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James Fallon Ph.D.
James Fallon Ph.D.

The Mind of a Dictator

Exploring the minds of psychopaths and dictators.

For the past 18 years, I have studied the brain activity, psychology, and genetics of psychiatric patients and the brain scans of psychopathic serial killers. A few months ago, I was approached by a non-profit human rights organization to create a presentation on the mind of a dictator--an especially compelling issue in light of recent uprisings against autocrats in the Middle East and North Africa.

After combing through literature on the world's worst dictators and combining it with my neuroscience research and that of others on psychopaths, I presented my theory in May at the Oslo Freedom Forum, an annual conference produced by the Human Rights Foundation. The following article is based on my speech, an attempt to look inside the minds of these elusive and powerful world players.

So, what binds dictators across history and geography? What traits do they share? To begin with, let's examine the general characteristics of psychopaths. Successful psychopaths are usually charming, charismatic, and intelligent. They brim with self-confidence and independence, and exude sexual energy. They are also extremely self-absorbed, masterful liars, compassionless, often sadistic, and possess a boundless appetite for power. These are just a few of the character traits present in a genuine psychopath.

There is a dearth of brain-scanning and genetic reports on dictators, but the distinct psychological traits common to the classic psychopath can be used as a starting point in studying their behavior. I have analyzed the traits of many modern-day dictators and have identified commonalities with classic psychopaths. Libya's Muammar al-Gaddafi, for example, is paranoid, narcissistic, power-hungry, and vain. Belarus's Alexander Lukashenko is among the world's most dangerous dictators; he actively attacks his opposition-a clear sign of malignant psychopathic megalomania that is almost impossible to satisfy.

Meanwhile, Venezuela's Hugo Chávez is a freedom-fighter turned dictator, somewhere in the middle of the scale between normal and psychopath. Though not a dictator, I would like to have scanned the brain and tested the DNA of Osama bin Laden. He exhibits many traits typical of classic psychopathic dictators--grandiosity, charm, vengeance, vanity, and sadism. With his abrupt maritime burial, we missed a tremendous opportunity to study the inner workings of an evil mind.

Somewhat predictably, dictators do not relate in a normal manner to other people in a person-to-person, empathetic way. They may associate themselves with "people" as a whole or "people" in a tribal or abstract pan-world sense (as Hitler may have had with pan-Germanism, or Stalin with pan-Slavic sentiments), or even with "the world"-anonymous variables that they exploit at their own discretion. But beyond any generalized pan-nationalistic "empathy," which they usually exploit at their own discretion, what actually makes a person psychopathic?

Just behind the eyebrows and deep to the neocortex in the temporal and frontal lobes, is the extended amygdala. It is a key node in the brain circuit that mediates "animal instincts" and it contributes to making 2 percent of the world's population psychopaths--and a few of the most versatile and talented of these become dictators.

In the brain's lower frontal lobe--the orbital cortex, ventromedial prefrontal cortex, and anterior cingulate cortex--we find the circuit that is likely to be damaged in the psychopathic dictator, where aggressive impulses originating in the amygdala are inhibited and moral and ethical choices considered through interactions with the orbital and ventromedial cortex. People with low activity in this area are particularly predisposed to impulsive or psychopathic behavior. When we struggle with moral dilemmas--fighting between the angel and the devil in ourselves--this part of the brain is activated. However, when the center of the frontal lobe is malformed or injured, it fails to activate and the amygdala in the temporal lobe takes over and controls behavior.

The amygdala is a major center for the circuits that regulate fear, rage, and sexual desire, emotional memory, among other things. This part of the brain center is directly connected to the ancient survival and appetite center in the septum, hypothalamus, and brainstem, is dysregulated in some people with emotional problems. This can occur developmentally during fetal development and can be affected by both genes (especially those associated with serotonin and the other monoamine neurotransmitters) and environment (e.g., maternal stress, drugs of abuse, severe stress).

Both the frontal lobe and the amygdala connect with each other, and with the brain's hedonistic hotspot in the nearby nucleus accumbens and are in a moment-to-moment fight for control of behavior. Either the morality compass and impulse control mechanisms of the lower frontal lobe, or the more animal amygdala in us wins that battle. In some individuals, the amygdala can be so poorly developed that it creates an extreme pattern of dependency.

