The Psychopathic Brain, part one

Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks
When she saw what she had done
She gave her father forty one


On the morning of August 4th, 1892, Andrew and Abby Borden were murdered in their home in Fall River, Massachusetts. Andrew was a tall, slender man with a wispy chinstrap beard. He had worked much of his life as a carpenter and an undertaker, two occupations that proved lucrative during the Civil War. He invested in mill stock and real estate and amassed a fortune, estimated to be the rough equivalent of $10 million today. His first wife Sarah died in 1863, leaving him two daughters: the 12-year old Emma and the 3-year old Lizzie. Two years later, he married Abby gray. Abby’s father peddled tin from a pushcart. She was short and stocky and 63 at the time of her death.

Abby was killed first. She had been in a second-floor guest bedroom, where the family kept the sewing machine, changing the pillowcases. She was struck on the side of the head with a hatchet (or “hatchet-like weapon”) and fell face-down on the floor, causing contusions to her nose and forehead. Her attacker then straddled her back and delivered nineteen additional blows to the back of the skull. Some forensic experts believe Abby was killed as early as 9:30 in the morning; others argue she may have been alive as much as an hour later.

Though there is some debate over when, exactly, Abby was attacked, Andrew’s time of death has been well-established. Andrew arrived home at 10:45 a.m., having been out earlier that morning to inspect some properties he had under construction. The door was unlocked for him by the live-in maid, Maggie Sullivan, and he was escorted to the first-floor sitting room by Lizzie. She suggested that he take a nap and opened the windows to make the room feel more comfortable. According to her inquest testimony, at that point she went to the barn to find sinkers for an upcoming fishing trip. At about 11:00, Lizzie reentered the house, where she found her father’s body and screamed for help.

Suspicion almost immediately fell on Lizzie. She was one of only two people were known to be in the home at the time of the murders. (The other, of course, was Maggie, who was violently ill at the time and was on the third floor sleeping.) It was later reported that Lizzie had attempted to buy cyanide from a pharmacist the day before the murders. When questioned, her answers were not always consistent. Did she go to the barn to find sinkers, or did she go out there to eat pears? Why was she out there for twenty minutes when everything she said she accomplished could have been done in five? Was she in the kitchen when her father arrived home, or was it the dining room? Or was she coming down the staircase as Maggie was opening the door for Andrew?

Those factors may have initially raised suspicion, but it was two others that cemented it in the minds of the police and prosecutors. The first was the fact that, three days after the crime, Lizzie was seen burning a dress. This could only be interpreted in one way: she was destroying evidence of her crime. The second factor was more subtle but equally damning. She was just too calm. One officer remarked that he was “disturbed” by the fact that she showed no agitation at all. Shouldn’t she be in hysterics? Seeing Lizzie, minutes after seeing her father’s mutilated body, so collected and coherent convinced him that she might be behind the events. It convinced him that she was a psychopath.

More than a hundred years later, most scholars stick to some variation on that theme. The famous psychic Sylvia Browne claimed, confirming Lizzie’s guilt, that Lizzie was bipolar. Victoria Lincoln suggested that Lizzie committed the murders while in a fugue state. Jules Ryckebusch, a professor at Fall River’s Bristol Community College, sees it in the same vein. “There’s an almost erotic association with that kind of violence. Nineteen or 20 ax blows! She got a kick out of continuing to slaughter her.”

The mayor and the city marshall came to the Borden house the Saturday after the murders. “I suppose you are here to arrest me,” said Lizzie, as calm as ever.



Dr. James Fallon is a neuroscientist at the University of California – Irvine. Fallon has a robust oval face with a white-tinged beard. Were he to be cast in one of The Hobbit movies, he would not seem out of place. He even goes so far as to describe his scientific career in a similar vein. “I’ve been a neuroscientist for about forty years. And most of that forty years I’ve been what’s called a small-time scientist. Small lab, small grants. Most scientists are like this. We’re kind of hobbits.” Fallon studies the biological basis for behavior: how genes and neurotransmitters and the like determine our actions. “But then,” he explains, “for some reason, I got into something else, just recently. And it all grew out of one of my colleagues asking me to analyze a bunch of brains of psychopathic killers.”

