Tag Archives: antisocial

Neurological models behind (anti)social behavior

Neurobiologists have put forward two neurological models that can be used to understand the development of social behavior; the Violence Inhibition Mechanism, and the Somatic Marker Hypothesis.

The Violence Inhibition Mechanism (VIM)

The VIM was first proposed by R.J.R Blair in 1995 in his article A cognitive developmental approach to morality: Investigating the psychopath. The VIM proposes that individuals (and other organisms capable of empathy) experience stress cues from others, including sad and frightened faces, and these are filtered/processed through the VIM before the  individual’s stress response is activated. Our sense of morality also causes an emotional experience based upon the observance of these stress cues, and the VIM again processes behavioral outcomes before they arise.

In his book The Psychopath: Emotion and the Brain, Blair states that the observance of another’s suffering acts as a form of punishment, which in turn decreases the likelihood of engaging in behavior that caused the suffering (the psychological definition of punishment, unlike reinforcement, is something that results in the decrease of the behavior in question). Empathy, then, creates an emotional experience that should dissuade a person from engaging in acts that cause the suffering of others. If it was violence that resulted in the suffering, the VIM should prevent a repeat of this violence.

This model seems contingent on an observer empathizing with the victim, rather than the aggressor. While empathizing with the victim does seem the most honorable and obvious, if the benefits and pleasure obtained by the aggressor seem desirable, the aggressor’s behavior could reinforce the behavior in question.

Somatic Marker Hypothesis

The somatic marker hypothesis was proposed by Antonio Damasio in his book Descartes’ Error: Motion, Reason, and the Human Brain. This hypothesis is built on the idea that emotional states or feelings mark certain behaviors from experience (and presumably from witnessing the behavior of others), and this is crucial for understanding prosocial behavior and making good decisions.

When a person experiences arousal (positive or negative), the central nervous system becomes active, and communication between brain stem nuclei and the limbic system generate an internal emotional state. These emotional states become tagged to the memories of what the organism was experiencing at a specific time, and are thus re-created when the organism remembers the experience. This emotional re-creation allows us to learn from experience.

It has been argued that psychopaths, who seem to suffer from some kind of affective blunting, are unable to tag memories with or experience emotions that are common to most of us. As the psychopathic brain develops, therefore, the individual is unable to learn right and wrong like the rest of us, and can only approach the subject from an emotionless logical perspective. The brain areas involved in producing these crucial markers (incl. the amygdala, the orbitofrontal & ventromedial prefrontal cortices, and the cingulate) are often found to be dysfunctional or mal-developed in the antisocial brain.

What makes a person snap and go on a killing spree?

In light of the massacre in Aurora, CO, and the more recent massacre at a Sikh temple in Milwaukee, WI, an obvious question seems to be why does this happen?

The first port of call is usually to look at beliefs, but the trouble with beliefs is that they do not always reflect behavior, especially if the behavior involves murder. Even extreme ideologies that promote greater intrinsic value over the life of one group of people than another, such as white supremacy or any religion that promotes an infidel/believer dynamic, would not permit most people to follow through with an act of killing.
This does not mean the adherents to such belief systems would not revel in the death of certain individuals or turn a blind eye, but in terms of carrying out the act, the belief alone does not seem enough.

The potency of a belief (it’s ability to affect behavior) may be determined by the dominant parent culture. If the parent culture endorses or encourages personal beliefs, then the likelihood of them affecting behavior are high, provided of course that the individual agrees with the parent culture. The beliefs and values that make up the parent culture are less likely to come with penalties, and maybe even carry a reward. Theoretically, murder of citizens by citizens in the United States carries very heavy penalties, and so even if a person believes that the murder of some individuals is permissible, the desire to avoid punishment will probably act as a deterrent (unless they’re a psychopath – see bottom of post).

So what else could be going on beyond beliefs?

There are two things that the shootings in Aurora and Milwaukee have in common.

Firstly, the gunmen both experienced potentially life-changing failure. James Holmes, the gunman in Aurora, was a PhD candidate in the Anschutz Medical Center (part of the University of Colorado) and supported by a federal grant. Holmes had also been seeing a psychiatrist, although the reason for his visits have not been made public. As Holmes failed an oral exam, it is probably safe to assume he had been anticipating failure or suffered a great deal of anxiety about the exam. This stress and anxiety was no doubt exacerbated by the pressure of having a federal grant and the subsequent need to maintain a high level of performance.  If his visit to the psychiatrist was for something beyond the anxiety caused by these factors, then the potential state of his mental health becomes even worse.

