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!).
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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
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