What Does The Mind Of A Killer Look Like?

Apr 12, 2013
Originally published on May 6, 2015 3:20 pm

Part 2 of the TED Radio Hour episode The Violence Within Us.

About Jim Fallon's TED Talk

Psychopathic killers are the basis for some must-watch TV, but what really makes them tick? Neuroscientist Jim Fallon talks about brain scans and genetic analysis that may uncover the rotten wiring in the nature (and nurture) of murderers. In a too-strange-for-fiction twist, he shares a fascinating family history that makes his work chillingly personal.

About Jim Fallon

Jim Fallon, professor of neuroscience at the University of California, Irvine, looks at the way nature and nurture intermingle to wire up the human brain. Through his research, Fallon explores the way genetic and in-utero environmental factors affect the way the brain gets built — and then how individuals' experience further shapes its development. He lectures and writes on creativity, consciousness and culture, and has made key contributions to our understanding of schizophrenia, Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's disease. Fallon has turned his research toward the subject of psychopaths — particularly those who kill. With PET scans and EEGs, he's beginning to uncover the deep, underlying traits that make people violent and murderous.

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It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz, and on today's show, the violence within us. And for some people, it's actually possible to measure it, to see violence in a brain scan. Like for James H. Fallon. When you go to parties, do you normally say James H. Fallon?

JAMES H. FALLON: I just say, Jim.

RAZ: Oh, you say Jim. Okay.

FALLON: That's to differentiate me from that crackpot, Jimmy Fallon.

RAZ: Oh, yeah. Anyway, Jim is a neuroscientist at the University of California at Irvine. And his story wasn't all that different from other researchers who study brains, that is until he discovered something, something that really was inside of him, and he told the story in his TED Talk ...


FALLON: I study behavior but on the basis of everything from genes, through neurotransmitters, dopamine, things like that, all the way through circuit analysis. So that's what I normally do but then, for some reason, I got into something else just recently. And it all grew out of one of my colleagues asking me to analyze a bunch of brains of psychopathic killers.

RAZ: So, every so often, a little like in the movie "Silence of the Lambs", psychopathic murderers would be wheeled into Jim's lab at UC Irvine.

FALLON: Right. You know, maybe once every six months or so, there'd be a SWAT team that would show up with a guy in manacles and they'd do PET scans on him. And what my colleagues would say is, take a look at this, what do you see. The thing I do, you know, normally is to look for patterns in things, and so I would look for what areas of the brain were off ...


FALLON: And here's just to give you the pattern. The pattern is that those people, every one of them I looked at who was a murderer, and was a serial killer, had damage to their orbital cortex which is right above the eyes, the orbits, and also the anterior part of the temporal lobe. So there's this pattern that every one of them had, but they all were a little different, too. They had other sorts of brain damage. And how you end up with a psychopath and a killer depends on exactly when the damage occurs. It's really a very precisely timed thing. You get different kinds of psychopaths on the basis of genetics, brain damage, and the interaction with environment, and exactly how that machine works.

RAZ: Nature and nurture, and when those two things are in perfect balance, Jim says there's one thing that can set it all off.

FALLON: The key thing is called the MAOA gene and there's a variant of this gene that is in the normal population. Some of you have this, and it has to do with too much serotonin during development. It's kind of interesting 'cause serotonin is supposed to make you calm and relaxed, but if you have this gene in utero, your brain is bathed in this so your whole brain becomes insensitive to serotonin, so it doesn't work, you know, later on. And it's sex-linked. It's on the X chromosome and so, in this way, you can only get it from your mother. And in fact, this is probably why mostly men, boys, are psychopathic killers, are very aggressive. Because, you know, the daughter can get one X from the father, one X from the mother, it's kind of diluted out. But, for a son, he can only get the X chromosome from his mother, so this is how it's passed from mother to son. Theoretically, what this means is that in order to express this gene in a violent way, very early on before puberty, you have to be involved in something that's really traumatic. Not a little stress. Not being spanked, or something, but really seeing violence or being involved in it, in 3-D. All right, this is how the mirror neuron system works. And so, if you have that gene, and you have - you see a lot of violence in a certain situation - this is the recipe for disaster. Absolute disaster.

RAZ: It was a pretty fascinating discovery. The violence gene might be passed from mother to son, and then a short time later, Jim got a call from his mother ...


FALLON: My mother said to me, you know, I hear you've been going around talking about psychopathic killers, and you're talking as if you come from a normal family. I said, what the hell are you talking about? She then told me about her own family tree. Now, she blamed this on my father's side, of course. This was one of these cases, because she has no violence in her background, but my father did. Well, she said, there's good news and bad news. One of your cousins is Ezra Cornell, founder of Cornell University. But the bad news is that your cousin is also Lizzie Borden.

RAZ: Lizzie Borden, you know, the one who took an axe and gave her mother 40 whacks.


CHAD MITCHELL TRIO: (singing) One hot day in old Fall River, Mr. Andrew Borden died. And they booked his daughter, Lizzie, on a charge of homicide.

RAZ: So, you got the Lizzie Borden chromosome?

FALLON: I got the Lizzie plus, yes.


CHAD MITCHELL TRIO: (singing) But they all agree Ms. Lizzie B was quite a problem kid...


FALLON: Okay, you know, so what? We have Lizzie.


CHAD MITCHELL TRIO: (singing) That kind of thing just isn't very nice...


