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Inside the Mind of A Psychopath; How to Build an Olympian

Aired February 22, 2014 - 16:30   ET


DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN HOST: Ever wonder what it would be like to go inside your own brain? Well, neuroscientist James Fallon, who studies criminals and psychopath, did just that. What he found was pretty surprising to say the least.



GUPTA (voice-over): James Fallon has spent hundreds of hours poring over the brains of psychopaths.

FALLON: In here, this is a comparison of this person's brain to a normal person's brain.

GUPTA: Over and over, the same thing.

FALLON: They all had an underlying path of loss of activity.

GUPTA: A loss of activity on the part of the brain that controls emotion, behavior and motivation. It includes the amygdala and the orbital cortex.

FALLON: Both are turned out in these psychopaths. And the area that controls impulsivity, but also the sense of morality and goodness and beauty and all that is turned off.

GUPTA: But then as he began another study on Alzheimer's, he came across something strange.

FALLON: My colleagues brought in a normal group for Alzheimer's and I was going through and comparing them. And everything looked quite normal. And then what happened is I came to one and it looked like this was all the murders look like this. So, that was the first moment I went, oh, that's curious. And then when I peeled it back, it was my name on it.

GUPTA: His own name.

Now, brain patterns alone don't mean you're a psychopath. There are other factors like genetics.

FALLON: We know about 30 or so genes are associated with psychopathy. Just because you have them, it doesn't mean you're a psychopath, but it probably means you have traits like aggression. GUPTA: And wouldn't you know it, Fallon is distant cousins with the alleged ax murderer Lizzie Borden, who was thought to have killed her parents in 1892.

Did that make him worried?

FALLON: And the genetics was -- happens the same thing. I had inherited really all these high risk psychopathy, low empathy related genes. When it came together, it was like and -- I still kind of didn't kind of care. You know, it was kind of still a joke because I said I'm not a killer, I'm not a rapist, I'm not a psychopath. So --

GUPTA: So why not?

FALLON: One day, thinking about it, I was sitting in the backyard, in my Jacuzzi, and my mother was pruning plants right here. And I was looking at her, and she was sitting on this little stool, this wooden stool, three legs, three-legged stool. I was just musing out there and I go, oh, my God, that's it, it's got to be it. It's her.

She's the third leg of the stool. The first was the genetics. The second was the brain pattern, whatever happened. The third is why I haven't turned out to be any kind of -- you know, like a psychopath had to do with the nurturing I got. And I went back and looked at the pictures growing up and all these memories, and growing up, and all these memories and movies and everything. I was treated so well.


GUPTA: And James wrote about his whole voyage in this book. It's a fascinating book. It's called "The Psychopath Inside." And he joins us now.

Am I safe, first of all, being this close to you?

FALLON: And six feet is pretty good.

GUPTA: It's pretty good.

Psychopath has this pejorative meaning in the lay public. I mean, you immediately conjure up mass murders and a lot of things that you wrote about in the book.

FALLON: Right.

GUPTA: What is a psychopath, though? I mean, given the context that you know about what's happening in your own brain.

FALLON: If you think of the different factors involved, it's like the Olympic circles, the five different rings, one being really small. So there's five factors, and if you have enough of these, at some point, you're categorically called a psychopath.

But you could be a borderline or only partially have psychopathic traits. And it has to do with how you interact with people, especially empathy, emotional empathy. Not just knowing. Psychopaths know what you're thinking and feeling, but they don't feel it.

And also your lifestyle, and there's a whole part called anti-social personality disorder, which is a real disorder to psychiatrist. And that's a part most associated with criminality.

But many psychopaths have no criminality whatsoever. They have the other stuff.

GUPTA: You found out this information about yourself looking at the studies and putting it all together. Did it make sense to you when you realized that you fit the criteria?

FALLON: Well, Sanjay, no, you know, I laughed it off because I went, I'm not a killer, I'm not a rapist, I'm not a psychopath. When I explained what the scans were to my wife, she goes, "It doesn't surprise me."

GUPTA: Really?

FALLON: And then when I talked to a lot of psychiatrists who know me well for many years, they knew. They said we have been telling you this for years. I said, I thought you said I was crazy. They said, we didn't say you're crazy. We say you did those psychopathic things.