Wade Michael Page, who killed six individuals at the Sikh temple in Milwaukee, had also suffered potentially life changing failure. He had been demoted and discharged from the US Army and was ineligible to be re-enlisted. After spending six years in the army he was suddenly forced to find another job and no doubt felt a great deal of shame / embarrassment / anger over the discharge (possibly even anger at the US – the parent culture). He was clearly having problems with alcohol, too, as he was disciplined for being drunk on duty and going AWOL.

Both Holmes and Wade, who were both showing signs of mental illness, were forced to shape a different future for themselves from already investing a lot in their current career path.

Secondly, both shooters seemed to treat their massacre as a means to an end. Holmes went quietly and respectfully with the police, and Wade fired at policemen and ended up being shot and killed. Neither one of them showed any regard for a future (one they had been forced to re-shape), and seemed to embrace the US justice system or death, respectively. A terminal outlook of the immediate future can be used to rationalize anything, because one, it doesn’t require much effort or time for a depressed mind to conclude that life is pointless (meaning ALL acts have EQUAL value), and two, the deterrence of a parent culture no longer matters to the individual.

Another point to note about the killings, is that the gunmen clearly had no empathy or regard for life when they mercilessly shot members of the public. There are numerous explanations for this. Firstly, depression / anger / feelings of betrayal led to the shooters feeling like their own lives were not valued; this was then transferred to the victims. Secondly, the terminal end point was of greater value to the shooter than the lives of the victims. Thirdly, personal beliefs devalued the lives of the victims. I think the last reason here was probably apparent with Page, who appears to have been involved with White Supremacism.

It is also worth mentioning the act of suicide, because if the shooters both had terminal goals, then why not just kill themselves without taking the lives of anyone else? I think it is obvious that both shooters wanted to make some kind of violent statement before the terminal end as a manifestation of their anger and as a desire to be taken seriously (something they felt could have been missing before they were rejected).

It is worth taking a brief moment to consider psychopathy. In my opinion, most shooting sprees are not carried out by psychopaths. Killing sprees are not the M.O. of the psychopath. Despite the disregard for the lives of others, psychopaths do not demonstrate the belief in a terminal end point, in fact they love abusing and manipulating others, and would probably prefer to keep doing it and keep getting away it. Psychopaths would only go on a killing spree, therefore, if it was endorsed by the parent culture – which has no doubt happened in various military groups/regimes throughout history.

I would like to point out that attempting to understand why a person kills is not the same as finding excuses or defenses for these despicable acts. But it must be realized that culture and the environment are profoundly powerful forces in shaping minds, and so before disposing of people and subjecting them to an uncertain/unstable future, perhaps an effort should be made to assist them through the transition?

Head of Luka Magnotta’s victim / Involvement of Ron Jeremy

I hate to admit that I have been sucked in to thinking about the significance of the scattered body parts of Jun Lin. Body parts are often highly symbolic throughout all cultures, and if Magnotta was a villain in a TV series or a crime novel, the manner in which the limbs of Jun Lin were sent all over Montreal would have a deep meaning, as if behind Magnotta’s depravity there was some kind of evil genius at work.

The reality is of course that this was nothing but an act of terrorism. Limbs were sent to political parties and to two elementary schools, and the head of the victim was found in the Park Angrignon in Montreal. Shock, terror, and panic are the only things Magnotta was trying to achieve. In fact, I believe that he wanted to get caught, precisely because of all the media attention he would get because the world would suddenly know who he is, regardless of the reason for his fame.

Where I think Magnotta stands out against other instrumental murderers, is that he was able to commit these extreme acts of animal cruelty, and later murder and cannibalism, because he craved fame and loved drawing attention to acts of depravity; I do not think he did them implicitly as means to private pleasure and gratification. Much of what Magnotta has done has ended up in video and made available online.

I have just come across this video/article online that shows Magnotta now has fan girls; the comments from these women are absurd, especially given what Magnotta has done. This is a phenomenon I will never understand.

