Category Archives: Serial Killer

Thank you, Everyone! Request for readers

typewriterI just wanted to reach out and thank everyone for reading my blog over the years. I’ve tried to maintain and enforce a scientific basis for some of the more research and commentary pieces, and have freely expressed speculation and opinion in others. Regrettably, there is never a shortage of violent events in the world, and I will still seek to chip away in my own corner, trying to understand why violent events happen and hopefully generate some insight into how it could be prevented.

In addition, I’ve been exploring fiction writing for some time now, as a way to try and capture the fragility of the human mind, and the struggle many of us have with simple day to day activities and expectations. This writing has mostly been short stories, as I try to present snapshots of the moments in life where we are the most mentally fatigued or helpless. I feel there is a connection between the fatigued mind and the potential onset of mental illness or disorder, those times when we feel that we might “go off the rails” and never return.

I would be honored if readers gave these stories a go, and only if enjoyed, to share them with others. In return, I open my time to read the work of others, and share within my networks, and to have constructive conversation on any interesting topics.

In addition to a novella that I have written (Recreation of Meaning), I currently have two types of stories available from the stories page. Asylum stories, which are short stories focused on characters who have lost their ability to think clearly, and are presented with circumstances that defy normality, and serial killer/killer stories, that seek to capture how unprepared we are when those we love (or least suspect) reveal this side of their life to us.

I wish all of you a great day and I hope to interact with you soon!

Jay

Manifesto: The relationship sociopaths have with themselves

ManifestoINTRODUCTION

Violent crime in the United States unfortunately remains a daily occurrence, and while domestic violence is undoubtedly the most common (and underreported), there now seems to be an increased interest in the role of ideology and murder. The recent shootings in San Bernadino, CA, and Philadelphia, PA, have been attributed to murderers who have been motivated by the ideology of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), and only in early October, 2015, Chris Harper Mercer killed nine people near Roseburg, Oregon, after penning his own manifesto that presumably explored his murderous inclinations. In 2014, Elliot Roger shot and killed six people and injured fourteen, after writing a manifesto entitled ‘My Twisted World: The Story of Elliot Roger.’

The motivations behind killing are complex and widely disputed, but it is time for some serious scholarship on the role that ideas play in dampening the conscience, at least temporarily, to provide an individual with a window of time where they have given themselves permission to kill. The role that ideology plays in the act of killing can be explained within the framework of sociopathy, but first this has to be distinguished from its estranged cousin, psychopathy.

 

PSYCHOPATHY

Psychopathy is noted as a mental disorder that is characterized by an emotional deficit and antisocial behavior [1]. Neuroscientists have found some profound differences in the brains of psychopaths when compared to the non-psychopathic, and these differences seem to result from developmental errors [2, 3]. Two key features of the psychopathic is the lack of empathy and remorse, and while many psychopaths are killers, a significant proportion of killers are psychopaths [4]. Psychopathy is also a clinical diagnosis, and so for somebody to truly be called a psychopath, they have to have been assessed by a professional mental health expert.

 

THE ROLE OF WORLDVIEWS AND IDEOLOGIES

When moving through our passage in life, we all develop a sense of what is right about the world, and figuring this out is probably one of the greatest sources of consternation many of us face on a daily basis. There seems to be a duality to this sense; feeling what is right, and then understanding conceptually what is right. When the two fit together, feeling right and being able to describe in words and ideas why we feel right, is an amazing and stable feeling, and the ideas are likely to become part of how we see the world. However, when our ideas and thoughts no longer feel right, or we feel right but do not know why, we are left feeling confused and perhaps even irritated.

Eventually, when we have had enough experiences and self-reflection, we start to develop a complex set of ideas that reflect what we think is true about the world.

During these pensive moments we suspend speculation and possibility surrounding the veracity of the idea, and it moves towards becoming a belief. This suspension could very well mark the difference between the scientific mind and the religious mind, as science only ever deals in probabilities, whereas the religious mind attributes absolute rightness to the core ideas, and this is known as faith (probabilities allow for‘wrongness’, a catalyst for the converse of faith, doubt). Indeed, always allowing a margin of error could mean that a person never has beliefs.