They all went through my lifetime and spent a couple years looking at that. I just never saw it.

GUPTA: Can you give me example? You obviously didn't kill anybody. You hurt somebody?

FALLON: Well, I'm extremely manipulative. But I do it because I've been successful. I grew up in a very, very supportive family, very loving family. And I always got what I wanted.

So, I never had to lie, cheat, steal, force my way into any of that. It always came very easily. But the core thing is I manipulate people all the time. I'm always on the make to create a world that you're going to believe in.

But it's important for me to tell the truth. That's part of it. So, the lying part, which a lot of psychopaths do, to me are cheap tricks. If you get everything you want, resort to manipulating people with the truth and other things.

GUPTA: When you learned this about yourself, how did it affect you? I mean, you laughed it off initially, but as you pondered it and thought about it more and more, do you change? I mean, you're an adult. You can't change the hard wiring of your brain. But did you -- are you more aware of those behaviors?

FALLON: Sanjay, I'm aware of them. And I'm -- you know, after I knew the biology, the brain pattern, the genetics were there and the testing showed me as a borderline psychopath. Not a full blown category.

And the people who knew me, the psychiatrists and people close to me, it was all confirmed. I didn't care. I just didn't care. It didn't register.

And I said that's the point. You don't care. But I still -- I think intellectually, enough narcissism and said, I know I can't do anything about this, but I bet I can bet it. So, I started to do things the past year and a half, two years to see if I could overcome this.

GUPTA: Overcome it.

FALLON: Yes, just by stopping every time I interacted with somebody, because my natural tendency is to do the most selfish thing. So, I started not doing that.

GUPTA: Everyone should read this book.

As you said, you learn about the science of this, but it's just a fascinating read overall as well. Thanks for joining us.

And next up, the power of a single word. Hello. It's a campaign that I launched with Oprah. I want to chat about it later on the show.

But next, we have a fascinating story we found from the Sochi Olympics.


GUPTA: You know, as I have been watching the Olympics, I have been thinking about what goes into making a champion. I'm curious about this and in a minute, we're going to hear from David Epstein, who studies this issue.

But one event that really grabbed me this week was the women's bobsled competition. The U.S. teams won silver and bronze. And one of the silver medalist Lauryn Williams, second from the left there, she started pushing a sled just six months ago. And the thing is the rest of the team is a lot like her.


GUPTA (voice-over): Lauryn Williams is a sprinter with silver and gold Olympic medals on the track. She was recruited for Team USA in bobsled by Lolo Jones, who first made a splash as an Olympic hurdler. She took up bobsled just two years ago.

There's a college softball star, silver medalist Elana Meyers, and five from the track including Williams and Jones. You've got two women with NFL players in the family, bronze medalist Aja Evans, her brother Fred is a defensive tackle with the Vikings. Her father and cousin were Major League Baseball players.


GUPTA: So, you saw there -- six women. None of them took up the sport until their mid-20s. Yet here they are. What does that tell us? I mean, what does it say about athletic talent being genetic or really environmental and learned? DAVID EPSTEIN, AUTHOR: Well, it tells us that in certain sports, there's quite a bit of skill transfer. So, you look at the pusher, Lauryn Williams, who was retired from track. She was a 2005 world champion in the 100 meters. Now, she's one of the best pushers in the world having just started bobsled. You know, so presumably has a large proportion of fast twitch muscle fibers, right? And you can't create those. You can alter your muscle fibers to a degree, but can't create fast twitch muscle fibers.

There was just a four-year study of college football players finding that even as they got way stronger over four years in the wait room, they didn't get faster. The conclusion was you need to get those people with the fast twitch muscle fibers in the sport in the first place.

GUPTA: One thing you do in the book and it caught my attention is that you sort of blow up this idea of the 10,000-hour rule, the idea that it takes 10,000 hours of intense practice to reach an elite level of sport, or anything. We hear about these skiers and skaters who are starting so young. That's what I pay attention to as a dad.

If it's not 10,000 hours, is there a magic number? What do you tell parents?

EPSTEIN: No, there is no magic number. That 10,000 hours came from a tiny study of violinists who were so highly pre-screened that they'd already gained admission to world famous music academy. Even there, 10,000 was just an average. And the range was incredible.

