The Anatomy of a Killer’s Brain

Is it true that the brain of a killer is somehow neurologically different than that of non-offenders? Much speculation is ongoing about this hypothesis. Crime historians, forensic psychiatrists and neurologists are among the many professionals who investigate baumeisterpossible malfunctions in the killer’s brain. Comparisons between a random human brain of a non-offender and that of serial and spree killers have been made by several experts. Dr Roy Baumeister, a professor at Florida State University, doesn’t believe the brain’s anatomy is quite so cut and dried. He traces evil and fury, two common traits in pathological killers, to social rejection and isolation, particularly people who have been rejected for years by their peers. “What happens to rejected people is their emotions shut down. Most of the people who have committed most newsworthy crimes… have felt rejected and excluded by multiple people.” Baumeister believes this ongoing rejection changes people physically and emotionally, to the point where their ability to experience pain is considerably diminished. “Most people deal with [rejection]m in a more productive manner but for some people it leads to an outburst of violence.” The resulting brain anatomy changes, the endless rejection changes neural pathways and the brain doesn’t develop like most other people’s.

Baumeister has administered a simple (not sadistic) pain threshold test to (willing) subjects. A metal device pressed down on a finger until the subject indicated first mild then moderate and finally significant pain. At that point, Baumeister gave the false information to the subject that the results proved by the person’s mid-20’s s/he would become a social reject with few friends. After this gorgeous information, the subject was again tested and egad! the results showed a much higher pain tolerance. What the…? Baumeister’s theory suggested that it was not only the emotional but the physical ability to feel pain become “impaired” by the mention or reality of social rejection. Creepy. Sort of a fuck-you response to the world, if I may be so bold. Worst, the subject’s pain tolerance could lead to a failure to recognize and thereby empathize with other people’s suffering. Empathy prevents people from committing cruel acts against others.

large_M1X00086_7David Burkowitz – Son of SamThe Criminal Face of Social Rejection As a young adult, Burkowitz, an adopted boy, traced his birth mother after his stepmother died. He discovered his birth mother had kept a daughter but gave him away. He had no friends and had never had a girlfriend. One year after discovering what he viewed as his mother’s betrayal, Burkowitz went on a shooting rampage, The murderous rampage lasted 19 months and claimed 6 victims. The media and police attention was intoxicating for the man who had previously known nothing but rejection and isolation.

Marco Iacoboni, a neuroscientist at the University of California believes brutality may be the result of a malfunction in a class of cells called mirror neurons. The latter are iacoboni121208essential building blocks for socially acceptable behavior. The cells affect one’s ability to read and interpret other people’s emotions. Iacoboni gives the example that if mirror neurons are highly active in the brain, a facial expression would indicate distress. In healthy people the same neurons fire when a person observes distress in others. The inability to emphasize with these expressions and other pain signals in people makes violence more likely.Mirror neurons begin in the lobe of the brain that is responsible for muscle movement. The mirror neurons then sent emotional messages to another lobe of the brain that interprets the facial expression. This may be what makes empathy possible.

Iacoboni experimented with autistic children. Autism is a neurological syndrome that, along with many symptoms, presents the inability to respond in an appropriate social and emotional manner to various stimuli. Functional MRI scans revealed an impaired ability to mimic the emotions displayed in photographs of subject’s faces. Mildly autistic children easily identified pictures with various emotions, however the more severe the autism, the less successful the results. The results suggest that autistic children are less likely than non-autistic children to display empathy, although this isn’t to suggest that autistic children are prone to excessive violence. Working with children who are mildly to severely autistic children displays a wide range of social and intellectual abilities. Some of the autistic children I have worked with are highly intelligent but their emotional affect is impaired. These children are uninterested in social interaction and are quite content to work and play alone. Severely autistic children in my experience tend to interact more with adults, as limited as the interaction may be but this may also be due to a lack of opportunity to socialize with other children, along with a lack of interest in socializing with peers.

Hare_photo_2009[1]Robert D. Hare – FBI profiler believes it is a combination of both social rejection and physical impairment in the brain that may lead to violent behavior. What’s more, mental illness “is the key factor behind delusional killers who then lash out against a false reality.” However Hare is quick to mention that this combination is very rare even in killers. A prime example is Andrea Yates, the paranoid schizophrenic who drowned her five children in a bathtub when voices told her they were Satan’s spawn. At the time of the murders Yates may or may not have been taking prescribed medication for her illness. However Hare has also observed pathological killers who rely on their intellect to commit crime and avoid responsibility for it for some time. Diane Downs, the mother of three who shot her children, killing one, is an example of a subject Hare believed fit this profile. Hare describes her as “scheming” and “deceitful” and fully aware of the implications of her actions.

051109_andrea_yates_vsml.grid-4x2It is quite possibly that Yates’ brain, like some of those of mentally ill criminals, Dr Paul Thompson, a researcher at the University of California experimented with 12 schizophrenics over a 5-year period, taking MRIs to compare their brains with ordinary brains. Patients lost 5% of their brain tissue in the first year after diagnosis. Two years later there was “a massive avalanche of brain tissue loss that ends up at the front of the brain.”  The frontal lobes of the brain are responsible for reasoning and other high functioning. After 5 years, brain tissue loss added up to 1/4 of brain  due to schizophrenia. However the majority of schizophrenics are not violent, and if anything, may be more of a threat to themselves than anyone around them. It may be that in some schizophrenic individuals there is an impulse that makes them capable of violent acts and incapable of self-control.

Robert Shug is a researcher in the Psychology Department of the University of Southern California. He theorizes that the minority of violent schizophrenics, co-morbid with anti-social disorder, are prone to violent behaviour. Focusing on the pre-frontal cortex of the brain, Shug attempts to prove a deficit in this area. His experiment resulted in an impaired ability to respond to various sounds in the environment, such as an infant’s cry. They are at a dual risk for acting out in a violent manner.

Dr Randy Larson, at Washington University in St Louis, believes that jealous in men and women, a common trait in “love-triangle” murders believes “jealousy is a hard-wired emotion“, and “a direct line to the autonomic nervous system.” The latter initiates the “flight or fight response” in humans. Larson discovered that women registered a higher emotional response to the prospect of a romantic partner falling in love with someone else and men registered a higher response to the prospect of a romantic partner having sex with someone else. Criminal cases seem to bear out Larson’s findings.

fsg-crime-scene-response-unit-01Men and women mate for the same reasons: to pass genes to the next generation. Throughout history, men weren’t certain whose child his partner birthed, whereas women were obviously privy to this information. It might be that a primitive instinct in men to raise only their own offspring and no one else’s might trigger more anger about a sexual betrayal than that of emotional intimacy.

There appears to be much further work needed in this area if researchers are to make significant conclusions in the analysis of the criminal brain and violent crime. But MRI scans, the use of electrodes and other technology are of assistance in this area, as is the dedication of experts in the field.


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