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The tragedy in Newtown, CT, and a tragic national response

There have been a num­ber of mis­lead­ing reports, trou­bling anom­alies, and out­right hoaxes fol­low­ing the tragedy in New­town, CT. To some extent this is to be expected given the sud­den­ness of the event and the scale and nature of the tragedy although the vol­ume of faulty infor­ma­tion has still been per­plex­ing. But beyond the con­fu­sion and mis­in­for­ma­tion regard­ing basic facts of the event there has also been a pecu­liar focus on what could only be described as junk-analysis on the part of the main­stream media when it comes to the ques­tions over why this took place and how we can pre­vent fur­ther tragedies of this nature. The sud­den media fix­a­tion the shooter’s alleged diag­no­sis with Asperger’s Syn­drome has been one of the most promi­nent exam­ples of this curi­ous behav­ior. Human­ity has been liv­ing with peo­ple with Asperger’s Syn­drome vir­tu­ally for­ever and there is no mean­ing­ful evi­dence that such indi­vid­u­als have a ten­dency towards mass killings. And con­sid­er­ing that a mass shoot­ing attempt at a mall just days ear­lier was car­ried out by an indi­vid­ual that appeared to be quite social and out­go­ing, the sud­den focus on the shooter’s appar­ent social awk­ward­ness has been a trou­bling devel­op­ment. Not unprece­dented but still trou­bling given the long-term dam­age such stereo­typ­ing could have on a society.

With this in mind, there is a sec­ond deeply dis­turb­ing response to this tragedy that has to be addressed: the attempts to find a “bio­log­i­cal” expla­na­tion for the attack. If there was a sin­gle phrase that could sum­ma­rize the absur­di­ties in the plans to find this bio­log­i­cal expla­na­tion, the phase ‘OMFG’ might suf­fice:

DNA of New­town Shooter Adam Lanza to Be Stud­ied by Geneti­cists
ABC World News

By SHUSHANNAH WALSHE (@shushwalshe)
Dece. 27, 2012

Geneti­cists have been asked to study the DNA of Adam Lanza, the Con­necti­cut man whose shoot­ing ram­page killed 27 peo­ple, includ­ing an entire first grade class.

The study, which experts believe may be the first of its kind, is expected to be look­ing for abnor­mal­i­ties or muta­tions in Lanza’s DNA.

Con­necti­cut Med­ical Exam­iner H. Wayne Carver has reached out to Uni­ver­sity of Connecticut’s geneti­cists to con­duct the study.

Uni­ver­sity of Con­necti­cut spokesper­son Tom Green says Carver “has asked for help from our depart­ment of genet­ics” and they are “will­ing to give any assis­tance they can.”

Green said he could not pro­vide details on the project, but said it has not begun and they are “stand­ing by wait­ing to assist in any way we can.”

Lanza, 20, car­ried out the mas­sacre at Sandy Hook Ele­men­tary School in New­town, Conn., just days before Christ­mas. His motives for the slaugh­ter remain a mystery.

Geneti­cists not directly involved in the study said they are likely look­ing at Lanza’s DNA to detect a muta­tion or abnor­mal­ity that could increase the risk of aggres­sive or vio­lent behav­ior. They could ana­lyze Lanza’s entire genome in great detail and try to find unex­pected mutations.

This seems to be the first time a study of this nature has been con­ducted, but it raises con­cerns in some geneti­cists and oth­ers in the field that there could be a stigma attached to peo­ple with these genetic char­ac­ter­is­tics if they are able to be nar­rowed down.


Just a note: not only does this study appear to be the first of its kind in the field of genet­ics, it’s also appar­ently quite ground­break­ing in the field of sta­tis­tics. After all, every­one has MILLIONS of indi­vid­ual base-pair muta­tions in their DNA that devi­ates from the ‘norm’. So appar­ently these crack sci­en­tists are pos­si­bly going to look through the shooter’s entire genome and in order to iden­tify the ‘evil’ muta­tion. And, of course, being respon­si­ble sci­en­tists they would want to employ robust sta­tis­ti­cal analy­sis to iden­tify these ‘evil’ muta­tions, you know, like a stan­dard case/control sort of study. The con­trol group would be easy to get. You just need to get some DNA from non-evil peo­ple that don’t go around killing peo­ple. You know, non-evil peo­ple like this guy. And for the ‘case’ cohort they’ll have....hmmmm....A SINGLE PERSON. Ok, maybe they’ll throw in some rel­a­tives and just assume they’re evil too because, you know, genet­ics is all about hered­ity, right? Yes, it’s a brave new world of sta­tis­ti­cal analy­sis! How exciting!


Arthur Beaudet, a pro­fes­sor at Bay­lor Col­lege of Med­i­cine, said the Uni­ver­sity of Con­necti­cut geneti­cists are most likely try­ing to “detect clear abnor­mal­i­ties of what we would call a muta­tion in a gene…or gene abnor­mal­i­ties and there are some abnor­mal­i­ties that are related to aggres­sive behavior.”

