The power of ‘nurture’

Neuroscientist James Fallon has written a first-person account of his own self-discovery related to the nature vs. nurture debate.

Nature vs Nurture. Is our life path – our character, personality and behaviour – an inevitable expression of our biology, our nature? Or, are we born a blank slate shaped by our life experiences and choices?  This has been a huge question in academic circles for years.  The debate is more than academic. If nurture can play a big role in human behaviour, then we can do things to create conditions that would produce a monster like Hitler or great leaders like Ghandi or Nelson Mandala.

James Fallon, a neuroscientist at the University of California has written a first-person account of his own self-discovery related to the nature vs. nurture debate.

As a neuroscientist with an expertise in brain scans, Fallon believed that 80% of how we act is the inevitable result of genes and brain chemistry. He had been performing analyses on the brain scans of psychopathic killers and testifying about this in court. There was a definite pattern. Psychopathic killers had brain scans demonstrating a deficiency in the areas related to empathy, and DNA analysis also revealed genes showing “warrior” or aggressive genes. Fallon had, however, inadvertently mixed up brain scans of psychopathic killers with those from other studies, including his own family. One looked remarkably liked the scans of psychopathic killers, and when he broke the anonymity code on the scans, he discovered to his surprise that it was his own.

Fallon knew he wasn’t a psychopathic killer, but was he a psychopath? And if nature and biology determine life course, why wasn’t he violent and in jail?  As he learned more, he realized that he had all the makings of a psychopath and many of the same behaviours, except for violence. He could be charming, glib, a risk taker with little regard for the welfare of others or what they thought. He consulted his psychiatrist friends, as well as others he knew, and they all said the same thing: “You pretty much fit the profile of a psychopath.”

Fallon’s book, The Psychopath Inside: A Neuroscientist’s Personal Journey into the Dark Side of the Brain is, in essence, his conversion to an opinion that nurture plays a more prominent role in development than he had believed throughout his career. In a rather amusing finish, he describes how his feisty mom chided him for how long he was taking to write his autobiography. He told her, “I’m not writing my autobiography, Mums, I’m writing yours.” He goes on to write “a lot of who I am has to do with how she raised and treated me. My story is as much about motherhood and fatherhood and parenthood and how you raise kids as it is about me.”

As a psychologist dedicated to helping people, working for an organization that does the same, I was heartened to read his concluding statement “What I discovered during this serendipitous pilgrimage beginning in my sixth decade of life is something I didn’t believe in even five years ago: real nurture can overcome a lousy deck of cards dealt at birth by nature…..there are good reasons to treat vulnerable children with an extra bit of love.”

I have worked in Chilliwack for over 30 years and I see this every day. I’ve seen teachers, teaching assistants, counsellors, social workers, doctors, pastors, parents and grandparents who will go that extra mile to give that nurturance, so that whatever the nature, things turn out for the best for both the children and those around them.


Dr. Robert Lees, R.Psych, is the Community Psychologist for the Ministry of Children and Family Development in Chilliwack.