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Is There A Psychopath Next Door? They’re More Common Than You Think

Dr. James Fallon of UC Irvine explains what a psychopath is, how they work, and what they want from you -- and he ought to know (but you'll have to watch to find out why).

James Fallon:  Go to a party with fifty people in it, there’s a psychopath, a full-blown psychopath there. There’s probably five borderline psychopaths there. They’re not going to kill you, rape you, or maybe even take your money, but they’re going to manipulate the situation, make you look bad, or use you in some way. Something bad is going to happen.

And if you sense that… people have a sense that something is wrong with somebody, you walk away,you don’t fight these guys, because they’re masters at manipulation. The psychopath, in its simplest form, is an intraspecies predator, is a predator on other humans. It is hard to look at the actual behavior of a psychopath and say that thing is psychopathic or not, because psychopaths will come to the rescue of people. “Can I help you up, ma’am?” They, they can see the outward behaviors, and they just can mimic it to get along. But fundamentally, they don’t feel it. 

You know, some psychopathic traits and what goes along with it can be very advantageous.  First of all you’re fearless.  You walk into a room, you own everybody, and you look like you own everybody, and they let you own them because you have that aura around you, that charisma, that light.  That’s why elect people president, because they have that light around them. Another thing is you’re not very susceptible to pain.  Pain doesn’t bother me, and also when you’re caught doing something, you have no tells.  You could be caught red handed, you know, having an affair with somebody, and you could say, ‘no that’s not me’, it’s like, are you going to believe me or your lying eyes. And so it’s this ability to lie, without any tells, because in fact it doesn’t cause any anxiety.

Two main areas of the brain of a psychopath that are not regulated correctly: orbital cortex and the amygdala. Orbital cortex is involved in inhibiting your behavior. Now, the amygdala, on the other hand, really causes behavior. And normally they’re in balance. They inhibit each other. Now, in a psychopath, they’re both turned off, so they don’t inhibit each other, and they don’t regulate it. So the normal balance of animal drives and your social interactions, your morality, are not right. It’s never right. I mean, there’s a time for aggression. There’s a time for killing, even. There’s a time for sex. And part of it is how the rest of the brain is able to tell your orbital cortex the social context is correct now. Psychopaths don’t have that.

They’re doing things completely out of context, out of social context, and that’s the problem. Usually the question is, what percent do you think is due to genetics, and what percent is due to environment? And it turns out not to be the great question to ask. Because it looks like the answer is, if you are born with the biological markers for psychopathy, for example, that is the genetics and the altered brain pattern, early on. If you are a susceptible kid, then environment means everything. It means a lot. Maybe eighty percent. Because those kids can be really thrown off track, and they can be helped by a good environment too. Back in the early 90s, some of my colleagues were studying these killers, real bad guys, some serial killers, nasty guys. And they asked me to come in to look at the brains. So I put myself and some other people in as normal.  And I got to the last scan, and I looked at it, and it was like completely pathological. And I told the technician, I said, “You got these mixed up. There’s obviously, you know, a psychopath or one of the killers. We just mixed the pile up. Go check it.” And he went and checked the machine and everything. He came back, he goes, “No, it’s one of these controls.” 

And so when I pulled back the name, the tag covering the name,  of course was my name on it, and we had a good laugh about it. We were so busy, I kind of blew it off. Which seems incredible. You know, most people go, we gotta be kidding! But I said, I know who I am. I’m not a psychopath. There’s something wrong with the data, or, you know, something’s wrong. I mean, within a year and a half, all the other genetics came back, and I had all the genetic markers for violence and, you know, this poor empathy and everything associated with psychopathy. So I had the two main biological markers. I still laughed at it.  Well, it wasn’t till about 2010, I was invited to give a talk in Oslo, Norway. And they talked to me for a few hours.  They had my data, and they said, “Oh, by the way, you’re probably a borderline psychopath.” I went, “What?!” And that’s the first time I took it seriously, because these people didn’t know me.  They were just going from the scientific data from interviewing me.  And when I flew back, that’s when everything changed.  And so, I asked my wife. I said, “Don’t tell me anything, now. I’m not gonna be mad.” And I did that to my close friends and family. They all said the same thing. They said extreme narcissist, you have the extreme, you know, you’re very aggressive, and on and on. You’re cold. I’m very fortunate, you know. I was, grew up in a wonderful family. And, and those genes were never really triggered in a bad direction. Even though I’m, I have those traits, they didn’t go far south, because I should be a really bad guy.