Regardless of how much truth currency we end up placing in our ideas, they become the mental lens that guides our behavior, gives us our sense of morality, and shapes how we will or will not understand the many more concepts and behaviors that will eventually cross our stream of consciousness. The new ideas and behaviors will be measured up against what we already have in our mental banks, and their acceptance into our worldviews will likely be a reflection of how well they agree with the rest of what we think is true about the world. Needless to say, this process can be excruciatingly hard work and can sometimes result in our peace of mind and sense of self being at stake.

 

PSYCHOPATHS AND IDEOLOGY

Our own personal worldviews and ideology tend to develop as we reflect on past experiences, contrast them with new ideas in the present, and then use ourworldview and ideology for perpetual self-reflection and interpreting new events as they arrive. From the case studies of psychopaths described by Cleckley [5] and Hare [4], psychopaths present as individuals who have little to no regard for their own future, let alone the futures of those they interact with. The psychopath appears stuck in the present, with an inability to make long term plans, and also has precious little regard for the past, and so it is questionable that a psychopath can develop a complex worldview.

Our worldview is also a reflection of our sense of morality. The ideas that we come to regard as good ways to live are built into how we see and interpret the world. Therefore, it stands to reason that if a psychopath has a limited sense of morality, any potential worldview or ideology is at an automatic deficit. When asked to justify their criminal behavior, many psychopaths will just admit that there was a rightness to it, mostly because they felt the dire urge to carry it out. The truth criteria behind their reasoning doesn’t fit into a complex philosophical framework, only that as
they felt they had to do it, it must have been the right thing to do.

 

SOCIOPATHY

The terms psychopath and sociopath are often used to describe the same type of person, that is an emotionless individual with a sense of grandeur and is prone to the manipulation of others, but the root words psycho and socio denote different developmental origins. As Hare notes [4], those who prefer the term sociopah tend to think that social forces and early experiences can explain this type of individual, whereas those preferring psychopath think that psychological, biological, and genetic factors offer the best explanation.

This polarized view of the etiology for psychopathy is terribly outdated, and falls victim to the old nature versus nurture discussion on the origin of behavior. Traditionally, a line seems to have been drawn at the skin of individuals, and everything on the inside reflects nature, anything on the outside is nurture, and they are mutually exclusive. While this framework perhaps provides a useful starting point for discussion, we now know that social influences and biology can interact together in very profound ways to influence the future path of an individual from the level of the cell all the way up to the organism. Our senses are lapping up so much information on a daily basis, and all of that information is creating changes in our biochemistry, especially in our nervous system. If a parent yells continually at their child, we may think, “Well, that’s terrible nurturing,” but it is also elevating the level of cortisol in the child’s circulatory system; soundwaves stimulating cells, sending signals that prompt tissues and organs to release molecules into the blood. All sensory stimulation leads to biological changes and activity, which is why this distinction between the two terms denoting etiological differences does not work.

Crucially, Hare and Babiak describe the sociopath as someone who has a sense of morality, but their sense of right and wrong has been informed by a subculture [6]. This
difference between the psychopath and the sociopath is profound, because unlike the psychopath, the conscience and the ability for rationalization in the sociopath are fully intact, which indicates an entirely different neurology. If sociopaths have an ideology, ideas of right and wrong, these ideas must be behind their eventual murderous behavior, and also goes a long way to explain the spree killer.

The term spree killer refers to an individual who is motivated, with varying extents of planning, to commit an act or acts of atrocity in a short space of time. One of the striking features about these types of events is that there is no attempt to hide or conceal the destruction or any associated fatalities or injuries. There is only the event, which must be completed, and often the only outcomes for the killer will be death by a shootout with law enforcement, death by suicide, death by sentence of the death penalty, or lifelong incarceration.

These outcomes provide some insight into the minds of these individuals leading up to and during the act of atrocity. It is inconceivable that at least the majority of these types of killers had no awareness of what would befall them after the event, which means at least one of two things. First, the act itself was valued by the killer more than their own life, and second, there was a physiological drive so powerful in their mind for completing the act that no other behavior was possible in the moment. The necessity of the act, which the killer could have justified to themselves many times, is heavily idea based, and because of this they were likely to have had a worldview containing ideas that devalued the lives of others.

