one night and began to smash the furniture and fittings in his uncle’s home. His uncle tried to stop him… a fatal mistake. Howard beat him until he collapsed, then for two days and nights drank himself into a stupor, periodically getting up to kick and stomp his uncle as he lay moaning on the floor. Howard eventually passed out. He was found next morning, unconscious at the table, with his uncle dead on the floor beside him. He’d been in enough trouble with the law on previous occasions that this crime earned him a life sentence without parole. He’s still a relatively young man, and still just as violent. He’s been known to get bombed out of his skull on prison hooch (of which more later). When he gets that way, everyone steers clear of him, even the prison ‘hard men’ — all except the reaction squad, who have to subdue him and put him in the Hole to sober up. He’s quite capable of killing anyone who crosses him.

Howard’s eyes scare me. They’re pitch-black and utterly lifeless. When one looks into them, one strives to detect a spark of life, of humanity, of the person inside the body… but it’s not there. I’ve never looked into the bottomless pits of Hell, but I’ve got a good idea what they must be like after working with Howard. He’s one of the few convicts who genuinely frightens me. I take care not to show it, but I also try to have support available if I’ve got to see him about something. He could snap at any moment (and has in the past). I want to make sure that if he does so while I’m around, I have the best possible chance of coming out of it relatively unscathed.

I’ve met far too many people like Howard for my peace of mind.  He’s by no means typical of all psychopaths, either.  They can be found in many shapes, sizes and forms – but they’re all equally dangerous once they’ve ‘gone off the deep end’, psychologically speaking.

I highly recommend the Atlantic’s article.  If you’ve ever wondered what makes a psychopath tick, it’ll give you some very useful answers.



  1. If you've ever wondered what makes a phsycopath tick'….
    Peter, I have a feeling that there will be many, and varied, replies here.
    I scoped the links, and WOW!, there are things said within that range from 'hmmm, interesting, to, oh shite, Pandora's box is open!.
    A VERY thought provoking post indeed, and then some.

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