Most helpful critical review
332 of 391 people found the following review helpful
Superficial, simplistic and self-serving
on October 31, 2013
The Psychopath Inside revolves around a single event. It began in 2004, when the author, a retired professor of anatomy and neurobiology, was asked by controversial psychiatrist Daniel Amen to analyze PET brain scans of about 50 killers. Amen had characterized some of his subjects as impulsive killers; others, as psychopaths. When Fallon did a blind analysis, he was able to distinguish between the two groups based on the psychopaths' pattern of brain activation. Primarily, they showed a diminished level of activity in the limbic cortex, which regulates emotion. (While not giving precise data on his accuracy, the never-modest author assures us that he "nailed it.") The following year, he discovered by happenstance that he himself shared that same abnormal pattern of brain activity.
Unfortunately, this hook is far too thin to sustain an entire book. So we end up with a convoluted mishmash: Lengthy expositions on brain anatomy and genetics, alternating with superficial musings on his own personal history. We learn that he is a cad: He partied too hard in college, he flirts with other women, he disappoints friends and colleagues, he puts family members in dangerous situations. Worst of all, he confesses, he just doesn't care. All this, he conveniently blames on his defective brain.
But, as every student of science knows, an "N of 1" does not a convincing case make. We don't know the base rate of this type of brain functioning among the normal population, or among academics or researchers such as Fallon. All we know is that his brain was similar to some unspecified proportion of 50 brain scans of killers. He attempts to bolster his case by dredging up the murderous proclivities of some far distant ancestors, saying they likely carried the "warrior gene" that programs for violence. But who among us, at least those of us of Anglo-Saxon heritage, couldn't find murderous ancestors if we searched hard enough? Again, we aren't privy to the base rates of violence among males in the times and places that his ancestors inhabited.
The current cultural obsession with psychopathy has allowed Fallon to make a second career out of his accidental discovery. With his superficially compelling first-person account, he has become a self-anointed expert on the psychopathic brain, appearing on TV shows including an episode of the CBS crime series Criminal Minds. His rigid genetic determinism fits well with the dark and fatalistic vision of humanity that dominates in this era of mass incarceration. By rooting criminality in biology, the iconic psychopath foregrounds intrinsic evil, thereby marginalizing social problems and excusing institutional failures at rehabilitation. (For more on the debate over the nature of psychopathy, see NPR's "Expert Panel: Weighing the Value of a Test for Psychopaths.")
Ultimately, The Psychopath Inside demonstrates Fallon's intimate familiarity with brain circuitry and functioning. But it also exposes his startling ignorance of the larger historical and cultural forces that influence human behavior.