 

THE GREATER GOOD

The idea of the ‘greater good’ is intriguing because when it is placed within an ideological framework that is supposed to promote the good or health of a group as a whole, it inevitably leads to the denial of the rights or even life of an individual or a subgroup of individuals. When the rights of people are often trampled upon for the greater good, the justification for this treatment is often seen as a necessary sacrifice, or once the new ideas or policies are in place, everyone will benefit (legislating common sense).

In order to implement a social or political system that is predicated upon greater good ideas, those with power have to be convinced, legitimately through debate or tacitly through violence. The style of the fight employed for the realization of these ideas is indicative of how well these ideas are to be received and the immediacy with which the advocate needs them to be realized. A potentially receptive audience and a debate reflect an advocate that is patient and willing to modify or compromise. A perceived unreceptive audience and violence reflect an advocate that feels compelled to act and is not willing to compromise. We can spot instances of these behaviors throughout history, particularly in terms of governmental behavior, but the desire for self-expression and the acceptance of ideas also operates on a much smaller scale.

For many, seeking acceptance among peers, or perhaps more potently in school, is a natural, but often painful, part of life. Finding a personal happy medium between what friends think is right and what you think is right is a daunting experience. To add to this, teenagers, by virtue of being young, do not have many other experiences with which to compare their immediate experience in school; this lack of experience in determining what is right for them results in grief and anxiety, and often puts them at the mercy of going along with a group that has met with their approval, even though there is sometimes respect for those who have the confidence to be different and not be influenced by the group, perhaps because it is such a huge pressure to overcome. The acceptance of ideas and behavior in these environments is similar to political expression at a higher social level, and could even be all the worse because of the huge emotional price tag of group acceptance. The perceived receptivity of the group and the compulsion for ideas and behaviors to be accepted could determine a change in tact of how an individual will later confront the group.

Even though many spree killers have no doubt accepted their own demise before they act, it is this notion that fuels their drive to act. They feel that their expression has been permanently blocked by those that need to validate these ideas (and related behavior), and so the only conceivable route of expression becomes violence to those who are blocking. This creates a fertile ground for accepting ideologies that dehumanize these ‘blockers.’ With resentment already in place towards those preventing self-expression, dehumanizing ideology towards these individuals will become palatable and sticky. This ideology, if unchecked, becomes the greater good for the individual in question.

Indeed, it could be useful to look at prejudicial worldviews in light of barriers to self-expression and a person’s right to the pursuit of happiness. Misogyny from men could result if men believe that women, by virtue of being women, will prevent their self-expression, especially sexual expression and subsequent gratification and acceptance. Likewise, Anti-Semitism results when an individual believes that Jews, by virtue of being Jewish, will always seek to prevent the self-expression and pursuit of happiness of non-Jews. At the heart of prejudice, there is always a lazy mind that is unwilling to evaluate people on an individual basis, as sweeping blanket condemnations seek to address painful and confused emotions. A lack of worldly experience, perhaps, would also prevent the person from having the cognitive maturity to make these individual assessments. It is worth asking, therefore, what is the object of the hatred preventing the subject from experiencing? When we have an answer to that question, it tells us all about how the subject thinks they should be able to exist in the world; behaviors they should be allowed to express, and ridding behaviors and ideas that muddy the waters of their idealized life. Knowing this could lead to methods of prevention or even intervention.

 

THE MANIFESTOS OF SOCIOPATHS

When reading a sociopath’s manifesto there are a few important points to note about the writing. The sociopath is usually presenting a history that supports the necessary action that will arrive by the end of the manuscript. As the sociopath’s mindset is heavily ruled by a guiding ideology, their main points or perceived milestones in their own development are likely to be heavily skewed or even fabricated.

However, much insight can be gained into their mind by realizing that the manuscript reflects back to them how they would like to be seen, perhaps not just by their community or the population after they carry out the devastating act, but also to themselves; the manuscript is how the sociopath would like to be seen in the mirror. Once the reflection pleases them, they are free to act.

The sociopath is likely to have spent months, maybe years, carefully crafting the manuscript and gone to painstaking detail to get it just right, and so this helps to combat the idea that they have intentionally gone out of their way to fabricate in order to trick readers. While this is still a possibility, the manuscript is usually a testament to what the sociopath believes is right about the world, after all, it provided them with the justification to act. While the history they present might not be objectively accurate, or perhaps even stunningly ignorant, the sociopath sees themselves ultimately as truthful and righteous, and no doubt want others to see them that way, too.

