The Brain of A Psychopath
For neuroscientist James Fallon, it was just a regular day at work looking at brain scans of serial killers. There were two piles of scans- one of known, violent serial killers and the other of ordinary people-including members from Fallon's own family. As he switched to his family pile, he came across a scan that looked odd. It eerily showed characteristics of the scans from the other pile. He double-checked, suspecting there may have been a mix-up- only to find that everything was perfectly in order. The brain scan did indeed belong to one of his family members and had shared the unmistakable characteristics of a serial killer's brain.There was a psychopath in his family and he was about to find out who.
He then decoded the label only to be shocked once again. It was the scan of his own brain. His brain showed characteristic patterns of psychopathy.
So what distinguishes the brains of the serial killers from those of normal people? According to research, its decreased brain activity in a section of the brain called the orbital frontal cortex- the brain area that's associated with empathy and morality.
So how was James Fallon a regular guy and not an axe-wielding Jason Voorhees? Or....was he?
Image: Jim Fallon
HEAD TO HEAD
LEFT: Compares the brain of a normal person with that of a psychopath- the bluish areas in the front (orbital frontal cortex) indicate decreased activity in those parts.
RIGHT: Shows the PET scan of Fallon's brain (Jim) in comparison with the rest of his family.
Part of that can be explained by the nature vs. nurture debate-Fallon was raised in what he described to be a very happy and loving home. But would that alone erase all possible traits of psychopathy even if your brain reflected it? Sure, he was no serial killer, but he must've done something bad, right? Well, turns out we have pretty good intuition.
It slowly emerged after conversations with his family members and teachers that he did show signs of psychopathy- right from childhood. Fallon's behavior earned him the title of a 'pro-social psychopath.'
"Having a prevalence of some psychopathic traits is associated with leadership. It’s in presidents, and prime ministers, and in people who take risks." Fallon says. Non-violent but capable of being selfish, manipulative and conniving (Frank Underwood much?). Fallon ticked all those boxes. Alas, one can't fully escape from their natural brain chemistry.
These are traits that you'd observe on a fairly regular basis and are merely frowned upon- possibly exhibited by people who are pro-social psychopaths like Fallon. I'm sure you can think of at least one.
If you want to hear the whole story, its best you heard it from Fallon himself in his memoir 'The Psychopath Inside.'
The Split Brain
Around the time of the second world war, a radical new treatment method emerged for patients with epilepsy. Surgeons thought that cutting the bundle of fibers that connect the two halves of the brain (called the corpus callosum) would reduce the intensity of the seizures by preventing them from spreading from one side to another. Sounds completely crazy (and a bit suicidal) right? But it worked.
Severing some connections between the two hemispheres of the brain significantly reduced the symptoms of epilepsy in most of the patients. It did however, also do some very weird things.
When scientists Micheal Gazzaniga and Roger Sperry studied the behavior of the patients, they found something highly peculiar. It was discovered that while these patients could see just fine with their left eyes, they couldn't read with them. With the right eye closed, the words just looked like some alien code to them. They could, however read it as long as the right eye was open. When the patients bumped into something with their left side, they wouldn't even notice, but in the case of the right-side, they did. It got stranger-when these patients were shown a square and a circle with each eye covered at a time, they reported that they only saw a square. When asked to draw what they saw, they drew a circle, saying that it was a square. Weird.
Scientists found it bizarre too, but this was the beginning of the understanding that both hemispheres of the brain however identical, did pretty different things. Communication between the two hemispheres was proven to be essential for perception. Split-brain patients had wide gaps with burned bridges that also led to gaps in perception. Doesn't seem like a great idea to mess with the corpus callosum after all.
Image: The Awkward Yeti LLC
Nightmare come true
Kenneth Parks, was an ordinary, married 23 year old man in Toronto often described by his parents as a 'gentle giant.' During one summer however, he developed a gambling addiction plunging his family into deep financial woes. He decided at some point to come clean with his in-laws about his troubles. On the morning of May 24, 1987, Parks got out of his bed and drove 23 km to his in-laws' place. He then assaulted his father-in-law and stabbed his mother-in-law, killing her. In a bizarre turn of events, Parks then drove to a police station before telling the authorities 'I think I have killed someone....my hands..' realizing that own his hands were severely wounded. Sounds like a nightmare right? It kinda was. Parks was asleep all throughout what he did. So that's driving 23 km, breaking and entering, attacking his in-laws and then going to the police. Not buying it? The courts did.