Rescue Ink, an animal rights group, had asked Ron Jeremy (known for infinite adult movies) to help capture Magnotta for his many acts of animal cruelty. Magnotta had been a porn actor, and it was believed that Jeremy could entice him out of Canada into the United States (extradition does not happen for animal cruelty) under the pretense of making an adult movie, and then once on set the activists could apprehend him. Jeremy was never encouraged by this idea, saying, “That’s good for the movies. That doesn’t work in real life.”

Sources Used

ABC News: ‘Cannibal’ Luka Magnotta Attracts Obsessed Female Fans

Huffington Post: Luka Magnotta Case: Head Found In Montreal Park Belonged To Jun Lin, Police Confirm

Huffington Post: Porn Star Ron Jeremy Reportedly Recruited To Snare Luka Magnotta, Accused Canadian Cannibal

Absence, Psychopathy, and God

It has been far too long since my last blog entry, but I have been so ridiculously busy that writing a half decent post has just been too challenging.

I have just about got the go ahead to submit my IRB protocol application to the Ole Miss IRB Board; if passed, this will finally allow me to press on with my experiment, which is essentially pissing off martial artists and measuring the changes in their autonomic nervous system. Very excited about this – perhaps too excited.

I have also been penning a novel about psychopathy, which is progressing nicely but forcing my sleep pattern out of sync. As much as I love creativity that seems to come from the sleepy exhaustion of 4am, this is just not a decent hour to meet too often.

I recently came across the following video that was posted on the American Humanist Association (AHA) facebook page, and although I think parts of it are over done, it does make a perfectly valid point about God and Psychopathy. I agree entirely with Christopher Hitchens that the god heralded by Abrahamic faiths in his kingdom of heaven, certainly does seem to fit the bill of a “divine North Korea”.

Playing God: The Loving Psychopath (CircusOfBedlam)

Click photo for video.

A dark side to the Psychopathy Checklist (PCL-R)?

Anyone interested in psychopaths and the history of the PCL-R (Psychopathy Checklist – Revised) should definitely take a look a look at this NPR interview with Dr. Robert Hare.

I don’t know why this surprised me, but it genuinely did. I have read a number of awesome things about the PCL-R, including seeing it noted as “The international gold-standard” for determining psychopathy. The PCL-R is often used in neurobiological studies when putting together an experimental group, to then see if there are statistically significant differences in the brain between psychopaths and non-psychopaths. As the article points out, the PCL-R has also predicted high rates of recidivism of violent criminals released on parole – so it’s good at predicting re-offending.

So what could be the problem?

It turns out that Dr. Hare was always worried about members of the criminal justice system using the test, not in the least because “branding” people a psychopath is a terribly serious thing to do that will effect the rest of that person’s life. Not only does psychopathy point to differences in the brain that are permanent, but there is currently no way to rehabilitate a psychopath (training them to become non-psychopathic). The article notes a man in prison in California, Robert Dixon, who has been branded a psychopath, and he is consequently having a hard time proving he isn’t a psychopath (if he isn’t a psychopath, this will be one hell of an uphill struggle, not in the least because psychopaths are known to be compulsive liars and prone to manipulating people). There are two points to realize here; firstly, if people believe you are truly a psychopath, then your cry for justice has just been silenced, and secondly, as you have just been silenced, you are open to be abused by mental health “experts” and the state.

Hare was also terrified to see that many people in the criminal justice system were not administering the PCL-R correctly (you have to be trained and you have to be a mental health expert). However, there were also differences in scores on the PCL-R when administered by a psychologist hired by the defense (scores were lower, thus less or non psychopathic), and psychologists hired by the prosecution (scores were higher, thus more psychopathic). This has prompted Hare to only want the test administered in scientific settings, where there is no immediate consequence on a person’s life.

Check out the NPR article for more information.

Ideology: Behavior protocol or excuse?

I am continually interested in how our beliefs shape our behavior, if indeed they do. This notion is especially important when considering extreme behaviors such as murder and pedophilia. While it is not uncommon to discover that mass murderers seem to have been “wrapped up” in some kind of sub-culture morality or extreme political/religious ideology, we also have to bear in mind that justifications for behavior come both before and after an act. If it comes before an act, was it ideology based (i.e. ideology governed the behavior), and if the justification comes after the act, is it an excuse (i.e. a rationalizing of the act – to oneself or the public)?

In terms of learning and repeating certain kinds of motor behavior, it seems obvious that certain repertoires get set into our brains (the cerebellum plays a key role in this). But how do beliefs manifest themselves as behavior? The obvious thing to do here would be to ask, “Okay, what is a belief?” – I’m going to work with the delightfully vague definition of “something I take to be true.” And what is truth? That’s an easy one. It’s something that provides me with reinforcement.

