Category Archives: Morality

Anosognosia, Psychopathy, and the Conscience

How people see and understand themselves is likely to have an impact on how they interpret interactions with others. Here, I briefly explore the brain areas implicated in anosognosia, how these areas are also relevant in psychopathy, and why anosognosia is important when considering the crime and the conscience.

ANOSOGNOSIA AND SELF BELIEF

Anosognosia is defined as the impaired ability of patients with neurological disorders to recognize the presence or adequately appreciate the severity of their deficits [1]. Torrey (2012) cites three examples of anosognosic patients; a stroke victim with a paralyzed arm claimed he couldn’t lift it because he had a shirt on; a woman with paralysis in her left arm was asked to raise it, and instead raised her left leg. When this was pointed out to her she responded that some people call it an arm, others a leg, and jokingly inquired as to the difference; the Supreme Court Justice, William Douglas, was paralyzed on his left side. He claimed this was a myth, and was still inviting people to go hiking [2].

NEUROLOGICAL FINDINGS IN ANOSOGNOSIC PATIENTS

Recent research on this phenomenon has identified deficits in the brain of the patients who in all honesty do not recognize that they are in some way impaired. By using fluorodeoxyglucose positron emission tomography (FDG-PET) and single photon emission computed Tomography (SPECT) Perrotin et al. (2015) found that anosognosic Alzheimer’s patients had a disruption in connectivity between the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC) and the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) [1]. Ries et al. (2007) also implicated a compromised precuneus in anosognosic patients. These midline structures are susceptible to damage in those with Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) and stroke victims. Anosognosia is also experienced by schizophrenic patients; according to Gerretsen et al. (2015), 60% of schizophrenic patients experience moderate to severe illness awareness, and this can lead to medication non-adherence and poor treatment outcomes [4]; they found left hemispheric dominance in the left prefrontal cortex in anosognosic schizophrenic patients and cortical thinning in the temporoparietalocciptal junction (TPO).

There is still much work to be done to determine the mechanistic and functional basis of anosognosia, and to determine the subtleties between illnesses and disorders, but research is starting to identify suspect brain regions. This is useful if anosognosia is questioned in other disorders, because neurological studies exploring the disorder can be explored and legitimate avenues of scientific inquiry explored.

RESEARCH PARALLELS WITH PSYCHOPATHY

A failure to recognize a disorder is also present in those with psychopathy. While anosognosia is yet to be explored thoroughly in those with psychopathy, there are behavioral items on the Psychopathy Checklist (PCL-R) [5] that suggest anosognosia is present; grandiose sense of self-worth, lack of remorse, and failure to accept responsibility. The sense of self-worth and narcissistic traits of the psychopath clearly means that they think very highly of themselves. This negates the idea that the psychopath believes they suffer from a defect or a disorder; at the most they might recognize that most others are different, and perhaps inferior to themselves. If a lack of remorse is experienced, this is an explicit demonstration that they do recognize, at least on an emotional level, the consequences of their bad behavior as being wrong; if they do not believe their behavior is inappropriate, it stands to reason that they believe they behaved appropriately, and thus experience nothing ‘wrong’ about themselves. This aspect of self-belief and self-reflection is also seen in the psychopath’s failure to accept responsibility; if they are always good and right, there is little motivation to make amends.

Based upon this cursory examination of psychopathic behavior, it would seem reasonable to explore the neurological studies of psychopathy and see if there could be some overlap with previous studies on anosognosia, and in fact some of the same compromised brain areas are implicated. Many studies have demonstrated developmental differences in the PFC of the psychopath (for a review, see Umbach et al. (2015) [6]), and the white matter pathways, such as the uncinate fasciculus (UF) connecting to the PFC from the limbic regions [7]. Perrotin et al. [1] hypothesized that Anosognosia can result from a disruption in connectivity in the UF. When exploring connectivity in the frontoparietal network (FPN), Philippi et al. (2015) found reduced connectivity in those with higher scores on the PCL-R, which included the right precuneus. And to further the overlap, Glenn et al. (2009) [8] found that those with who scored high on the interpersonal factors of the PCL-R (manipulative, conning, deceitful), showed reduced activity in the PCC during an fMRI scan when having to make judgments during moral dilemma scenarios.

