Killer Instincts: How One Neuroscientist Discovered He Had the Mind of a Psychopath


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Part of being a geek is an unending quest for information. While not all of us are scientists, even in our daily lives we seek answers. We apply logic and reason to even the most simple tasks. Part of it, I think, is that we believe information can help us better understand our world. And there is no such thing as too much when it comes to data. We thrive off of it.

But what happens when the evidence staring you in the face is a kind of living horror?

Well, that’s just what happened to a neuroscientist named Jim Fallon. According to a report in Discover magazine, based on an episode of Morning Edition, Fallon was doing research on his families “psychological and neurological quirks.” On the suggestion of his mother, he decided to delve into his own brain ancestry. Considering that his family was related to Lizzy Borden, well, I’m sure he imagined there’d be some surprises. But what he didn’t expect to find was that his brain scan’s neurological patterns matched a genetic variant that showed a high aptitude for violent behavior and a tendency toward becoming a psychopath. He had the brain of a killer.

From the Morning Edition report:

This gene, which has been the target of considerable research, is also known as the “warrior gene” because it regulates serotonin in the brain. Serotonin affects your mood — think Prozac — and many scientists believe that if you have a certain version of the warrior gene, your brain won’t respond to the calming effects of serotonin.

Discover magazine makes a good point, comparing discovering this gene to knowing that you have a tendency toward alcoholism. It’s not the diagnosis that makes you, it’s your triumph over it. However, for Mr. Fallon, the discovery is still quite life-changing. As he pulled up an image of his genetic profile, he said: “You see that? I’m 100 percent. I have the pattern, the risky pattern. In a sense, I’m a born killer.”

From an evolutionary perspective, this “warrior gene” certainly has its merits. Sure, there’s no saying that people carrying this gene pattern are 100% likely to go postal. But when I first read this article what came to mind was the concept the berserker. No, I don’t just mean the class in D&D. I mean real berserkers. These are the kind of guys you wanted on the battlefield, especially when the odds were against you. Unlike a “normal” warrior, these are the fighters who just don’t stop. Most likely, these are the knights and warriors who really made a name for themselves, the ones like Charlemagne and Sir Gawain who have been mythologized in legend.

Wikipedia has a great entry on the berserker, and I particularly like Howard D. Fabing’s description from his article “On Going Berserk: A Neurochemical Inquiry” :

Men who were thus seized performed things which otherwise seemed impossible for human power… With this was connected a great hot-headedness, which at last gave over into a great rage, under which they howled as wild animals, bit the edge of their shields, and cut down everything they met without discriminating between friend or foe.

Now, I’m not advocating being a psychopath. Of course not. In fact, experts aren’t even sure if berserkers were madmen, entranced men, or egged on by the use of drugs. But it does make you think; it even sounds like the warrior gene, doesn’t it? In ancient cultures people seemed more likely to be raised up into “classes” than they do now (i.e. warriors, artisans, farmers, etc.). It seems almost ironic that a scientist, someone almost stereotypically quiet and geeky, discovers he has the genetic patterns of a warrior.

But what’s also important, is that in our day we have the choice to do something other than our nature. And that, I think is the most telling of discoveries like this. Most of us are never going to know what lies in our DNA, in our genetic patterns. We follow our hearts and our desires and do the best we have with what we are given. Maybe it’s a good thing if we don’t know every detail. There are indicators beneath the surface that may come to light, but not always. Thankfully we are products of both nature and nurture.

[Picture Source (Warriors): Flickr (CC)]





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