Can we tell in advance who is likely to commit murder? That's the question neuroscientist James Fallon looked at when he discovered his heritage of serial killers. This question is related to neurolaw, a field that sometimes seems willing to jump the gun and apply brain science to lie detection and other evidentiary matters before the science has evolved to a point where it might be helpful. (See past posts on neurolaw below.)
About four years ago, Fallon made a startling discovery. It happened during a conversation with his then 88-year-old mother, Jenny, at a family barbecue.
"I said, 'Jim, why don't you find out about your father's relatives?' " Jenny Fallon recalls. "I think there were some cuckoos back there."
"There's a whole lineage of very violent people -- killers," he says.
After learning his violent family history, he examined [his family's brain] images and compared them with the brains of psychopaths. ...
"... I took a look at my own PET scan and saw something disturbing that I did not talk about," he says.
"If you look at the PET scan, I look just like one of those killers."
Fallon cautions that this is a young field. Scientists are just beginning to study this area of the brain -- much less the brains of criminals. Still, he says the evidence is accumulating
that some people's brains predispose them toward violence and that psychopathic tendencies may be passed down from one generation to another.
He doesn't believe his fate or anyone else's is entirely determined by genes. They merely tip you in one direction or another.
And yet: "When I put the two together, it was frankly a little disturbing," Fallon says with a laugh. "You start to look at yourself and you say, 'I may be a sociopath.' I don't think I am, but this looks exactly like [the brains of] the psychopaths, the sociopaths, that I've seen before."
I am fairly certain we can find people with these particular brain patterns and genes, AND abuse or violence in childhood who are law-abiding and socially functioning human beings. Brain science is too new to allow prediction with any certainty; it may never allow such certainly.
But some of neurolaw experts seem to confidently wade into the pool of brain divination or diagnosis. Some of my past posts on neurolaw:
- Neurolaw: Leaving out a big piece of the puzzle
- Do you suffer from Brain Overclaim Syndrome? Here's a cure and some resources on neurolaw
- More from two of the leading critics of neurolaw
- Some hard questions about neurolaw: If you are interested in law and neuroscience, read this article