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Inside the Mind of an Anti-Psychopath

I can’t fully accept the idea that neuroscientist James Fallon, author of The Psychopath Inside, is really a psychopath. I get that he understands the concept of psychopathy better than I do—if Fallon quietly retired at 58 instead of launching a public career as the world’s most famous self-described psychopath, he’d have already put in a lifetime’s worth of groundbreaking neuroscience research—but I don’t think someone who actively tries to behave in a way that leaves people better off can really be what I’d think of as a psychopath, regardless of how his brain processes anger and regardless of whether he’s capable of interpersonal attachment. If mostly-good people can be psychopaths, normal psychopathy (as opposed to the rarer, more spectacularly violent variety we obsess over) might be a purely psychiatric diagnosis, not a moral one. Maybe he went public to prove that point. I don’t know.

I do know that psychologist Abigail Marsh’s recent study on anonymous kidney donors has credibly shown that the brains of extraordinary compassionate people function, in several important respects, directly opposite to those of psychopaths:

Marsh and her colleagues replicated several brain-scan studies that had been done on psychopaths, applying the same procedures to 19 donors to examine differences between the two groups. For example, people who score high on psychopathy tests don’t easily recognize images of fearful expressions; in fact, scans show their brains respond less strongly to those images than typical people …

On this and a variety of other measures, Marsh indeed found that the brains of donors had opposite reactions to those of psychopaths. And the donors’ brains even looked structurally different from psychopaths’: While psychopaths have a physically smaller amygdala … than the average person, the donors had oversize ones.

Anti-psychopaths also self-reported as having lower than average amounts of empathy, which suggests either that they’re humble (if we use a moral definition) or that they have difficulty contextualizing their emotional strengths (if we use a psychological definition).

But the most remarkable attribute of anonymous kidney donors is that they anonymously donate kidneys, something that most people would not consider doing. And in that behavioral respect, psychopaths are no further from the kind of anti-psychopathy anonymous kidney donors demonstrate than the rest of us are—just as nonviolent psychopaths are no closer to violent psychopathy than the rest of us are. All of this raises a difficult question, one Fallon has been struggling with for the better part of the past decade: should we try to be better people, or just do better things? And is there a difference?

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Tom Head is an author or coauthor of 29 nonfiction books, columnist, scriptwriter, research paralegal, occasional hellraiser, and proud Jackson native. His book Possessions and Exorcisms (Fact or Fiction?) covers the recent demand for exorcists over the past 30 years and demonic possession.

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