Call it the three strikes theory: Neuroscientists now argue that goodness may be impossible for some human beings.
Believe it or not, these findings have personal relevance for me. More on that below.
The first strike occurs in the brain of a psychopath or sociopath where either an injury or a birth defect damages the orbital cortex — the part of the brain that enables us to control aggression and appetites.
The second strike comes genetically when genes like MAO-A, known as the “warrior gene,” make it harder for people to be calm. NPR reports:
(The gene) regulates serotonin in the brain. Serotonin affects your mood — think Prozac — and many scientists believe that if you have a certain version of the warrior gene, your brain won’t respond to the calming effects of serotonin.
Finally, the third and deciding strike may come at home.
(Scientists) believe that brain patterns and genetic makeup are not enough to make anyone a psychopath. You need a third ingredient: abuse or violence in one’s childhood.
The story I’m quoting is about James Fallon, a neuroscientist at the University of California-Irvine, who has studied the brains of psychopaths for decades. Four years ago his mother mentioned all the “cuckoos” in his own family, including Lizzy Borden. (Cousin Lizzy was suspected of whacking her mother and father to death with an ax in 1882.) His mother’s comment prompted him to study himself and his own family.
The good news is that everyone’s physiology was normal, except for that of one person — James Fallon. Here is where the story gets even more fascinating. Fallon isn’t a murderer, sociopath or psychopath. Apparently he has never even broken the law. The difference between Fallon and the killers he studies may well have been a loving childhood.
And here’s where I come into the story. I had an abusive father. I grew up with moments of sheer terror and shame and a whole lot of pain, yet I seem to have missed the sociopath/psychopath trap. Once I was rather smug about this. I had spent years and thousands of dollars on therapy in an effort to become a person who was more intent on understanding goodness, than on inflicting pain. I was so proud of what I had accomplished.
But was my smugness warranted? Perhaps I turned out the way I did because I was blessed with the right brain and the right genetic code. There’s nothing to crow if all I did was win the physiology lottery. And what about my father? I’m pretty certain he was abused as a child. Did he also suffer from the wrong brain and the wrong genes?
I do know I had and have two other blessings. My mother and brother loved/love me dearly. That has to count for something.
IMAGE: From NPR. See the full image.