“They might look for muta­tions that might be asso­ci­ated with men­tal ill­nesses and ones that might also increase the risk for vio­lence,” said Beaudet, who is also the chair­man of Bay­lor Col­lege of Medicine’s depart­ment of mol­e­c­u­lar and human genetics.

Beaudet believes geneti­cists should be doing this type of research because there are “some muta­tions that are known to be asso­ci­ated with at least aggres­sive behav­ior if not vio­lent behavior.”

“I don’t think any one of these muta­tions would explain all of (the mass shoot­ers), but some of them would have muta­tions that might be caus­ing both schiz­o­phre­nia and related schiz­o­phre­nia vio­lent behav­ior,” Beaudet said. “I think we could learn more about it and we should learn more about it.”

Beaudet noted that study­ing the genes of mur­der­ers is con­tro­ver­sial because there is a risk that those with sim­i­lar genetic char­ac­ter­is­tics could pos­si­bly be dis­crim­i­nated against or stig­ma­tized, but he still thinks the research would be help­ful even if only a “frac­tion” may have the abnor­mal­ity or muta­tion.

“Not all of these peo­ple will have iden­ti­fi­able genetic abnor­mal­i­ties,” Beaudet said, adding that even if a genetic abnor­mal­ity is found it may not be related to a “spe­cific risk.”

“By study­ing genetic abnor­mal­i­ties we can learn more about con­di­tions bet­ter and who is at risk and what might be dra­matic treat­ments,” Beaudet said, adding if the gene abnor­mal­ity is defined the “treat­ment to stop” other mass shoot­ings or “decrease the risk is much approved.“

Ok, so we now have a geneti­cist that’s endors­ing the approach of going “muta­tion fish­ing” in the DNA of mur­der­ers that’s asso­ci­ated with aggres­sive­ness and vio­lence and if we find a genetic vari­ant that a “frac­tion” of mur­der­ers have it’s “much approved” to apply “treat­ment to stop” other peo­ple with the same genetic vari­ants. Also, let’s recall that the shooter had no recorded his­tory of vio­lence so we’ll just have to “treat” EVERYONE with these newly dis­cov­ered genetic vari­ants regard­less of their his­tory of vio­lence. A brave new world indeed!



Oth­ers in the field aren’t so sure.

Dr. Harold Bursz­tajn, a pro­fes­sor of psy­chi­a­try at Har­vard Med­ical School, is a leader in his field on this issue writ­ing exten­sively on genetic dis­crim­i­na­tion. He ques­tions what the Uni­ver­sity of Con­necti­cut researchers could “even be look­ing for at this point.”

“Given how wide the net would have to be cast and given the prob­lem of false pos­i­tives in test­ing it is much more likely we would go ahead and find some mis­lead­ing genetic mark­ers, which would later be proven false while unnec­es­sar­ily stig­ma­tiz­ing a very large group of peo­ple,” Bursz­tajn said.

Bursz­tajn also cau­tions there are other risks to this kind of study: that other warn­ing signs could be ignored.

“It’s too risky from the stand point of unduly stig­ma­tiz­ing peo­ple, but also from dis­tract­ing us from real red flags to pre­vent vio­lence from occur­ring,” Bursz­tajn said. “The last thing we need when peo­ple are in the midst of grief is offer­ing peo­ple quick fixes which may help our anx­i­ety, but can be coun­ter­pro­duc­tive to our long term safety and ethics.”

Bursz­tajn is also the pres­i­dent of the Amer­i­can Unit of the United Nations Edu­ca­tional, Sci­en­tific and Cul­tural Orga­ni­za­tion (UNESCO) Bioethics Chair and in that role he teaches health care pro­fes­sion­als about respon­si­ble genetic edu­ca­tion includ­ing the his­tory of eugen­ics in this coun­try in the 1920s and Nazi Ger­many. He cau­tions against the slip­pery slope that the kind of research that could be involved in the Uni­ver­sity of Connecticut’s study could lead to.

Dr. Heidi Tis­senbaum, a geneti­cist at the Uni­ver­sity of Mass­a­chu­setts med­ical school, agrees the research is risky say­ing an accu­rate study just can­not be com­pleted on one person.

“The prob­lem is there might be a genetic com­po­nent, but we don’t have enough of a sam­ple size,” Tis­senbaum said. “I think it’s much more than a sim­ple genetic answer, but an inter­play between genet­ics and environment.”

“One sam­ple, what’s that going to tell you,” Tis­senbaum said, refer­ring to Lanza’s DNA. “You never do an exper­i­ment with one, you can’t con­clude any­thing… The ques­tion is what are they com­par­ing his DNA against? Are they going to con­trol to ran­dom peo­ple? Match­ing for age or soci­ety? We just don’t have enough (of a sample).”


Well, it looks like other experts aren’t as opti­mistic about the prospects of con­duct­ing a genet­ics asso­ci­a­tion study on a one per­son. It looks like our brave new world of sta­tis­ti­cal analy­sis will have to wait.