So what satisfies a normal person--such as reading a good book or watching the sunset--does nothing for someone with an underdeveloped amygdala. For some people, this means a greater tendency toward drug and alcohol addiction and severe painful withdrawal that gets progressively worse over time, leading to malignant dependent behaviors. For sadists, they become addicted to torture and killing; dictators get high on power, an insatiable drive that gets progressively worse, or malignant with time.

Contributing to my own hypothesis on the basis of psychopathic behaviors, I considered differences in the brains of psychopathic serial killers. Over the past 15 years, I have examined functional and structural brain scans of murderers in comparison to normal people as well as those with schizophrenia, depression, addictions, and neurodegenerative diseases. Even in blind analyses of large numbers of such scans, it became obvious that the psychopathic murderers had a common pattern of functional loss in the orbital and ventromedial cortex of the frontal lobe, the anterior-medial temporal lobe especially in the amygdala, and adjacent limbic cortices such as the anterior cingulated cortex.

However, there are other factors that may need to be present to breed a cold-blooded murderer. The warrior gene, MAO-A, is one of over a dozen genes that are associated with aggressive behavior, and may also play a role in the creation of a killer, although it has yet to be proven that these gene variants actually cause such behaviors. Some of these aggression related genes such as MAO-A are transmitted from mother to child through the X chromosome, but it is more prevalent in men due to the fact that males have only one X chromosome, thus if they inherit the warrior gene, it will always be active. Women have two X chromosomes, but one is turned off by chance (X inactivation) so more women are likely, in a probabilistic way, to have an inactive warrior gene.

Some of these gene variants such as the promoter for the serotonin transporter, while though to predispose one to the harmful long-term effects of early abuse, also enhance positive, loving early experience that can offset the otherwise negative biological determinants. In addition, men are particularly predisposed to a gene variant for vasopressin, which makes them prone to poor mate or interpersonal bonding and perhaps more likely to exhibit clan behavior (tribalism). Men are also impacted by genetic variants for the androgen sex receptor, with one variant or allele favoring magnanimity and the other fostering selfishness. It is no coincidence that all dictators are men.

When looking at demographics, around 30 percent of Caucasians are found to have the MAO-A (short form) warrior gene. The rate is similar among Africans, despite the daunting physical environments, tribal cultures, and that they have higher dictators per capita than any other continent. The highest level is found in the Chinese and Polynesian population; 60 percent are equipped with a warrior gene. Variants of this gene have differential impacts on different ethnicities, so a high rate in one ethnicity does not mean they would tend to be more aggressive, since many genes are involved and the way these genes interact with other genes (epistasis) varies in different ethnicities. In general, such complex adaptive behaviors and traits are impacted by a myriad of gene variants in a way that is only beginning to be understood. Proving causation between a gene variant and a behavior is a daunting challenge, especially since any gene might only contribute 1 or 2 percent to the variance in such behaviors.

To develop into a dictator--in addition to theoretically having a hefty percentage of the 12 to 15 particularly aggressive gene variants and a dysfunctional frontal lobe and amygdale--an individual has usually also been seriously abused in childhood, and/or lost important caretakers, such as biological parents. Yet such extreme combinations are no guarantee; it is a matter of a hypothetical probability calculation. A certain degree of some of these factors are apparent in each and every one of us--as a quantitative trait what matters is the overall gradation.

We often think about dictators in terms of good vs. evil. However, the highly trained soldiers that are sent out to eliminate dictators may have many of the same qualities as their targets. I have worked with defense agencies in the fields of cognition and extreme small group warfare to discuss how to determine the right types of people that have the icy, aggressive qualities combined with the warmth and morality that together make a good soldier who acts optimally depending on the context of the situation, for example being in a surprise firefight vs. dealing with the local civilian population.

Previous gang leaders from L.A. have done particularly well on one such desirable trait: they seem to have an intuitive sense of danger and are rarely caught by surprise, and as such are gifted survivors. In the end, what makes the difference between these soldiers and dictators, psychopaths, and killers is the balance between their emotions, drives, instincts, and moral compass in a contextually appropriate manner.

About the Author
James Fallon Ph.D.

James Fallon is Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry and Human Behavior in the School of Medicine at the University of California, Irvine.

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