Thursday 10 July 2014

Are psychopaths at the mercy of their genes?

The word "psychopath" is used in the arts to depict somebody who is distasteful and even hateful. He is somebody who makes people angry because of his lack of empathy and cruelty.

He is the person who seems unmoved when he commits a heinous crime and at times may even get pleasure from such actions. The word evil issues from the lips of those trying to describe this person. The question many ask is whether he was born evil or did he become so in the passage through life?

For decades claims have been about the brains of those who are psychopathic suggesting that this is an inherited state. The textbooks of psychiatry dating back to the 1960s suggest that the electrical activity in the brain of the psychopath is abnormal – this is measured using an EEG and this tool is in common use in neurological clinics.

More recently the focus has shifted from such crude measures to more honed techniques such as MRI scanning. This can also measure brain activity in certain areas when the person is engaged in behaviours such as reading, watching films and so on.

If there are physical abnormalities in the brains of those who behave psychopathically then should we not regard this as a brain disorder and treat it as an illness not an evil? If our brain determines our actions where do free will and personal responsibility lie?

The neuroscientist, Dr James Fallon at the University of California, was a keen subscriber to the view that we are at the mercy of our genes. In respect of brain function, including the chaotic behaviour of the psychopath, he believed this was determined by the impact our our genes had on brain function.

He even tested his own brain, using an MRI scanner. To his utter astonishment and dismay, he found that his brain had abnormalities that matched those of the psychopaths he had studied for the greater part of his professional life.

The pictures showed low activity in specific areas of the frontal and temporal lobes – these are areas concerned with self-control and empathy.

Yet Fallon had led an exemplary life as a married man with three children and a successful career. When he examined his ancestors he found there was a dark secret. On his paternal side he was related to a notorious US killer, Lizzie Borden.

In 1892 she was tried and acquitted of murdering her father and stepmother but her notoriety led to the famous rhyme 'Lizzie Borden took an axe. And gave her mother 40 whacks. When she saw what she had done. She gave her father 41.' Another ancestor, Thomas Cornell, was hanged in 1667 for the murder of his mother.

So how has Fallon overcome the proclivities of his genes and their related effects on brain structure and function? Freud would say that he has sublimated his physical aggression into some other form of aggression. Fallon agrees that he is hugely competitive in other ways.

He loves to be successful academically and winning an argument is a source of tremendous satisfaction. According to this theory the aggression is still present but has turned into something that is positive rather than destructive.

The other factor that he credits with taming these aggressive instincts is the nurture that he received from his loving parents. He almost certainly never witnessed any in his own home, he was assuredly taught right from wrong and was undoubtedly loved for who he was and made to feel of value. He had no need to seek a gang to affirm him and no personal exposure to violence as a child.

He was confident enough to assert himself when others were unfair to him.

The book that details this intriguing story is fascinating. Called 'The Psychopath Inside: A Neuroscientists Personal Journey into the Dark Side of the Brain' (Penguin, New York. 2013). It shows how genes and environment interact and points to the complexity of the human species. The role of parental love in modifying our darker side provides hope that, no matter how unattractive our genealogy might be, we can transcend it and become loving and giving adults. And this book shows that our understanding of the relative contributions of nature and nurture is still evolving, just when we thought neuroscience had it all wrapped up.

Irish Independent

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