Pinpointing a cause of psychopathy is anything but straightforward, but Fallon is among a growing number of scientists that believe that violent behavior is caused by the combination of traumatic childhood abuse, brain dysfunction, and mental illness. “Two-thirds of murderers have all three factors,” says Georgetown neurologist Jonathan Pincus. “The others have two of the three.” None of those factors taken by themselves are enough to cause violent behavior. But two or more in tandem have a terrifying synergy, feeding off each other to create something far worse than any individual component. You could think of this as the neurological equivalent of what is known as the “fire triangle”: heat, fuel, and oxygen are not dangerous in and of themselves; together in a certain balance and you get a blaze that rages out of control.

Fallon believes we can be even more specific. “The pattern is that those people, every one of them I looked at who was a murderer, had damage to their orbital cortex.” To put it in simple terms, the orbital cortex is the part of the brain that evaluates the feelings of fear, aggression, and anxiety that come from the almond-shaped part of the temporal lobe called the amygdala. When the orbital cortex isn’t doing its job, the amygdala runs unimpeded. “What’s left? What takes over?” Fallon asks. “The part of the brain that drives your id-type behaviors, which is rage, violence, eating, sex, drinking.” Nothing is left to temper the part of the brain that generates our most primal urges. If we oversimplify, we can think of the amygdala as being like a gas can and the orbital cortex as being like a valve that regulates how much fuel is released. When that valve is damaged, gas starts leaking everywhere.

But damage to the brain is only part of the story. Fallon believes that another key piece of the puzzle is a factor called the MAO-A gene, otherwise known as the “warrior gene. People with the warrior gene respond more aggressively to provocation than the average person. The MAO-A gene regulates an enzyme that breaks down certain neurotransmitters, including serotonin. Serotonin has a calming effect on the brain and increases feelings of well-being. According to Fallon, people with the warrior gene have their brains bathed in serotonin in utero. “Your whole brain becomes insensitive to serotonin. It doesn’t work later in life.” Serotonin is, in effect, like water from a fire hose; in the warrior gene brain, those fire hoses have no effect.

In October of 2005, Fallon made what could only be described as a disturbing discovery. “I was looking at many scans, scans of murderers mixed in with schizophrenics, depressives and other normal brains. Out of serendipity, I was also doing a study on Alzheimer’s and as part of that, had brain scans from me and everyone in my family right on my desk. I got to the bottom of the stack, and saw this scan that was obviously pathological.” It showed the characteristic damage to the orbital cortex. “There’s almost nothing here,” he said. Knowing the scan belonged to a member of his family, Fallon decided to break the binding that prevented him from knowing whose brain was pictured. But the scan did not belong to a family member. The damaged brain was his own.

He dug deeper and had genetic tests done. Sure enough, he has MAO-A. “I’m 100%. I have the pattern, the risky pattern,” he says. “In a sense, I’m a born killer.” His mother then prompted him to take a closer look at his heritage. “My mother said to me, ‘You’re talking as if you come from a normal family.'” He didn’t. His grandfather’s grandfather’s grandfather’s grandfather was hung for matricide. In all, there were seven alleged murderers in his family tree. Sure, one of his cousins was Ezra Cornell, the founder of Cornell University. But another cousin was Lizzie Borden.


3 thoughts on “The Psychopathic Brain, part one

  1. From reading your review of the neurological factors involved with psychopathy, I would recommend you view the various definitional issues associated with the term and related terms (Psychopath, Sociopath, and Antisocial Personality Disorder). All are used with minimal differentiation in most circles, but I would posit they are all different because of how each term has different theoretical bases and characteristics. As an example, I am not surprised the “psychopathic brain” is found in everyday professionals such as researchers, lawyers, CEOs from large businesses, professors, or even doctors. The people who are successful, driven, and are rising to their fields are often the ones with these brain characteristics.
    Dr. Robert Hare, Dr. Kent Kiehl, and Dr. Levenson also are good sources… I especially liked Dr. Levenson’s self-report psychopath test. 🙂
    A self-proclaimed sociopath also put out a blog about her experiences…

    • Thanks for the feedback, Erik! I will look into those sources. (It may be too late to incorporate them into parts 2 and 3 of this post, but if it’s appropriate for the ultimate point I am trying to convey then that would be perfect.)

  2. Pingback: The Psychotic Brain, part two | The Dying Away

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