 

WHY WRITING CAN BE IMPORTANT TO THE SOCIOPATH

While not all manifestos are written, it is worth taking a long hard look at the ones that are. There is a very intimate relationship between an author and their writing, after all, writing is a way from them to organize and catalogue their own thoughts. The linguist, Noam Chomsky, is famous for noting that the majority of our language use is internal, and far exceeds our use of language in dialogue. Just take a moment to realize how frequently your thoughts are rolling through your mind, and how most of them drift in and out of a language, usually your primary one. Writing is the art of taking these ticker-tape thoughts and stabilizing them on the page, and the words can then be further manipulated until they meet with the satisfaction of the author, i.e. capturing (almost) perfectly the author’s intent.

For the confused or troubled mind, where thoughts and feelings are whizzing around like delocalized electrons, writing helps to pull them together into one place and provides the writer with focus. When an individual is experiencing emotional pain and confusion, therefore, this focus provides stability and a platform from which they can move forward. This is far from unique to the sociopath, and is most likely one of the main reasons that people keep diaries or write blogs. Writing facilitates clear thought, and clear thoughts, among other things, help to calm the mind and allow one to plan and project their future; goals can be determined and decisions made over the required behavior to meet those goals.

At some point in the life of the sociopath, the idea for committing an act of atrocity must enter their mind. The ease with which this idea is entertained will depend upon what they think is an accurate worldview (the right and wrong of the act), how necessary the action has become, and how compelled they feel to carry it through. This toxic idea will be stuck in their mind while they seek every justification for accepting it as more than just a good idea, but as something that they are compelled to act upon. During this time, there will likely be a high level of fantasizing and imagining, and an increased exposure to materials and ideas that facilitates the potential action in the mind of the sociopath; the act, slowly but surely, becomes inevitable.

The manifesto is a large part of making the act inevitable. It is worth bearing in mind that these acts are not a part of most people’s daily repertoire, including the soon-to-be-killer, and involve marathon amounts of planning and self-reflection. The sociopath needs to be able to see themselves actually doing the act, and there is very little room for doubt or uncertainty. This is why the manifesto is so important, because it allows the person to review and re-create their life history as if their life was always leading up to the deadly and devastating moment that they have decided is necessary. By cataloguing their history through the lens of their contemporary perturbed mind, therefore, right up until the present day, they are providing themselves with the consent and conviction that they need to go through with their plan.

This manufacturing of consent could also be why it is a good reason to stem the release of the manifesto after an act or at least hide many of the details surrounding the killer for as long as possible. If the manifesto was used as a tool to provide the author with consent to act, there is every chance it could be used by another individual with a similar history as a tool to act. If a like-mind is exposed to the manifesto soon after its author has acted, it could prompt the feeling of the immediacy to act again, perhaps resulting in a copy-cat killing. Silencing the thoughts and ideas of a killer after they have acted can only be effective for so long, but is still worth doing as a precautionary measure.

REFERENCES

1. Hare, R.D.; Harpur, T.J.; Hakstian, A.R.; Forth, A.E.; Hart, S.D.; Newman, J.P. (1990) The revised Psychopathy Checklist: Reliability and factor structure, Psychological Assessment: A Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 2(3), 338-341

2. Raine, A.; Lencz, T.; Taylor, K.; Hellige, J. B.; Bihrle, S.; Lacasse, L.; Colletti, P. (2003). Corpus callosum abnormalities in psychopathic antisocial individuals, Archives of General Psychiatry, 60(11), 1134-1142

3. Raine, A.; Ishikawa, S. S.; Arce, E., Lencz; T.; Knuth, K. H.; Bihrle, S.; Colletti, P. (2004). Hippocampal structural asymmetry in unsuccessful psychopaths. Biological psychiatry, 55(2), 185-191

4. Hare, R.D. (1999) Without Conscience, New York, Guilford Press

5. Cleckley, H. (2015) The Mask of Sanity (3rd Ed.), Brattleboro, Echo Point Books and Media, LLC.

6. Hare, R.D. & Babiak, P. (2006) Snakes in Suits, New York, Harper Collins

Hannibal Rising – A Review

Hannibal RisingI have always been curious about the Hannibal Lecter stories, especially the movies, which I enjoyed. I have recently watched the entire series of Hannibal on NBC and I’m totally digging that – not only are the main cast fantastic, but it’s fantastic to see Eddie Izzard sink his teeth into the role of a serial killer. With this enthusiasm in mind, I decided to turn to the books for the first time, and see how Thomas Harris writes.