Every day you're likely to meet a psychopath. Dr. James Fallon of UC Irvine explains what a psychopath is, how they work, and what they want from you -- and he ought to know (but you'll have to watch to find out why).

A new hydrogel might be strong enough for knee replacements

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  • Duke University researchers created a hydrogel that appears to be as strong and flexible as human cartilage.
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Predicting PTSD symptoms becomes possible with a new test

An algorithm may allow doctors to assess PTSD candidates for early intervention after traumatic ER visits.

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Technology & Innovation
  • 10-15% of people visiting emergency rooms eventually develop symptoms of long-lasting PTSD.
  • Early treatment is available but there's been no way to tell who needs it.
  • Using clinical data already being collected, machine learning can identify who's at risk.

The psychological scars a traumatic experience can leave behind may have a more profound effect on a person than the original traumatic experience. Long after an acute emergency is resolved, victims of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) continue to suffer its consequences.

In the U.S. some 30 million patients are annually treated in emergency departments (EDs) for a range of traumatic injuries. Add to that urgent admissions to the ED with the onset of COVID-19 symptoms. Health experts predict that some 10 percent to 15 percent of these people will develop long-lasting PTSD within a year of the initial incident. While there are interventions that can help individuals avoid PTSD, there's been no reliable way to identify those most likely to need it.

That may now have changed. A multi-disciplinary team of researchers has developed a method for predicting who is most likely to develop PTSD after a traumatic emergency-room experience. Their study is published in the journal Nature Medicine.

70 data points and machine learning

nurse wrapping patient's arm

Image source: Creators Collective/Unsplash

Study lead author Katharina Schultebraucks of Columbia University's Department Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons says:

"For many trauma patients, the ED visit is often their sole contact with the health care system. The time immediately after a traumatic injury is a critical window for identifying people at risk for PTSD and arranging appropriate follow-up treatment. The earlier we can treat those at risk, the better the likely outcomes."

The new PTSD test uses machine learning and 70 clinical data points plus a clinical stress-level assessment to develop a PTSD score for an individual that identifies their risk of acquiring the condition.

Among the 70 data points are stress hormone levels, inflammatory signals, high blood pressure, and an anxiety-level assessment. Says Schultebraucks, "We selected measures that are routinely collected in the ED and logged in the electronic medical record, plus answers to a few short questions about the psychological stress response. The idea was to create a tool that would be universally available and would add little burden to ED personnel."

Researchers used data from adult trauma survivors in Atlanta, Georgia (377 individuals) and New York City (221 individuals) to test their system.

Of this cohort, 90 percent of those predicted to be at high risk developed long-lasting PTSD symptoms within a year of the initial traumatic event — just 5 percent of people who never developed PTSD symptoms had been erroneously identified as being at risk.

On the other side of the coin, 29 percent of individuals were 'false negatives," tagged by the algorithm as not being at risk of PTSD, but then developing symptoms.

Going forward

person leaning their head on another's shoulder

Image source: Külli Kittus/Unsplash

Schultebraucks looks forward to more testing as the researchers continue to refine their algorithm and to instill confidence in the approach among ED clinicians: "Because previous models for predicting PTSD risk have not been validated in independent samples like our model, they haven't been adopted in clinical practice." She expects that, "Testing and validation of our model in larger samples will be necessary for the algorithm to be ready-to-use in the general population."

"Currently only 7% of level-1 trauma centers routinely screen for PTSD," notes Schultebraucks. "We hope that the algorithm will provide ED clinicians with a rapid, automatic readout that they could use for discharge planning and the prevention of PTSD." She envisions the algorithm being implemented in the future as a feature of electronic medical records.

The researchers also plan to test their algorithm at predicting PTSD in people whose traumatic experiences come in the form of health events such as heart attacks and strokes, as opposed to visits to the emergency department.

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Two different experiments show hints of a 4th spatial dimension. Credit: Zilberberg Group / ETH Zürich
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Physicists have understood at least theoretically, that there may be higher dimensions, besides our normal three. The first clue came in 1905 when Einstein developed his theory of special relativity. Of course, by dimensions we’re talking about length, width, and height. Generally speaking, when we talk about a fourth dimension, it’s considered space-time. But here, physicists mean a spatial dimension beyond the normal three, not a parallel universe, as such dimensions are mistaken for in popular sci-fi shows.

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Vaccines find more success in development than any other kind of drug, but have been relatively neglected in recent decades.

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Vaccines are more likely to get through clinical trials than any other type of drug — but have been given relatively little pharmaceutical industry support during the last two decades, according to a new study by MIT scholars.

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