So there is no sort of magical number. And actually the science coming out of most sports is that the normal path to elite status, elites usually practice less as children. They have a sampling period through about age 12 while they find the sport that's right for them and they focus in later. So, like, Tiger Woods is the exception. The rule is Steve Nash, who wanted to be a soccer player until 12, didn't get his first basketball until 13, goes on to become one of the best point guards of all time. That's more the norm.

GUPTA: It's really interesting, this idea of sampling and letting kids sample. I think there's a message there for a lot of people, a lot of parents certainly. I think about these issues more and more as a parent. I used to think maybe I'd be that guy. But now, I transfer a lot of these things on to my own kids. I wonder what kind of athletes they'll be.

So, David Epstein, thank you so much for joining us.

EPSTEIN: Thank you.

GUPTA: Still ahead, how to talk about sex to your kids. I've got three daughters. I think about this quite a bit.

But, first, the top five foods for your heart.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) GUPTA: It's no secret one of the best ways to keep your heart healthy is to eat right. Cut out saturated fats, look for natural foods that can cut your risk of heart disease. So, we decided to give you five that you should put on your grocery list.

Think green. Yes, veggies, especially cruciferous vegetables especially broccoli. That's because they contain a lot of nutrients that have been shown to strengthen your heart muscles and broccoli also seems to boost levels of heart protective proteins at same time.

Drink green. Green tea, it's been shown to lower cholesterol and also improve blood flow.

Go fishing. In fact, look for oily fish like salmon, tuna, sardines. Fish are filled with these omega 3 fatty acids and actually help counteract the negative impact of mental stress puts on the heart.

Feeling nutty, well, have a handful of nuts. Researchers say people who eat nut cans lower their bad cholesterol levels in their blood, which is one of the primary causes of heart disease.

And, finally, it's OK to indulge your sweet tooth. Dark chocolate is full of flavonoids, which have been found to reduce dangerous inflammation and also cut down arthrosclerosis or hardening of the arteries.

Now, the key to all of this, as you know, moderation and eating smart, replace the red meat with oily fish. Snack on walnuts instead of chips. Eat a small piece of dark chocolate. And sit down to a glass of iced green tea, instead of a soda. Small changes and your heart will thank you.


GUPTA: You know, it's true. We talk about this all the time. Our children are growing up faster than ever. But sex education in schools is uneven and sometimes even controversial. In fact, according to a recent study, doctors who want to talk to teens about sex spend an average of about 36 seconds talking about this. It's not much. So, parents, it's up to all of us, I think.

And no one better to help that Logan Levkoff. She's a sex educator here in New York. She's the co-author of "Got Teens?: The Doctor Moms' Guide to Sexuality, Social Media, and Other Adolescent Realities."

As much as we dread, it's a difficult conversation to have. Are there things that make it less dreadful? I don't mean -- I want to have it, I want to be the parent who's saying I'm avoiding this, but to make it less frightening perhaps.

LOGAN LEVKOFF, SEXOLOGIST: I think realizing that there's nothing perfect about this conversation. We tend to think we have to give everything all at once and we have to do it well. And it's a little bit of information all of the time, when you're talking about things you see on the news, different kinds of families, the gay marriage issue. I mean, you're always talking about sex and sexuality, reproductive technology, which is a really fun one to do these days.

GUPTA: Right.

LEVKOFF: Yu know, sperm and egg don't only meet one way.

I think we have to give ourselves a little more credit as parents, to -- you know, come to terms with the fact that we're doing this all of the time. It may not be one way our parents did it, but chances are we may the not remember that any way.

GUPTA: You know, it's interesting. Presumably, we know our kids best, but our kids aren't getting, as you said, information in a lot of different ways. One of the things you talk about in the book is that teens spend an average of 7 hours a day in front of a screen. Why is that important here?

LEVKOFF: It's important to know what your kids are watching and hearing and what their friends and peers are talking about. And we need to be involved in this and use our media in a smart way. It's an awesome tool for us to initiative these conversations about sex and sexuality.

It's much harder to say, so, honey, have you and your friends ever experienced oral sex before? But, you know, if there's a study, if there's something on the news or a conversation and a show they're watching, it's a great jumping off point and far less threatening than having to do the authoritarian question.

GUPTA: Right, the dogmatic, authoritarian.