I suppose it is perhaps wrong to start with the latest book in the Hannibal Lecter series, but I was more than curious to see how Lecter as a child develops into the formidably brilliant killer. I was not disappointed. Harris’s writing is poetic and thought-provoking, a narrative worthy of Lecter himself. Much like Lindsay’s ‘Dexter’, you immediately love and sympathize (hesitate to say empathize) with young Hannibal, as the dark forces play and shape his mind towards the inevitable. Of course we know what Lecter becomes, but this in no way diminishes the enjoyment to be had as Harris sits the reader in a front row seat in Lecter’s nascent shadow.

I recently watched a video from the online magazine Slate, entitled Which Movie Psychopaths are the Most and Least Realistic. An audience of forensic psychiatrists sat down and watched a number of movies featuring psychopathic killers. Lecter (as played by Hopkins in the movies) was dismissed as being too much of a genius, a characteristic which is rare among normal populations, let alone psychopathic killers. Being a genius, though, just makes his character less probable, and not necessarily less realistic.

In later incarnations of Lecter, you never see him lose control or see him at odds with his drives and desires. In Hannibal Rising you get to witness the death of his innocence and the masterful acceptance of his fate.

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.

Survived By One – A Review

Survived by OneSurvived By One tells the devastatingly sad story of Thomas V. Odle, who was still a teenager in 1985 when he murdered all of his close family members – his parents, two brothers, and his sister. Dr. Hanlon, the author of the book and forensic neuropsychologist, traces young Tom’s life from his childhood to his teens, and then from his arrest through to his prison sentence. Odle had been on Death Row in Illinois, but this was eventually changed to life in prison after a series of landmark court cases. While in prison, Odle reached out to Dr. Hanlon to help put his life in perspective. With Odle’s assistance and permission, Hanlon has expertly put together this life story of a killer.

Apart from being very accessible, one of the best things about this book is how Odle’s story is told. Hanlon describes the life of Odle, which includes his expert psychological analysis of events in Tom’s life, as well as the historical and legal context of the story, and splices in Odle’s own personal narratives. This allows the reader to build up a rich idea of how Tom’s mind and life perspective developed throughout his childhood. For those seeking to understand how a person could commit familicide, Hanlon’s telling of the story is genius.

The story also reminds us that nothing is black and white when it comes to understanding human behavior. Even though Tom was physically and psychologically abused as a child, many abused children do not go on to murder anyone, let alone their entire family. Odle displayed Conduct Disorder as a teenager and developed the habit of taking numerous drugs on a relatively frequent basis. But Odle considered taking his own life before he even thought about taking the lives of his family, and when he did eventually take their lives, he explained it as an out of body experience that he just watched happen.

I highly recommend this book to anyone, not just students of psychology or criminology, who are interested in the question of what makes a killer.

Dissecting Empathy: How Do Killers Experience Other People?

Dissecting empathyThe stereotype of a killer, especially a serial killer, is well known – a cold and remorseless man who usually plans and calculates his abductions and assaults, and has absolutely no empathy with his victims. The victim is not a person. They do not have hopes, dreams, and desires. They do not have family or friends who are going to miss them. They do not feel pain or suffering. They are a thing to fulfill the self-serving desires of the monster.

The topic of empathy in all humans (not just criminals) has been studied extensively, usually by taking ‘normal’ people and contrasting their biology and behavior with people we know have killed or committed cruel acts against another. In psychology, this line of questioning has led to diagnostic categories that are used to indicate a variety of disorders. For example, it is widely held that a lack of empathy is characteristic of a number of personality disorders – such as Antisocial Personality Disorder (APD), Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). However, it must be noted that the lack of empathy experienced is not necessarily permanent, and may even be for only brief periods of time in very specific circumstances. Out of all three of the above mentioned personality disorders, APD is by far the most associated with serious crime.

