A Psychopath Gives Parenting Advice

Dr. James Fallon, neuroscientist, is a psychopath (albeit a “pro-social” psychopath in that he hasn’t killed anyone).  He discovered this himself after looking at his brain scan in comparison to the brain scans of serial murderers.  The images were disturbingly similar.  At first he denied it, but then family, friends and professionals started chiming in, “We’ve been telling you for years you are a psychopath.”    They weren’t kidding.  His insensitivity to others, risk taking, pathological attention-seeking, lack of compassion and absence of empathy all fit.

He wrote a book about his attempts to heal–as best as one can–his psychopathy, The Psychopath Inside.

In an interview in the Atlantic promoting his book, he describes what parents need to know to prevent psychopathy and good moral formation.  The upshot?  Treating the first 3 years after birth as a “fourth trimester” that focuses on parenting approaches that emphasize attachment and bonding.  The whole interview is fascinating.  Here’s an excerpt of the parenting bit…

And though there isn’t an absolute “fix,”  [for psychopathy] you talk about the importance of the “fourth trimester”—the months following a baby’s birth when bonding is key. What are other really crucial moments where you can see how someone may be at risk, or where this convergence of genetics and environment might be crucial for intervention, or at least identifying what is happening?

There are some critical periods in human development. For the epigenome, the first moment is the moment of conception. That is when the genetics are very vulnerable to methylation and, therefore, the effects of a harsh environment: the mother under stress, the mother taking drugs, alcohol, and things like that. The second greatest susceptibility is the moment of birth and, of course, there are the third and fourth trimesters. After that, there is a slow sort of susceptibility curve that goes down.

The first two years of life are critical if you overlap them with the emergence of what are called complex adaptive behaviors. When children are born they have some natural kinds of genetic programming. For example, a kid will show certain kinds of fear—of certain people, then of strangers, then it’s acceptance of people—that’s complex-adaptive behavior at work in social interactions. But even laughing, and smiling, and making raspberry sounds are all complex-adaptive behaviors, and they will emerge automatically. You don’t need to be taught these things.

One idea is that over the first three years there are 350 very early complex adaptive behaviors that go in sequence, but if somehow you’re interrupted with a stressor, it will affect that particular behavior that’s emerging or just about to emerge. It could be at a year and half, 3 months, or 12 months. After that, the effects of environment really start to drop; by the time you start hitting puberty, you kind of get locked in.   READ MORE

About Dr. Greg

Dr. Gregory Popcak directs the Pastoral Solutions Institute, an organization dedicated to helping Catholics find faith-filled solutions to marriage, family, and personal problems. Together with his wife, Lisa, he hosts More2Life Radio. He is the author of over a dozen books integrating psychological insights with our Catholic faith. For more info about books, tele-counseling and other resources, visit www.CatholicCounselors.com.


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