Anosognosia and psychopathy both demonstrate complex neurological constructs, and it is premature to conclude that the neurological basis for Anosognosia (itself still understood) would tuck neatly into the already known neurological research on the psychopath. However, given the neat juxtaposition of behavioral traits and neurological dysfunction, it is worth bringing psychopathy into discussions of Anosognosia for the following reason. The research on psychopathy is currently deeper and richer than the research on anosognosia, and behavior of the psychopath has been widely observed and studied. If we can reasonably conclude that psychopaths, particularly criminal psychopaths, are also anosognosics, their behavior can be assessed in light of what it means to recognize no disorder or defect within oneself. The parallel is further relevant with psychopathy when considering that a number of those with schizophrenia, and a minority of those with AD, have been known for antisocial, and sometimes criminal, behavior [9, 10].

ANOSOGNOSIA, ANTISOCIAL BEHAVIOR, AND THE CONSCIENCE

Those with schizophrenia and AD also suffer from abuse, but when they have been known to act violently, their behavior and motivations need to be understood. Torrey (2012) has documented extensively the violent acts of those with schizophrenia [2]. There is usually a history of progressively worse episodes of psychosis that can convince the patient that they are receiving supernatural or alien instructions to kill or harm individuals, and more often than not family members. Whether or not the auditory hallucinations slowly convince the patient over time of the necessity for deadly action, or whether the act is impulsive, after the event the patient often remains remorseless and attributes their behavior to necessary and mandated (often divine) reasons. This state of mind is similar to the violent psychopath, who also viewed his violent actions as necessary and fully justified. The problem is never attributed to the self; a disorder or defect is not recognized. While psychopaths are widely regarded as not having a conscience and experience only limited affect, more research is needed on the experience of conscience by schizophrenics, especially understanding the role that psychosis played in circumventing the conscience and providing them with permission to act. It is also crucial to discover how those events are remembered and felt post psychosis, perhaps when the patient has reconvened their medication.

In illnesses and disorders that can be associated with antisocial behavior or aggression, anosognosia could be a partial reason for the event of the behavior. Not recognizing any problems or defects, and thinking that one acted rightly or righteously, will affect personal judgments on the self-evaluation of behavior. This does not provide a fertile ground for remorse or responsibility, and if the behavior was aggressive, the patient could continue to remain dangerous, inflexible to a reasoned and peaceful behavioral change. This makes the search for the neural representation of anosognosia all the more crucial, treatment all the more pressing, and methods of identification all the more necessary.

© Jack Pemment, 2016

 

REFERENCES

  1. Perrotin, A. et al. (2015). Anosognosia in Alzheimer disease: Disconnection between memory and self‐related brain networks. Annals of neurology, 78(3), 477-486
  2. Torrey, E. F. (2012) The Insanity Offense, New York, W. W. Norton and Company
  3. Ries, M. L. et al. (2007). Anosognosia in mild cognitive impairment: relationship to activation of cortical midline structures involved in self-appraisal. Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society, 13(03), 450-461
  4. Gerretsen, P. et al. (2015). Illness denial in schizophrenia spectrum disorders. Human brain mapping, 36(1), 213-225
  5. Hare, R. D. et al. (1990). The revised Psychopathy Checklist: Reliability and factor structure. Psychological Assessment: A Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 2(3), 338-341
  6. Umbach, R. et al. (2015). Brain imaging research on psychopathy: Implications for punishment, prediction, and treatment in youth and adults. Journal of criminal justice, 43(4), 295-306
  7. Motzkin, J. C. et al. (2011). Reduced prefrontal connectivity in psychopathy. The Journal of Neuroscience, 31(48), 17348-17357
  8. Glenn, A. L. et al. (2009) The Neural Correlates of Moral Decision-Making in Psychopathy. Retrieved from http://repository.upenn.edu/neuroethics_pubs/55
  9. Fazel, S. et al. (2009). Schizophrenia and violence: systematic review and meta-analysis. PLoS Med, 6(8), e1000120
  10. Lopez, O. L. et al. (2003). Psychiatric symptoms vary with the severity of dementia in probable Alzheimer’s disease. The Journal of neuropsychiatry and clinical neurosciences, 15, 346–353

The Onion in the Ointment: Neurodiversity With Psychopathy and Pedophilia

The formation of (and participation in) support groups to help individuals deal with unique medical or psychological conditions is a common occurrence in the United States. These groups help to build solidarity for individuals who once felt isolated, stories and anecdotes can be shared, and potential solutions or coping strategies can be imparted based upon similar experiences. These groups therefore provide an environment that is sensitive to the experiences and conditions that can stoke consternation and grief in everyday life.