FALLON: She goes, no, it gets worse, read this book. And here's this "Killed Strangely," and it's a historical book, and the first murder of a mother by a son was my great-great-great-great-great grandfather. Okay, so that's the first case of matricide, but it doesn't stop there. There were seven more men on my father's side that were all murderers. Okay, now this, you know, gives one a little pause.


FALLON: Because my father, you know, my father himself and my three uncles in World War II were all conscientious objectors. They were all pussycats. But every once in a while, Lizzie Borden, like three times a century, and we're kind of due.


FALLON: So I - and we had to take action. Now, our kids found out about it and they all seemed to be okay, but our grandkids are going to be kind of concerned here. So what we've done is I started to do PET scans of everybody in the family.


FALLON: And we started doing PET scans, EEGs, and genetic analysis to see where the bad news is. But there's going to be bad news somewhere and we don't know where it's going to pop up. So that's my talk.



RAZ: Wait a minute, that can't be it. I mean, that can't be everything. There has to be more to the story, Jim.

FALLON: Well, after the TED Talk, over the next year and a half, I had more tests done.

RAZ: On you.

FALLON: On myself. EEGs and, you know, different kinds of imaging. But also further genetic tests and these came back even worse, as it were. That is, it showed that I had even more genetics related to violence and lack of empathy.

RAZ: Wait, like you were potentially a murderer?

FALLON: I'm not a murderer.

RAZ: No, right. Of course not.

FALLON: And I'm not a criminal and yet I've got what appears to be all the elements except early abuse.

RAZ: You have the same kind of brain as the ones you studied?

FALLON: Yeah, my brain looks like probably the worst killers I looked at, the worst psychopaths.

RAZ: Wow.

FALLON: The thing is, I don't have other brain damage. The top of my brain, where all of the cognition is, the cold cognition and executive function, is hyper-functioning. It could mean that I'd be really a mastermind murderer, if I was a murderer, because my executive skills are quite good, and you can really see it in my brain patterns.

RAZ: So what explains the fact that you're not, that you're a peaceful guy?

FALLON: Well, my parents and my extended family, my aunts and uncles and grandparents, treated me with particularly kid gloves, wonderfully, from the time I was born, and I think that had a lot to do with it. I never thought that environment played a role like that at all. And this really changed my mind in the past couple of years. So, I've had to eat some crow.

RAZ: I mean, do you ever - does it ever kind of freak you out that you have that inside of you?

FALLON: It's made me wonder. You know, it really has. I thought I knew who I was, but it's only after this, after the TED Talk, and over especially the last year and a half, I found out other things about what people think about me, people very close. And I've told them please be honest, and what I heard was not so great.

RAZ: What did you hear?

FALLON: Well, I think I'm warm to people and I'm quite cold, and I don't do the things I think the average person does. I don't take care of the people around me in the way I should, and I just do things that you wouldn't want to be married to me. You might not want to completely depend on me. If I have a choice between going to a funeral for my aunt or uncle and going to a party that popped up that day, I'm at the party. I don't do the things you're supposed to do. There's a lot of that stuff. Frankly, it's not things that are criminal, right, and you don't want to hurt people. So there are a number of things that I have that are considered psychopathic.

RAZ: Has that discovery about yourself changed you?

FALLON: After I found out what people thought about me, you know, I really didn't care.


RAZ: Wow.

FALLON: Which is kind of the proof they were right about me, 'cause I don't, you know, at a very fundamental level, I don't care. But I'm trying to. Like, I know I should be doing this. So I'm trying to retrain myself into caring. So that's how I'm handling it, just by knowing that I should be doing certain things and trying to do them.

RAZ: You're like your best research subject.

FALLON: As it turns out, yes. You know, I've been forced to look at myself, which I never did before. And the hints were there all along, I just refused to put them together into the story that it is. And I always had kind of whitewashed, or sugarcoated, my behavior, and people around you help you do that. They go, oh, you're just being a boy, you're just being a kid, you're just being a wild man. And so, I took those sorts of responses from people and from myself, as, oh that's just fun. And when people tell you, oh, you're crazy, you could be told that a hundred times in your life. But there's another way of looking at those statements and who's saying it and under what circumstance. And you could either listen to it and put them all together to get the correct story, or not. I, of course, I always suppress that.

RAZ: We just heard from Phil Zimbardo, the psychologist, and he says, you know, anyone is capable of violence. I mean, anyone could carry it out. Do you think that's true?

FALLON: There are many genes that control these things, the aggression and the violence and probably the desire and willingness to get even with people, retribution, but also, empathy. All of these things, it's a roll of the dice. We're in the genetic casino. There's a hundred dice, and they can come up millions of different ways. That means that everybody is on a different part of the spectrum. And so on the spectrum of violence, there are some people who are naturally, they're born, with very violent tendencies. It doesn't make them criminals and they can - they become what are called pro-social psychopaths. That is, they can use it to do great things. But I think, you know, some people are just so mellow that they inherit all of these very low violence genes, that theoretically they can get violent. But it's almost never going to happen, they'd have to be pushed so far. So the answer is, yes, everybody potentially is a killer. But some of us are potentially more than others, and those people are protectors. But in the wrong circumstances, they also are predators on us.

RAZ: Jim Fallon's a neuroscientist at UC Irvine. His TED Talk is worth seeing in full. You can find it at TED.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.