An Empath Interviews a Psychopath: Dr. James “Jim” Fallon
Careful consideration went into this interview with Dr. James H. Fallon. It is not every day that a boutique radio show like ours reaches out to a world-renowned neuroscientist, let alone to one that has contributed immeasurably to the field of human behavior we avidly support. However, Dr. Fallon, who asked me simply to call him “Jim”, was easy to reach, glad to be of service, and said he was up for anything I might want to discuss. He asked only that we stay away from personal stories that might negatively affect his family.
Since we have a large audience of survivors of psychological abuse, please be advised this show could be triggering for some listeners. We privately shared this show with a few of our Behavioral Health practitioners in advance. Some of them said it was very triggering due to the nature of how I was asked certain questions.
As our audience knows, our show is all about the Behavioral Health sector of healthcare. While we have had guests from many different corners of this marketspace—and from all over the globe—no show garners as many downloads, emails, or phone calls than those where we discuss narcissism, psychopathy, or sociopathology. The interest at a global level is no longer a surprise to us, but, at times, this level of attention has clearly distressed our staff simply because of the sheer volume.
Dr. Fallon’s backstory is an interesting one. He is professor of psychiatry and human behavior and emeritus professor of anatomy and neurobiology in the University of California, Irvine, School of Medicine. His research interests include adult stem cells, chemical neuroanatomy and circuitry, higher brain functions, and brain imaging. A few years ago he decided to study his personal positron emission tomography (PET) scan during research into brain functioning and he was very surprised to discover his own brain had the neurological and genetic correlates of psychopathy. He is categorized as a “pro-social psychopath”.
In his 2013 publication, The Psychopath Inside: A Neuroscientist’s Personal Journey into the Dark Side of the Brain, Dr. Fallon details his journey of discovery and discusses why he believes the mitigating effects of his positive upbringing had a significant influence on his own behavior.
Jim is charming, exceedingly intelligent, well-educated, and one of the champions of pioneering research into the field of psychopathy. Yet I told him my radio introduction would be short because reciting everything he has accomplished would take way too long. “We’d need a drink to get through it”, he jokingly emailed me (but he wasn’t joking). Wikipedia does a much better job; why should we try to compete?
Our listeners will make their own assessments of the value of this interview. To me the most compelling reason to do it was that I have been called an “empath” by a number of Behavioral Health professionals. However, there is no scientific proof that this term is a noun. In my own experience I have known several and they know exactly what being an empath means. What Jim Fallon proves during this interview and with the awareness he is spreading through his work is that psychopaths do have the ability to choose.
An empath can’t imagine their lives without the ability to feel other people’s emotions. It can be a tremendous burden until they began to figure it out and learn how to regulate the influx of energy coming at them. Dipping in and out of another person’s emotional temperature becomes as natural as breathing. There is no guess work or following social cues, they actually feel what another person is feeling. An empath is the antithesis—the polar opposite—of a psychopath. Therefore, being around a psychopath can be dangerous for them, regardless of a psychopath’s sociability.
I freely admit that I pushed Jim towards the last part of this interview. I had done my research ahead of time and had listened to a fantastic TED Talk he gave where the audience clapped loudly when he declared that he did not care what anyone thought of him. I wondered, “Did the audience take seriously what he was saying?” I was surprised after I read an article in Vibe with the title “Dr. Jim Fallon Makes Being a Psychopath Look Like Fun.” A psychopath, “fun”? Let me be clear: I respect Jim’s work. I respect him as a human being. He is fun—until he isn’t. During the course of this interview I kept reaching for an emotional connection—because that is what empaths do—but I kept hitting a brick wall. I wondered if I pushed him beyond the length of time commitment we had agreed upon for this interview, or if I talked about myself personally, what would happen? Would he betray his psychopathy?
After a few days of introspection, I do feel as though I managed to get past the “courtesy wall”, yet he was never rude nor disrespectful and his interview is unedited. He was simply “Jim”, a pro-social psychopath, and Jim does not care what I think of him or how I may feel when communicating with him. He, of course, approved every word of this article.
It is my hope that our listeners will take away from this interview a profound respect for his work—supporting the effort to deglamorize psychopaths—and a deeper understanding about why there is absolutely nothing funny about psychopathy.
James H. Fallon, Ph.D. is Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at the University of California, Irvine. He holds a Sloan Fellowship, Senior Fulbright Fellowship and NIH Research Career Award. He was Chair of the UCI Faculty and Academic Senate and Chair of the UCI College of Medicine. He sits on numerous corporate boards and national think tanks for science, biotechnology, the arts, the Vatican, and the US military. He is a Subject Matter Expert in the field of “cognition and war.” His research program has focused on adult stem cells, human brain circuitry and imaging genetics, including studies of schizophrenia, depression, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease, addiction, sleep, emotional memory, modeling of neural circuits, prosthetic interfaces, and law, culture, psychopathy, murder, dictatorships, and the brain. Fallon’s lab was the first to find how to mobilize adult stem cells to reverse the deficits in models of chronic stroke, which was cited as one of the top breakthrough findings of the decade. He is also interested in the neuroscience of creativity, artistic talent, and levels of consciousness. He has appeared in over one hundred national and international TV and radio shows on the biology of stem cells, prosthetic devices, self and identity, and dictators.
His research in psychopathology explores how genetic and in-utero environmental factors affect the way the human brain gets built, as well as how an individual’s particular experience and environmental exposure further shapes brain development. Fallon’s work on chemical neuroanatomy and brain imaging took an interesting turn when he learned of a violent family history that included seven alleged murderers, including Lizzy Borden. He knew from his research that psychopaths have brains with greatly decreased activity in the portions of the frontal lobe. While working on a study on the brains of killers, he was surprised to discover that his own brain showed the same brain anatomical differences as the psychopaths that he was studying. He later learned that he also shared some genetic similarities. Dr. Fallon is widely published in scientific journals and has received a number of awards for his work. His book, The Psychopath Inside: A Neuroscientst’s Personal Journey into the Dark Side of the Brain tells his personal experience and also points out that work on epigenetics and the new field of imaging genetics may result in better understanding and better treatment of various behaviors, while at the same time it may raise some troubling ethical issues.
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