Steve Silberman meticulously documented how the right group for those with autism can diminish the stresses experienced in a culture that has struggled to understand this neurodiversity. The number of support groups is endless, and they range from assisting victims of aggression, helping those suffering from debilitating and terminal illnesses, assisting those with neurological or psychological differences, and helping those who experienced extreme weather devastation. The point is that the support is there because there is a difference that majorities of people do not experience (or do not actively address), and this generates adaptation or standard of living concerns.

Technically, anything that meets this description generates the need of a support group, where measures can be addressed to help individuals onto a path that allows them to make the most of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. From a mental health perspective, this is often accompanied by movements that push for culture to accept neurodiversity as personality differences, moving away from the stigmas of disorders.

However, there are at least two groups that by definition fall under the neurodiversity banner, which are problematic; psychopaths and pedophiles. While there is no unified neurological profile that can within an acceptable level of error capture all those that meet the diagnostic criteria for each condition, many studies have identified neurological differences; although, there is much diversity within psychopathy and within pedophilia, which make it hard to suggest unifying neurological differences, and behavior is diverse, too.

The behavior of both psychopaths and pedophiles can often be catastrophic, and could pose a serious threat to those who interact with them. For other neurodiverse conditions, individuals are taught to learn and structure their lives in a way that works with their set of differences; this clearly cannot be encouraged with psychopaths and pedophiles. In fact, if either of these groups wished to exercise their right for self-determination, as certain pedophile groups often have, society will push back. Support groups for pedophiles tend to focus on encouraging them to control their desires and drives, although the success rate remains questionable.

For psychopathy and pedophilia, therefore, neurodiversity is met with the need for resistance and legal protections that inhibit destructive and antisocial behavior which can result from their neurodiversity. This makes them unique from other neurodiverse conditions, and so therefore needs to be acknowledged and addressed in discussions that seek to encourage acceptance of neurodiversity. This may seem obvious, but arguments looking to support self determination based upon diversity need to be taken seriously, not in the least because there are exceptions.

While breaking stigmas remains a crucial battle, psychopathy, along with pedophilia, remain the elephants in the room.

Sources

Neurological study reviews focused on psychopathy

Anderson, N. E., & Kiehl, K. A. (2012) The psychopath magnetized: insights from brainimaging. Trends in cognitive sciences, 16(1), 52-60

Umbach, R., Berryessa, C. M., & Raine, A. (2015) Brain imaging research on psychopathy: Implications for punishment, prediction, and treatment in youth and adults. Journal of criminal justice, 43(4), 295-306

Weber, S., Habel, U., Amunts, K., & Schneider, F. (2008) Structural brain abnormalities in psychopaths—A review. Behavioral sciences & the law, 26(1), 7-28

Neurological study reviews focused on pedophilia

Fonteille, V., Cazala, F., Moulier, V., & Stoléru, S. (2012) Pedophilia: contribution of neurology and neuroimaging techniques. L’Encephale, 38(6), 496-503

Mohnke, S., Müller, S., Amelung, T., Krüger, T. H., Ponseti, J., Schiffer, B., … & Walter, H. (2014) Brain alterations in paedophilia: a critical review. Progress in neurobiology, 122, 1-23

Wiebking, C., & Northoff, G. (2013) Neuroimaging in pedophilia. Current psychiatry reports, 15(4), 1-9

Emotion and Worldviews: The Deep Empathic Failing of Homophobia

Anchor and balloonLately, I have been trying to make sense of how our emotions and our sense of morality are related. Everyone has ideas about what is ‘right’ in the world, and these ideas are usually held as explanations for having certain feelings about particular events. For example, witnessing an assault or abuse can make us feel bad (if our brain is working). We then justify our bad feeling with ideas that explain why we feel bad, and we soon have a sense of morality.

First, we might reason that the aggressor is wrong for behaving aggressively because we don’t like the way we feel when we witness what he is doing, or the way we feel when he is doing it to us. To make further sense of these feelings we start weaving together ideas, such as hitting people is wrong (it has to be, right, because it makes us feel bad?), and extend it to hitting smaller and weaker people is more wrong (because this change in context makes us feel worse). However, we might start to introduce caveats such as, hitting people is wrong, unless it’s to stop someone hitting someone else. And so as our emotional responses change throughout these different scenarios, our sense of morality and the way we understand the world evolves.