Because of neuroscience, we now know that there are numerous ‘mirror’ neurons in the brain that become active in an individual when they both watch a task and perform the same task. This suggests that witnessing the behavior of others causes activation in our own brains similar to if we were doing the behavior ourselves. The argument is that perhaps we can ‘recreate’ the experience of others, which points to the presence of a neurological tool kit geared for this very purpose.

A recent study by Meffert et al. (2013) looked at brain activation in psychopaths when they were deliberately asked to empathize with individuals they saw in videos. One of the videos involved slapping another person’s hand with a ruler. When psychopaths observed this action there was low activation in the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC) (an area associated with pain), but when asked to empathize, the activity in the area increased when viewing the same video. Another aspect of the experiment involved the psychopaths actually getting hit in the hand with a ruler, similar to the video, and there was no difference in activation between the psychopaths and the non-psychopaths. This means that the dACC was active in the psychopaths when experiencing the slap. The study suggests that the mere act of asking the psychopaths to empathize, literally did ‘flick on’ their ability to empathize with pain.

Could a victim of a psychopathic killer or rapist simply ask their attacker to empathize with their pain? Probably not. Passively watching a video of a non-sexual and relatively innocuous act seems to be necessary for it to work, and we have to remember that empathy with no action does not stop criminal behavior. This is not to undermine the above study, because showing that empathy can exist in psychopaths is a major finding. I would also like to know what would happen if the normal group in this study were asked to not empathize or at least fabricate irrational reasons why they hate the person getting hit by the ruler. Would we see something as devastating as the Stanford Prison Experiment?

So, empathizing with victims is clearly compromised in the mind of a killer, but what about empathizing with partners in crime? I bring this up because I think it adds another layer of complexity as to why people kill. Most serial killers act alone (Bundy, Dahmer, Gacy, Sowell, Keyes, etc.), but there are some infamous partnerships and groups who are also responsible for multiple murders. The D.C. Sniper (John Allen Mohammed), who terrorized Washington D.C. in early October 2002, had an accomplice – Lee Boyd Malvo. Mohammed had become a father-figure to Malvo after they met, and despite being separated numerous times, Malvo always sought out Mohammed. Malvo had only been fifteen when the two met the first time. After the two were arrested, Malvo did later testify that Mohammed had pulled the trigger ten times, and himself three times (Censer, 2010).

Clearly, there was a relationship between Mohammed and Malvo.  I do not think it is a stretch to say that Malvo loved Mohammed, as evidenced by his willingness to imprint on the former U.S. soldier. Mohammed had very strong anti-U.S. views and even went so far as to say that the U.S. deserved the terrorist attack on 11th September, 2001 (Censer, 2010). Mohammed’s views no doubt rubbed off on Malvo, who was receptive to them because he loved his father-figure. In a child-parent bond, it is love that helps provide our truth criterion for the world. Parents are imitated by their children, in part because the child loves them (they would be less inclined to imitate people they have taken an active dislike to). The activities of the parent are therefore recreated and performed in the brains of the children – this means that the child can and will now empathize with the parent. Malvo imprinted on a killer.

Mohammed may have loved Malvo as a son or a protégé, but Malvo is not the reason he became a killer. Mohammed had killed in the army, felt betrayed by the U.S., and developed strong radical Islamic beliefs that preached the U.S. to be the enemy. The choice to kill civilians is lost within those facts and we do not know if he had any pathology that led him down the road to murder (i.e. psychopathy).

Linda Kasabian, Patrica Krenwinkel, and Susan Atkins also imprinted on a dangerous man. Through the use of drugs, role playing and open sex, Charles Manson slowly but surely began to control the minds of these young women when he met up with them in California in the 1960s. Manson was eventually able to talk these women into the mindset of murder. He had become their leader and they would do anything for him. Like Mohammed, Manson had very strong beliefs about the world, particularly that a war between black people and white people was inevitable. Through the relationship that these women established with Manson, he was able to persuade them to share a similar outlook.