You know, there are some hot button issues that sort of surround this, right? You're going to have the talk, as we say. But there's lots of other social issues that come up.

Our kids are all pretty young still. But how do you decide the right time to start having those conversation? Does it come up organically or --

LEVKOFF: Sometimes, it comes organically. My son when he was 4 asked questions about where babies came from and how we talked about sperm and egg, and by 5, he was talking about how sperm and egg typically meet. And I gave him the honest, simple answers and said love the fact you're ready to have this conversation. And if you have anymore questions, you ask me.

And at the end of the conversation, the only other question he had for me was when you were a little girl, did your mom answer all of your questions? I think that's always been a lesson for us. We're so afraid we're going to tell too early. They just want to know if they have a question, they can come to us and we'll give them the truthful answer.

GUPTA: Dads and daughters, moms and sons.

LEVKOFF: So important, yes, absolutely. We should always be talking to our children, no matter what the gender of that child is. And I will say I know you have girls -- the father/daughter relationship is so important. I say that not just as a professional, but also in my own personal life. You really shape how girls see themselves and how they communicate in relationships and how they should be treated by partners and friends no matter what gender that person is. So, it's a really important role.

GUPTA: It gives me goose pumps and puts the pressure on, but in a very good way. Great to see you.

LEVKOFF: Nice to see you.

GUPTA: Congratulations on the book.

LEVKOFF: Thank you.

GUPTA: I want you to read this book.

Up next, Oprah Winfrey, Gayle King and I are going to share this simple fix -- something that we've been thinking about, a solution to a big problem. An epidemic really that kills more people than obesity.

Stay with us.



OPRAH WINFREY, TV HOST: When was the last time you said hello to a stranger passing you on the street or a friend you hadn't seen in years?







GUPTA: Those are just a few of the stars who signed up to try to help battle America's epidemic of loneliness. The first was launched this week by Oprah Winfrey, Gayle King and yours truly, something I really care about. Sixty million Americans report feeling lonely. It's 1 in 5. You could be one of them and not even know it. It's not just in your head. It's an epidemic that affects your health in many ways. It could even shorten your life.


PIERS MORGAN, CNN HOST: The bottom line says people with strong ties to family -- I'm using your word, Sanjay -- friends or co-workers have a 50 percent greater chance of outliving those with fewer social connections. Again, an extraordinary statistic.

GUPTA: And the thing is that we used to believe for a long time it was simply because if you had friends, they were more likely to check in on you. Encourage you to go to the doctor, encourage you to take care of your health.

But it seems to be more than that. People who are lonely or perceive themselves to be lonely, perceive social isolations, it's called. They actually have changes in the body, both within the brain and body. The brain perceives threats that aren't there, they live with these high stress levels all the time. They don't sleep as well.

MORGAN: Is it just an emotional pain or is it also a medically diagnosable physical pain?

GUPTA: Well, it is a physical pain as well. And what I mean by that, let me be precise, is that the areas of the brain that are responsible for physical pain, those are the same areas of the brain that will light up in someone who has chronic loneliness. They feel physical pain by all intents and purposes. Lonely, by itself, more than obesity, more than chronic alcohol use, more than air pollution, leads to early death.

MORGAN: This campaign opened, just say hello, you're using your star power to get the biggest names. What is from your point of view the key point of this campaign?

WINFREY: What I realized is that everybody is looking for the same thing. No matter if it's -- you know, politicians, senators, presidents, Beyonce, and all of her Beyonce-ness, we're all looking to know, did you see me? Did you hear me? And did I what I say mean anything to you?

So, just saying hello is a way of validating even a stranger.


GUPTA: You know, what I also found fascinating as I really looked into the studies about loneliness is how taboo this topic really still is. Many people would rather say that they are depressed than admit that they are lonely and feel isolated.

So, today, make a pact to change that. All it takes is one word, hello. Call your aunt that maybe you haven't spoken to in months or an old friend. Say hi to them. Say hello to the person you sit next to on the train.

If you're in an elevator with co-workers, just say hello to them. A simple hello, it could lead to a million little things, including as you saw, leading to a much longer, happier and healthier life.

That's going to wrap things up for SGMD. But do stay connected with me at Let's keep the conversation going on Twitter @DrSanjayGupta. It's time now, though, to get you back to the "CNN NEWSROOM" with Don Lemon.