The key point to note here is that our emotions anchor our morality. It is also possible to have a cold and emotionless ‘code of ethics’, a system of rules that govern behavior, even though there is no emotional attachment to them. In fact, your emotion and the cold and emotionless ethical principles that you come into contact with probably duke it out to give you your sense of morality. Lacking an emotional attachment could cause a schism and internal conflict later, especially if we have (intellectually) accepted a moral position with no feeling, such as a stance on the death penalty or abortion. Should we experience for the first time a personal situation that involves these two issues, our emotions may go to war with our intellect.

But there’s no denying that the ideas about life that really stick, are the ones weighted down by a strong emotion, and this becomes problematic because our emotion, which is notoriously unreliable, becomes the first and often the most powerful truth criterion for understanding a moral action. If we feel strongly positive or negative towards something, that’s sometimes all the truth we need – our visceral experience.

I believe that it is this visceral failing that results in the most prejudice. For example, take homophobia. Sometimes it is touted that homophobes are really self-hating homosexuals. While I’m willing to merit that this is sometimes the case, I do not think it explains the majority of homophobia. What explains the majority of homophobia is a deep empathic failing – all justifications on top of this are all garbage, no matter what their brand. However, these justifications also form a culture that reinforces these deep empathic failings. Let me explain.

A heterosexual teenage male, with a new found and celebrated sexuality, will realize how awesome women can make him feel (this marks the beginning of personal growth and many political encounters with women, which will hopefully result in positive outcomes). Now, in an effort to understand homosexuality, there’ll be an attempt at empathy and he may fail miserably. In all likelihood he will recreate the experience of anal penetration, or imagine all of the sexual things he fantasizes about one day doing with a woman and supplanting the woman with a man. This will make him want to retreat into his shell like a turtle, and the bad feeling that results from this failed empathy could then easily be justified by bogus ideas of what it is to be gay. If the feeling is strong (or repulsive) enough, the quality of any further truth criteria doesn’t matter – the repulsion is his experience – his truth (I haven’t been to church in ages, but let me throw out Leviticus, and then show you this sour expression on my face).

There was a deep empathic failing here for the following reason.

The great feeling arising from the heterosexual sexuality will hinder attempts at homosexual empathy, and to a large extent, a heterosexual male will never know how awesome it feels to fall in love with another man. But this doesn’t matter. What the heterosexual person can empathize with is what it is to love somebody and be attracted to somebody. How great it is to curl up on the couch after a long and trying day with their significant other. If the empathic focus shifts from physical sex to the emotional satisfaction (or turmoil) of being in a relationship, empathy can prevail. Given time and maturity, the awkwardness elicited by thoughts of homosexual sex can also be diminished.

The problem is that homophobic ideas do focus on sex and encourage negative feelings, which in turn reinforces homophobic morality. It’s a particular problem with sex because the emotional experiences that result from our sexuality are often so powerful that there is no neutral ground – something is either very wrong or it’s very right. This is why sex is usually a major part of religion – the strong feelings of guilt (or in some cases empowerment) strengthens the underlying creed, which may force some to disband and others to cling even tighter.

I believe that a failure to empathize on this crucial issue could be addressed by mentioning sexuality in school. Firstly, it’s crucial that homosexual children can learn that there is nothing wrong with them, which is vital for their development, and secondly children/teenagers can learn some theory surrounding relationships. Obviously, there is much to be learned from experience, but some good foot holds from the beginning could be beneficial. It is perhaps time that children are shown how to empathize, because their morality depends on it.

Hervey Cleckley and Psychopathy

Hervey Cleckley. Photo from Wikipedia.

Hervey Cleckley. Photo from Wikipedia.

Hervey Cleckley is arguably one of the first mental health researchers to make sense of psychopathy. He worked as a psychiatrist in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Georgia School of Medicine. In 1941 he published The Mask of Sanity: An Attempt to Clarify Some Issues About the So-Called Psychopathic Personality. As you can guess by the latter part of the title, in the 1940s there was a lot of confusion about what psychopathy was and how it should be addressed – not just how the public saw it, but how it was treated in legal and psychological/medical circles. In fact, at the end of an article Cleckley wrote for Federal Probation in 1946, he admits, “Psychiatry has not yet been able to prove or demonstrate precisely what is wrong with the psychopath.”

There were a least a couple of reasons for this confusion. First, psychopathic individuals appeared to commit crimes impulsively, even knowing that what they were doing was legally wrong. Cleckley wrote, “While on parole for stealing something [the psychopath] did not need, he will steal again, often taking an object he does not particularly want, and under circumstances that he knows may result in his being discovered as the thief.” This behavior was deeply puzzling, and it must have appeared that the psychopath was acting self-destructively. Now we of course can easily distinguish between knowledge of the law and feeling what is morally right. And we have also hypothesized that psychopaths often get their psycho-physiological kicks from acting recklessly and abusing other people, kicks that are far more important than any legal consequence.