After a trial with evidence of EEG readings (Electroencephalogram) Parks was cleared of the charges when it was concluded that he had a severe sleep disorder and that his actions were not out of his own volition. While asleep, he wasn't in control- it was someone else inside him that he wasn't conscious of.
Kenneth Parks seen leaving a Toronto court with his lawyer and partner in 1989.
Image: Frank Lennon
Shapes, shapes everywhere
In 2002, Jason Padgett, a furniture salesman was viciously attacked and beaten outside a karaoke bar in Tacoma, Washington. He woke up later that night in the hospital having little memory of the assault- other than a bright flash light followed by some vague memories and a blackout. He had a severe concussion and showed signs of PTSD. But there was another curious effect that changed his life. He had become a mathematical genius.
Who said its impossible to get good at math overnight?
'I see shapes, and angles everywhere in real-life' says Padgett. His new ability enabled him to represent circles as a large number of overlapping triangles (over 300 of them) enabling him to map out the concept of 'pi' and its derivation.
He draws with a computer-like geometric precision as you can see in the pictures below. He drew these by himself.
Prior to the incident, Padgett had no interest or aptitude in math- his friends said he was a 'goof' who only liked to work out and party."I cheated on every test and never cracked a book" he said. Padgett's case is an example of 'savant syndrome' when a normal person develops extraordinary abilities after an injury or disease. However, in most cases, people are found to develop artistic abilities. A sudden development of such mathematical faculties was rare. Scientists suggest that injury or death of neurons in one brain area could lead to a radical increase of activity in surrounding areas. Some sort of overcompensation. Padgett's abilities however, came at a cost- he developed obsessive compulsive disorder and a heightened social anxiety. He continues to have trouble to even go out in public. Padgett however thinks that he wouldn't change what happened if he could. I mean, who would? Here's an interview where he talks about his radical transformation.
Brain Witness Testimony
Sometime in June 2008, a young Indian woman named Aditi Sharma was convicted for the murder of her fiancé and sentenced to life in prison. There was no smoking gun, eye witness testimony or hard evidence. The conviction was based solely on indications from one source- her brain.
A few months before, Sharma’s fiancé and fellow university student was found dead after being poisoned. Preliminary investigations suggested that Sharma had been having an affair with another man. The affair soon turned into a serious relationship. Then one day, Sharma had a rendezvous with her fiancé at a shopping mall. At the end of a long conversation, she offered him a traditional confectionery from a nearby temple. About a day later, her fiancé was found dead. The investigation suggested that the cause of death was arsenic poisoning. Sharma and her lover were the first suspects.
The investigation team got the existing facts together and decided to go about the interrogation process with a radical, new method. The team took her consent and brought in an EEG (Electroencephalogram) apparatus, fitting a cap on her head with electrodes attached to it at multiple points. The electrodes would pick up and report activity in different parts of her brain in response to different stimuli. Sharma didn’t have to utter a word throughout the process, all the responses were taken directly from her brain. No grilling, torture, or mess. A technician read out some statements related to the crime and observed the consequent activation in the brain. What they were looking for was a P300 wave- an instant response to a stimulus that occurs even before the individual is conscious of it. In other words, prior to responding, the brain at first shows acknowledgement of the truth before deciding to lie. The machine was apparently able to catch that truth accurately, and unfortunately for Ms. Sharma, the machine (or her brain) wasn’t on her side.
The evidence presented to the court was a 10-page long recording of brain signatures that pronounced that Ms. Sharma had ‘experiential knowledge’ of the crime, handing her a life sentence for murder. It was the first time in the world that brain imaging was used as the main evidence leading to a conviction.
Ms. Sharma frantically pleaded with the judge that a mistake had been made, and that the machine was wrong. The courts were however, steadfast- they only went by the machine. In the following years, there emerged some conflicting evidence regarding Sharma’s possession of the prasadam that she gave to her fiancé before his death. She was consequently released four long years after her arrest. A court in Bombay also termed the brain reading method as possibly ‘unreliable and ineffective.’ There was however, still no proof beyond doubt that Sharma was not guilty.
As for the reliability of this method around the world, the jury is still out, with mixed results everywhere.
It goes to show that even with such advancement of technology, we’re only at the tip of the iceberg when it comes to mapping the brain.
How soon will it be until readings of our brains can reliably be used against us in a court of law? Scientists and lawyers say there's still a long way to go for that.
25th November 2017