I have argued elsewhere that we need to treat the terms ‘psychopathy’ and ‘sociopathy’ differently (Pemment, 2013). One reason I give for this is that sociopaths do have a sense of morality (Hare & Babiek, 2010) and as such their brains are likely to function differently than the psychopath. The need for this distinction can also be seen in the light of these examples. A strong relationship with a criminal mind can facilitate the acceptance of criminal behaviors and the adherence to dangerous ideas. This happens because of empathy. A sense of morality is still present, only it allows for circumstances that devalue life. A sociopath, therefore, must be capable of empathy for a cause or an ideology (or a person who represents them), so they can ironically prevent themselves from empathizing with those this ideology devalues. A psychopath, as we have seen, has a diminished capacity for empathy that results from their brain not developing correctly. Psychopaths, by extension, do not tend to have a sense of morality.

In law, when considering murder, the concept of guilty mind (mens rea) and guilty body (actus reus) are often considered, and I also think these concepts can be used to discuss psychopathic and sociopathic killers. Dahmer was a psychopath and tortured and killed animals as a teenager and later had uncontrollable urges to drug and kidnap other men, rape them, and carryout unspeakable acts with the bodies. In an interview with Stone Phillips, Dahmer discussed how he wanted complete sexual control over the men he abducted, and this was not explainable, other than he just felt the compulsion to commit these acts. The detective (Keppel) who helped bring the psychopath Ted Bundy to justice, once interviewed Bundy, and Bundy explained his need for necrophilia like a chemical tidal wave – like the sudden need for a narcotic. These needs do not reflect a morality or a worldview consisting of many interlocking and self-supporting ideas.  Mohammed’s anti-US Islamic ideas, Manson’s race wars, and I would argue Anders Breivik’s National Socialism, do.

There has been a lot of debate surrounding psychopathic serial killers and whether or not they can be held accountable, especially if they have a unique brain. If we consider the mind as the part of the brain responsible for our intellectual life and our worldview, then this is not the part of the brain that motivates psychopathic killers to kill – therefore they would have actus reus, but not mens rea. Sociopathic killers, by contrast, would have at least mens rea, and possibly actus reus. Psychopathic killers have to have a guilty body because the physical interaction with their victim is everything to them – and this interaction usually results in their victim’s death. But to have a guilty mind in the context of murder, one must have a capacity for empathy.

© Jack Pemment, 2013

Sources

Censer, J. R. (2010) On the Trail of the D.C. Sniper: Fear and the Media, University of Virginia Press

Hare, R; Babiak, P. (2006) Snakes in Suits, Harper, New York

Meffert, H.; Gazzola, V.; den Boer, J. A.; Bartels, A. A.; Keysers, C. (2013) Reduced Spontaneous But Relatively Normal Deliberate Vicarious Representations in Psychopathy, Brain, 136, 2250-2562

Pemment, J. (2013) Psychopathy Versus Sociopathy: Why the Distinction Has Become Crucial, Aggression and Violent Behavior (in press)

The Anatomy of Violence – A Review

Anatomy of ViolenceAdrian Raine’s The Anatomy of Violence is possibly the most informative book I have ever read about criminal behavior. The deeper I got into the book the more I realized that I do not think about criminal behavior nearly as dynamic as it deserves. I do not honestly believe that there is another book out there that brings together so much useful information about antisocial behavior. Raine uses his extensive and admirable academic career to mention an exhaustive list of studies on the subject of criminal behavior, including studies that have shown a trend between fish-eating countries and their lower overall violence.

Raine makes a very powerful argument throughout the book that you cannot ignore the biological basis for crime, and to cement this argument he discusses studies that have explored genes, neuroanatomy, and the autonomic nervous system in those prone to criminal behavior. But to add to this, Raine helps to destroy the long standing barrier that is often reinforced between nature and nurture, and discusses how the role of the environment is heavily implicated because it interfaces with a person’s biology, at all levels. Many in the sciences now shun the nature v. nurture over-simplistic dichotomy, and Raine helps us to see how in understanding the criminal mind this dichotomy can only hinder our understanding of human behavior.

But the thing I like the most about this book, is that Raine does not stop once he’s fully indicted Biology. He goes on to discuss curing crime, what it means to bring biological knowledge to the courtroom, and in a very powerful section at the end he discusses measures that could be taken in order to seriously reduce and perhaps even eliminate crime altogether. Although, you should be warned – you will be lured into what many would consider an Orwellian nightmare, only to have your rationale for opposing his ideas gently pulled away.

This is a serious must read for anyone interested in how criminals come to be and why they continue to do what they do.