The second reason for this confusion was that the psychopath appeared to act perfectly normal, right up until the very moment that they didn’t. This made it hard to determine whether or not the psychopath knew what was morally acceptable and whether or not they met the legal definition for insanity. The psychopathic offender wasn’t hallucinating. They didn’t display any evidence of brain damage as measured by instruments and tests of the day. The psychopathic behaviors of pathological lying and manipulation made it increasingly difficult to gauge the sincerity of the individual, and that still poses a problem for people today, including trained psychologists.

The writing of Cleckley is actually very amusing. It certainly betrays a stereotypical male attitude from the 1940s. For example, when describing the behavior of the psychopath, Cleckley writes, “Not rarely the records will show that [the psychopath] has won the chancellor’s prize at college for an essay on the Renaissance, or graduated from high school summa cum laude, or outstripped 20 rival salesmen over a period of 6 months, or married the most desirable girl in town.” I think Cleckley overestimates the intelligence of psychopaths to the point where he thought psychopathy and intelligence were naturally entwined, but writing about the Renaissance? To Cleckley, perhaps that is the epitome of scholarly brilliance. But marrying ‘the most desirable girl in town’ is surely a reflection of male chauvinism, even though psychopaths might enjoy the status of being with a beautiful woman.

Another example of Cleckley’s 1940s attitude comes through with, “If [the psychopath] escapes detection [for theft] he will repeat his stealing or perhaps forge a check or noisily entertain a prostitute in the apartment of his respectable and devoted aunt who is away on a week’s vacation.” I feel like this quote speaks for itself.

I have yet to come across any evidence that Cleckley believed women to be psychopathic. If anyone knows different, I would appreciate a reference. The psychopath is always addressed in third person male, which while is a writing bias, I’m sure it also reflects that many (if not all) of the psychopaths Cleckley studied were male. Even now it does seem like most psychopaths are male, but it has been suggested that the diagnostic criteria for determining psychopathy has come from male-dominated research. It is possible that the behaviors of the psychopathic are expressed differently in men and women. In fact, some believe that women are more likely to be diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) than Antisocial Personality Disorder (APD – this is fairly closely related to psychopathy), because BPD reflects an emotional instability that is strongly associated with women. This bias could naturally lead to the wrong diagnosis.

Source

Cleckley, H. (1946) The Psychopath: A Problem for Society, 10 Federal Probation 22 (22-25)

Guns, Civilians, and Reactive Aggression

Curtis Reeves. Photo by Brendan Fitterer/AP

Curtis Reeves. Photo by Brendan Fitterer/AP

The recent shooting of Chad Oulson (43) by retired police officer Curtis Reeves (71) has helped me to solidify my view of civilians having guns. After what seems like a few heated exchanges that may have involved expletives over texting in a movie theater in Florida, Reeves shot and killed Oulson.

This incident highlights something very unique about gun possession. During times of reactive aggression, it is ridiculously easy to shoot and kill somebody if a gun is present. Reactive aggression is the result of somebody becoming so stressed and agitated that their mind turns to the flight or fight response. This brief moment is a moment of little to no reason, even a moment of temporary insanity. Somebody such as Reeves, in the age of retirement and with his spouse, is not going to entertain the ‘flight’ part of the fight or flight response, especially if he has the ultimate weapon of attack at his disposal.

The other type of aggression is instrumental aggression, where somebody deliberately plans out and executes the use of violence for power, entertainment, or perhaps respect (personal goals). During times of instrumental aggression, the type of weapon loses significance, because it’s a planned act of violence. During moments of reactive aggression, it is all too easy to shoot and kill, as opposed to wheeling a baseball bat or a hammer, or chasing somebody down with a meat cleaver. By the time the aggressor has thought about or attempted to injure a person with a bat, the moment of reaction has passed, and clarity has returned.

Reactive aggression is by far the most common type of aggression in society. Those flare ups we all have and quickly get over.

I am also convinced that many gun owners do not want or plan to injure or kill anyone. Clearly, it’s the gaining ‘control’ that appeals to gun owners. The only trouble is while they’re holding the gun they are losing mental control as their emotions start to tug on primitive survival instincts, and the presence of a gun is going to ignite the flight or fight response of those the gun is being aimed at. In fact, unless you have been trained to use a gun in these circumstances, the control you think you have is illusory.