In an immediate way, we trust our senses and take the subsequent perception to be true because they facilitate our navigation and passage through our environment, providing us with very necessary information – if these senses fail us, then they are not being true (this happens even when there are no deficits/disorders/diseases hindering the transduction of environmental stimuli). But in a conceptual sense, knowing that Charles Dickens wrote Oliver Twist, firstly can be reinforcing because it promotes the positive feeling that I know something, and secondly, knowing this fact can facilitate the accumulation of more knowledge around it; everything we know about Dickens fits together and is facilitated by the fact that Charles Dickens wrote Oliver Twist. Clearly, our senses and our conceptions are not always right, which tells us something very important; learning requires us to shun the potential for reinforcement, and this can be very unsettling.

Ideology, therefore, is the stream of conceptions that has provided us with maximum amounts of reinforcement – more so than any other alternatives. This is clearly why we all have different “truths” about the world. So in terms of our beliefs governing our behavior, we are clearly expecting some kind of reinforcement upon the completion of the act; even suicide and the idea of suicide can seem highly rewarding in terms of how the individual sees their life, or how they would like to be remembered by others. The more planning and thought that goes into these acts, clearly increases the likelihood of the outcome. The more thought, the more anticipation of the reinforcer. The act becomes inevitable, at least for the individual, provided no one intervenes.  This anticipation, probably leads to a behavior protocol.

After the event, however, people still turn to ideology to justify it, and if this is the case, they probably never understood why they did what they did, or they were taking pleasure in toying with the media and the public (such as David Berkowitz telling the press that his neighbor’s dog was telling him to murder), or they felt telling the truth behind their motives would not be met with much sympathy or understanding. In the first instance, confusion, it is not hard to see that we do a lot without thinking – in fact, that’s a good thing because if we had to think through every little thing we do, such as preparing food, walking to and from the store, brushing one’s teeth, or picking up a hot drink, we would never get anything done. But this doesn’t really require ideology as an explanation, unless you want to get metaphysical. This lack of explanation could also apply to serial killers and serial rapists; they do what they do because the only way they get maximum exhilaration is by committing extreme acts and engaging in excessive drug and alcohol intake; ideology as an explanation is not required here. While there is this impulsive behavior, it must also be noted that many attacks are also highly planned, which takes us back to ideology motivating behavior.

It’s easy to see why psychopaths would throw ideology at the media; the public likes a good story and the fact that they are manipulating the public while remaining in the spotlight would no doubt assuage their ego; but as this is contrived nonsense, it is not an explanation of ideology explaining the act in question. Telling the truth about the thoughts and planning that went into a killing, is simply admitting that there was ideology before the killing.

Ideology has to be present before the act for it to be used as an excuse for the behavior. If ideology wasn’t there before the behavior, then you can’t make the behavior fit one. This is important because it tells you that the act was governed by impulses and the reptilian brain, rather than the use of the frontal lobe, which is involved in planning and forecasting. This difference can tell you something about the neurology of the individual, and tell you about the kind of person you are dealing with.

Ole Miss Serial Killer Conference

The two and a half day conference, which regrettably ended today, was awesome. I think I know a lot more about serial killers, psychopaths, and sexual deviants than I ever knew before – perhaps too much.

The first speaker, Dr. Lawrence Simon, was a pleasure to listen to. Simon draws from his years of research working with serial rapists and killers in a maximum security prison in Florida. Simon is charismatic and a great teacher, and not without a sense of humor, something you no doubt have to have when confronted with this real ugly side of life. If you ever want to find out the kind of things that motivate these individuals and how to get information from them, then Dr. Simon should definitely be consulted/looked up.

The second speaker, Dr. Carl Jensen, who is the Director of the Center for Intelligence and Security Studies at Ole Miss, was also a great teacher and clearly loves his field. Jensen addressed the significance of M.Os, rituals, and signatures with regards to interpreting crime scenes, and presented methodologies for solving crimes; Jensen worked with the FBI for 22 years.

I definitely walked away from the conference with an increased amount of fascination/intrigue, and a tremendous amount of disgust/repulsion with regards to the behavior of some of the serial offenders mentioned – the conflicting experiences that make the field so addictive.