Inside the Mind of a Psychopath + The Nature vs. Nurture Debate When It Comes to Mental Illness (Interview with Professor James Fallon)

Psychopaths: just the word conjures up images of scary, elusive figure intent on doing harm. But is being diagnosed as a psychopath a life sentence? Can they ever change? In this podcast (episode #410) and blog, I speak with Dr. James Fallon, neuroscientist, researcher, professor and diagnosed psychopath, about role of nature versus nurture, getting inside the mind of a psychopath, how early childhood trauma can impact our development, the different kinds of empathy, the power of self-awareness and self-regulation, how to turn your weakness into your greatest strength, and more!

First, it is important that we define what a psychopath is and is not. The key trait of a psychopath is their desire to manipulate and play games with people. What gives them pleasure is using what people are feeling to get them to play their game. Many psychopaths don’t kill or physically harm people, but all psychopaths love to manipulate.

Psychopaths can have cognitive empathy. This means that they understand what people feel, but can’t experience what people feel. In the brain of someone with psychopathic wiring, the areas that are involved with impulsivity and morality are often switched off, generally from a combination of genetic traits and early childhood trauma or abuse. The social/emotional limbic cortex is essentially “offline”.

What makes psychopaths so dangerous is the fact that they think how they are is perfectly okay. They don’t see what they think or do as wrong or immoral, and they often get away with things because they don’t feel guilty; they have no “tells”, which makes them very hard to catch.

A psychopath is different to a sociopath. A sociopath is someone who has been mistreated, abused or bullied—it is not necessarily a genetic trait. This person sees themselves as a loser or victim, and they spend rest of their life trying to get even with the world. When they are caught, they often have remorse and feel guilty, and sometimes are treated with therapies like CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy).

As James notes in his bestselling book The Psychopath Inside and his popular TED talk, both nature and nurture are important when it comes to psychopathy. Epigenetic stressors during early childhood can make certain genetic traits like the hallmarks of psychopathy turn against someone in a bad way. The cortisol from abuse, trauma or being abandoned can shape how they interact with others by affecting the development of their ability to socialize.

If you are surrounded by hostility growing up, your brain will develop in a negative way; you learn to adapt and protect yourself by becoming tough and hostile. The environment you grow up in both directly and indirectly impacts your development; both nature and nurture are important. Thankfully, James grew up in a very loving and supportive home, which helped curb his more dangerous social predispositions. This positive, nurturing environment helped direct his genetic tendencies (his nature) in a more positive direction.

James, who is happily married and has a successful career, carried this positive outlook into adulthood. He quickly learned that a positive attitude is an important part of any mental health toolbox. It allows you to see issues and problems as challenges to overcome, instead of roadblocks to your success.

As a result, James could turn his psychopath diagnosis into a game over his own instincts. He does not necessarily try to be good, but he constantly studies his good friends and models their behavior as cognitive exercise, one that is driven by his own desire to study himself and turn his weaknesses into his greatest strengths. James essentially uses his own narcissism to build good habits over time. This doesn’t come naturally, and takes a lot of work; it is something he must think about every day. However, his family supports him and appreciates how he tries to treat them better. James’ own life highlights the power of self-awareness and self-regulation we all have. We can all use our mind to change our brain and transform our life, no matter who we are or what we have been diagnosed with.

His extraordinary story is ultimately one of hope. With time and continual effort, we can become  aware of our thoughts and regulate them, taking negative genetic traits and rewiring the way our brain works. We are not victims of our genes!

For more on mental health and psychopathy, listen to my podcast with James (episode #410), and check out his book The Psychopath Inside and his TED talk. If you enjoy listening to my podcast, please consider leaving a 5-star review and subscribing! And keep sharing episodes with friends and family and on social media (don’t forget to tag me so I can see your posts!).

You can now also join me on Patreon for exclusive, ad-free content! Sign up for a membership level that suits you, and receive access to ad-free exclusive bonus podcasts. These episodes will include more targeted, step-by-step guides for specific mental health issues AND some fun, more personal podcasts about topics like my favorite skincare products and favorite books, as well as live Q&As, fan polls and requests, and exclusive digital downloads!  

This podcast was sponsored by:
Noom We are all in different places in our lives, and on our health journeys. Many of us are faced with difficult decisions every day—what to eat, when to work out and how to live our best lives. We want to make the best choices for our brain and body health, but it isn’t always easy. Indeed, what health looks like for you may be completely different to what it looks like for someone else—there is no one size fits all. This is why I love Noom’s different approach to health and eating. The program is driven by a singular mission: to help as many people as possible live healthier and happier lives through behavior change. They use the latest in proven behavioral science to empower people to take control of their health for good. And, through a combination of psychology, technology, and human coaching, Noom has helped millions of users meet their personal wellness goals. Start building better habits for healthier, long-term results. Sign up for your trial at
BetterHelp. Therapy can provide preventative and protective strategies, so that when things do get tough, you will know what to do—it is one of the best gifts you can give yourself. And, this month, BetterHelp online therapy wants to remind you that you matter just as much as everyone else does, and therapy is a great way to make sure you show up for yourself! BetterHelp is online therapy that offers video, phone and even live chat sessions with your therapist, so you don’t have to see anyone on camera if you don’t want to. It’s much more affordable than in-person therapy and you can be matched with a therapist in under 48 hours. Visit, and join the over 1,000,000 people who have taken charge of their mental health with the help of an experienced professional. In fact, so many people have been using BetterHELP that they are recruiting additional counselors in all 50 states! I am proud to say that this podcast is sponsored by BetterHelp, and Cleaning Up the Mental Mess listeners get 10% off their first month at  
Nord VPN Are you missing out on your favorite show because it's not available in your region? Trying to keep your “private time” private? Well, let me introduce NordVPN! If you're bored of US Netflix, why not take it for a spin in the UK? Using NordVPN and a click of a button, you can do just that. No need to travel to Japan for your favorite anime when NordVPN brings it right to you. With 5000+ server options, no show is out of your reach! Using my link you can receive a huge discount on a 2 year plan + 1 free month. There is literally no risk to you with their 30 day money back guarantee. Give it a try and if you like it, Great! If you don’t, they’ll issue a refund and you can pretend the entire situation never even happened!  
Podcast Highlights

7:10 How James took his mental health challenges and turned them into his greatest strengths  

10:50 How childhood trauma can affect our genes

17:30 Why both nature and nurture are important when it comes to our mental health 

22:30 How psychopaths’ brains are different from “normal” brains

29:35 What is a psychopath?

39:00 Why we are so fascinated with psychopaths 

49:45 How a sociopath is different from a psychopath

1:02:00 How we can use self-regulation and self-awareness to rewire our brains and overcome negative genetic traits 

Switch On Your Brain LLC. is providing this podcast as a public service. Reference to any specific viewpoint or entity does not constitute an endorsement or recommendation by our organization. The views expressed by guests are their own and their appearance on the program does not imply an endorsement of them or any entity they represent. If you have any questions about this disclaimer, please contact  

This podcast and blog are for educational purposes only and are not intended as medical advice. We always encourage each person to make the decision that seems best for their situation with the guidance of a medical professional.  

Comments 0

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published