One last thing that I think proponents of gun possession never fail to overlook, is the impact of what killing somebody would do to them for the rest of their lives. Even if killing is not the intent, it is still a very real possibility while a gun is present. Reeves now has to rationalize to himself, for the rest of his life, that killing Oulson was a necessity. He is going to fail at this, time and time again. He is going to lose sleep over it. He is going to struggle to see the world the same way again. In fact, one could argue that the impact this event has had on his mind and conscience is already his sentence for the crime.

 

Source

The Guardian: Florida judge denies bail for retired cop accused in fatal cinema shooting

A Sense of Future and the Act of Killing

Nietzsche future pastIt’s easy to forget how much the ideas we have about our own futures impact our daily lives. We all try to invest in our futures (financially, academically and intellectually, and emotionally and genetically) so that when ‘it’ arrives we will be comfortable and happy. Ideas of a comfortable future make us feel happy, and conversely, thoughts of a chaotic future fill us with dread and peptic ulcers. How we end up in the future is in some ways besides the point, because what we are really trying to do is feel satisfied and happy in the present – by doing what we need to do to secure good thoughts of the future.

Thoughts of the future are intimately related to our sense of morality. Take the golden rule, for example – treat others as you yourself would like to be treated. How would you like to be treated? We need to think about a hypothetical future scenario that involves us being treated a certain way and deciding whether or not we would like it. I say hypothetical future scenario, rather than simply hypothetical, because hypotheticals depersonalize the scenario, and the whole point is that you imagine an act happening to you. Imagining a future scenario overcomes this problem.

Furthermore, if we begin to lose interest in the outcome (future realization) of various activities, we will start to neglect those activities. This is not a moral issue if we no longer care to play the piano, but if we are no longer interested in personal relationships, we can start to neglect people. In fact, a common reason for romantic relationships to fail, is that at least one person in the relationship doesn’t see a future. Considering and being considerate towards your own future and the future of those you care about is clearly moral behavior.

In order to achieve these happy future thoughts, we often set ourselves certain rules and make plans governing our behavior, usually in the name of saving money, staying healthy and in shape, and maybe trying to shape the behavior of our children by being strict. All of the rules are often at the expense of fun and cheap kicks. So, every now and again, we decide to Seize the Day! and completely forget about the future. Obviously, when we do choose to forget about the future and live in the moment it’s still done in a controlled way – none of us really believe that the day to be seized is the be all and end all of our lives.

So what has any of this got to do with killing?

A point that I hope I’ve impressed upon you is that by limiting our sense of future, there is also the danger of relaxing and disregarding our own rules and ethics. I think a ‘sense of future’ actually plays a very potent role in the brains of killers. Below, I have listed what I consider to be the different types of killer (excluding military and legally sanctioned killers), and how a sense of future helps to determine their actions. I have stereotyped each one, but obviously in reality the categories could overlap to varying extents. Brains are dynamic and constantly changing, and so the act of killing only reflects a brain at one moment in time promoting the act within specific contextual cues. Clearly, other people kill in self defense, by losing their temper, or perhaps because of the psychotic symptoms of a mental disorder, and a sense of future may or may not play a role in those events. Regardless, I just want to focus on these three:

Psychopathic Serial Killer: Psychopaths lack a sense of morality and struggle to understand or empathize with emotion. It seems that most serial killers accept that abduction, raping, and killing is going to be a part of their life. Upon this acceptance, and knowing that their behavior can only be continued by evading capture and suspicion, serial killers plan out future events, and are often very meticulous in doing so. It does appear, though, that some psychopathic serial killers do have genuine empathy and morality, but it is only temporal. During these moments they are genuinely able to forge meaningful relationships and lead a ‘normal’ life. Other times, a capacity for empathy isn’t temporal and only limited or faked relationships are possible. This means that serial killers are likely to  fall on a spectrum between a dark/normal life and a dark/faked-normal life. Capture means that both lives are finished, and given the nature of the necessary dark life, a sense of future is integral to the intellectual machinations of the serial killer.

Sociopathic Killer: Sociopaths have a sense of morality, although it’s different from the morality of the parent culture. This means that the sociopath has values or a worldview that one, differs from most people, and two, includes beliefs that devalues or denigrates the lives of certain groups of people. If you hold genuine beliefs that the lives of women, those of different skin color to you, Jews, homosexuals, those of a different religion /worldview / or political ideology are worth inherently less than your own life, then you are a sociopath. Some sociopaths are willing to kill for the sake of their outlook, for their ideology to champion the parent ideology, and so in this sense some may see themselves as revolutionaries. A sociopath is unlikely to have a sense of future while the parent culture/morality remains. As we have already discussed, to lack a sense of future can lead to being unhappy and uncomfortable. A sociopath wants a different future, and may be willing to try and forge it through violence.

Spree Killer: Spree killer is a bit of an outdated term now, but it tends to describe those who arm themselves to the teeth and choose a place where they can inflict maximum casualties in a short space of time. James Holmes, the man who killed many movie goers in Aurora, CO, in July, 2012, might fit this category. Spree killers have a tendency to die in a crossfire with police, commit suicide, or hand themselves peacefully over to the police (as Holmes did). For these killers, there doesn’t appear to be any regard for their lives after the act. The act might be planned out to the nth degree, but if you intend to die in a gun battle, take your own life, or hand yourself over to police knowing that you are going to spend life in prison or receive the death penalty, you clearly have no sense of future. No sense of future – no morality.

Q&A With Dr. Robert Hanlon (Survived By One)

Survived by OneI recently reviewed Dr. Robert Hanlon‘s book, Survived By One. The book describes Hanlon’s relationship with Tom Odle, a killer serving life in prison in Illinois for murdering his entire family. This was the first time that I had really gained any insight into the topics of familicide and parricide – the killing of one’s family, and the killing of one’s parents, respectively. Anyone who has explored the question of why people kill (especially as it seems to relate to a loop hole or simply a hole in their conscience) knows that there is no easy answer, and it is easy to get lost in the dynamics of a person’s brain or their mind. With regards to the motivations and experience of Tom Odle, I believe Dr. Hanlon has done a fantastic job in laying it out there for us so that we can comfortably approach the question under the guidance of a professional.

I had the good fortune to be able to ask Dr. Hanlon a number of questions regarding the book, and about the life of Tom Odle and his family.

 

Q&A With Dr. R. Hanlon

Q1: Dr. Hanlon, would you mind explaining the job of a neuropsychologist? For example, when you are evaluating patients or clients, are you seeking to determine cellular and tissue health as well as to approach a diagnosis from a behavioral point of view?

Neuropsychological evaluations are typically conducted to objectively determine the presence, type, extent, and severity of neurocognitive dysfunction and neurobehavioral abnormalities.  As such, the objective of neuropsychological evaluations is usually to determine the psychological effects of brain disorders and brain damage.  Additionally, a neuropsychological evaluation of a criminal defendant may also involve other forensic questions, such as fitness to stand trial, sanity, and capacity to make a knowing and intelligent waiver of Miranda rights.

 

Q: Tom Odle contacted you while in prison to help gain some life perspective. Is it unusual for prisoners to contact you in this way?

Yes.  No other inmate or criminal defendant has ever contacted me before or after a neuropsychological evaluation.

 

Q: Odle murdered his entire family on Nov 8th, 1985 (both of his parents, his two younger brothers, and his younger sister). It’s purely speculative, but how likely do you think it is that Odle would have killed more people if not apprehended?

It is very unlikely that he would have murdered anyone else.  Murdering his mother was the driving force behind the family mass murder and killing his mother was his primary objective.   Unfortunately, his worsening depression, increasing sense of desperation, and acute feeling of abandonment escalated into a homicidal rage that resulted in a nihilistic, drug-fueled termination of the family.  He would have likely committed suicide if he had not been arrested.

 

Q: I really enjoyed the way you worked through Tom’s young life and discussed a number of life events that no doubt had a very profound effect on his mind (and brain). Clearly, he suffered a lot of psychological and physical abuse from his mother. Do you think she would have met the diagnostic criteria for Antisocial Personality Disorder?

No.  Although I believe she possessed some antisocial traits, she also possessed borderline personality traits and sadistic personality traits.

 

Q: The dynamic of Tom’s parents, Carolyn and Robert Odle, would strike many as odd. You mentioned that perhaps Carolyn was hard on her children because she was exercising control that she never had when she had been abused as a child. But why do you suppose Robert did little to stop the abuse carried out by Carolyn?

The family dynamics in abusive households are often complex.  However, it is not uncommon for one parent to be the primary abuser and the other parent to be aware of the abuse, but do nothing to stop it.

 

Q: Tom was the eldest child, and you mentioned that his younger brothers, Scott and Sean, were also abused. Do you think Scott and Sean would have met the criteria for Conduct Disorder, like Tom, and perhaps eventually followed a similar path to killing?

Sean was also abused by his mother.  In fact, Sean likely sustained worse abuse than Tom.  Sean was deprived of food by his mother, whereas Tom was never deprived of food.  Sean was also abused by Tom and Carolyn likely encouraged Tom to abuse Sean.  To my knowledge, Scott was never abused.  In my opinion, neither Sean nor Scott would have met criteria for conduct disorder.

 

Q: I once attended a conference about psychopathic serial killers, and one of the speakers, Dr. Lawrence J. Simon, had worked as a psychologist on Death Row in Florida for many years. He explained that a reoccurring theme in the lives of male killers was an abusive mother and an emotionally or physically absent father. In your experience, does this also seem to be the case?

A history of abuse is a common thread.  In many cases, the mother was the abuser, but in many other cases, the father was the abuser.  In some cases, both parents were abusive.

 

Q: Does Odle fit the profile of a serial killer? The F.B.I., I think, now describes a serial murderer as somebody who has killed two or more people with a cooling off period in between murders. The murders on Nov 8th, 1985, were spaced out over a few hours. Serial murder is often premeditated, too, but Odle’s decision to kill his family seemed very last minute. How closely do you think Odle meets the profile of a serial killer?

He is not a serial killer.  Although the murders of the Odle family members occurred over a period of several hours, all murders occurred in the Odle home and all victims were family members.

 

Q: There has been a lot of research over the last decade that has used brain scanning technology to examine physical and functional differences in the brains of those with serious personality disorders and criminals who have been found guilty of murder and rape. Did Odle ever have a brain scan?

The only neuroimaging that he underwent was a CT scan of his brain shortly before the first pretrial forensic evaluations were conducted.  Not surprisingly, the CT scan of his brain was negative (i.e., normal).

 

Q: One thing that seemed abundantly obvious was that Odle had problems understanding emotions. For example, he mentions that music was full of emotion that he was unable to express, and later he admits that he had trouble understanding lyrics. It is often observed that those with antisocial or psychopathic traits are unable to understand emotion. Do you think Tom’s experience with music was already evidence that his brain had not developed as it should?

No. 

 

Q: Odle spent two weeks in the Army. Do you know if he received a psychological examination?

I am not aware of a psychological evaluation while he was in the military.  He was discharged due to physical issues (i.e., knee injury).

 

Q: It was only two weeks, but do you think the Army had any lasting impact on Tom, such entertaining any ideas about killing?

I think the Army was one of the best opportunities he ever had.  If he had stayed in the Army, it is very unlikely that he would have murdered his family.

 

Q: Odle’s account of the murders is chilling. He claimed that there was a voice, his own voice, in his head, instructing him to end his family. There are numerous ways to interpret this, but to me it seems like his past was so painful and it had basically shaped him in such a way that he could not successfully approach any kind of future. So the killing was a means of ending all of this pain and exorcizing many past and personal demons. Do you think the house where he grew up and ultimately committed the murders, played a role in the killings? Would he have killed the family outside of the family home?

It is very unlikely that he would have killed any family members outside of the home.  In the home, they were captive and concealed. 

 

Q: Odle spoke of being very depressed and even felt suicidal at times. In fact, he had wanted to end his own life after he took the lives of his family. This also seems to set him apart from serial killers, who have no intention of committing suicide while they are still free kill others. However, a number of killers, especially spree killers and suicide bombers, seem to have no regard for their own life. Do you think having a ‘sense of future’ would help to prevent certain kinds of murders?

It is important to note that Tom Odle is not a serial killer and does not have the mentality of a serial killer.  At the time of the murders, he had the mentality of a mass murderer, specifically a family mass murderer.  Like many family mass murderers, the motive was to terminate the family unit and subsequently commit suicide.  However, he delayed his suicide and was arrested in the interim.  Yes, having a realistic sense of future is important in preventing domestic homicides of this type. 

 

Dr Edward HanlonDr. Robert E. Hanlon is a board-certified Clinical Neuropsychologist with a specialization in forensic neuropsychology and is an Associate Professor of Clinical Psychiatry and Clinical Neurology at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago.  He has more than a quarter-century of experience as a forensic expert, having evaluated hundreds of murder defendants and death-row inmates, and testifying in many trials.  For the past 17 years, he has served as the director of the Inpatient Neuropsychology Service at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago.  He is also the director of Neuropsychological Associates of Chicago, involved in clinical assessment, consultation, forensic neuropsychology, teaching, and research. His degrees include the following: Ph.D., M.Phil., M.S. and B.S.