This story is rem­i­nis­cent of a series of inter­est­ing — but some­times trou­bling — inter­views that were shown last week on Erin Burnett’s “Out Front” CNN show. There are a num­ber of clips avail­able that are worth view­ing to get a sense of the how the nat­ural desire to “find a solu­tion” to mass killings is play­ing itself out in the national dis­course:
1. First, watch this Dec 18th clip from her show where she inter­views “Dr. Oz” about the minds of mass killers. Dr Oz makes the case that “anti­so­cial” peo­ple have dif­fer­ent brains than nor­mal peo­ple and we need to have “a Home­land Secu­rity approach” to men­tal health. He does, for­tu­nately, make the point that kids with Asperger’s Syn­drome do, indeed, exhibit com­pas­sion, so at least one group that would prob­a­bly fall into the “anti­so­cial” cat­e­gory in many people’s minds was given the “non-psycho” pass by this Doc­tor. But let’s just take a step back and con­sider what a “Home­land Secu­rity” approach to “anti­so­cial” peo­ple might entail.

2. On the Wed­snes­day (Dec 19th) show Ms. Bur­nett (now Mrs. Bur­nett, BTW) had a seg­ment where she raised the ques­tion “are autis­tic peo­ple REALLY not a threat? after all, part of the descrip­tion of this con­di­tion is a lack of empa­thy...” (this isn’t in the clip but I saw it live) and then she she inter­viewed an autism advo­cate and leads in with “I asked him how he’s so sure that autism wasn’t a part of why this tragedy hap­pened”. The inter­view worth watch­ing as a great exam­ple of, how shall we puts this, a lack of empathy.

3. Next, watch this clip from later in that same Dec. 19th show where Ms. Bur­nett inter­view Dr. Drew about how to iden­tify a psy­chopath and whether or not peo­ple can be born psy­chopaths. It’s an inter­est­ing seg­ment that includes a fas­ci­nat­ing story about Dr. Jim Fal­lon, a sci­en­tist that spe­cial­izes in study­ing the minds of psy­chopaths. Part of that research involves using brain scans (fMRI) that has shown dis­tinct pat­terns of brain func­tion­ing that is found in psy­cho­pathic indi­vid­u­als. As Dr. Drew also points out, the sci­en­tist that did the brain scan­ning research also has the brain match­ing the psy­chopath pro­file. Fas­ci­nat­ing, no?

4. Now watch this clip from the Dec. 21st show where Ms. Bur­nett inter­view Dr. Jim Fal­lon about his research and the dis­cov­ery that he also has a brain that exhibits sim­i­lar fMRI pat­terns to that of a psy­chopath. Part of what makes this inter­view so fas­ci­nat­ing is that we see an indi­vid­ual with a sup­posed “psy­chopath” brain, Dr. Fal­lon, basi­cally mak­ing a per­sonal sac­ri­fice by telling the world that he has the traits of the psy­chopath even though he clearly isn’t a psy­chopath in order to make the impor­tant point that peo­ple may share these same traits as a psy­chopath aren’t nec­es­sar­ily psy­chopaths. Per­haps there’s a les­son or two here for any psychopaths/sociopaths in Wash­ing­ton DC that may be tempted to imple­ment brain scan­ning tech­nol­ogy in a “Home­land Secu­rity” approach to men­tal ill­ness? First, our brave pol­icy mak­ers should real­ize that the the imple­men­ta­tion of such scan­ning tech­nol­ogy would be fraught with great eth­i­cal peril, although that may not par­tic­u­larly care if they were psychopaths/sociopaths. But, they should also real­ize that when they, them­selves, get revealed as hav­ing psy­cho­pathic brains (because we’re all going to want to brain scan on Con­gress first) these hid­den psy­chos in Con­gress could at least say “aha, but as Dr. Fal­lon has shown, hav­ing a ‘psy­chopath brain’ doesn’t mean I’m a psy­chopath!”. Isn’t sci­ence fun?

Finally, let’s take a look at another arti­cle about Dr. Fallon’s find­ings. It con­tains a impor­tant les­son that should not only be inter­nal­ized by all pol­icy mak­ers (psy­cho or not) but it also needs to be inter­nal­ized by the rest of us. It a reminder that psy­chopaths are a prod­uct of nature (genes) AND nur­ture:

National Pub­lic Radio
A Neu­ro­sci­en­tist Uncov­ers A Dark Secret

by Bar­bara Bradley Hagerty
June 29, 2010 12:00 AM

The crim­i­nal brain has always held a fas­ci­na­tion for James Fal­lon. For nearly 20 years, the neu­ro­sci­en­tist at the Uni­ver­sity of California-Irvine has stud­ied the brains of psy­chopaths. He stud­ies the bio­log­i­cal basis for behav­ior, and one of his spe­cial­ties is to try to fig­ure out how a killer’s brain dif­fers from yours and mine.

About four years ago, Fal­lon made a star­tling dis­cov­ery. It hap­pened dur­ing a con­ver­sa­tion with his then 88-year-old mother, Jenny, at a fam­ily barbecue.


“There’s a whole lin­eage of very vio­lent peo­ple — killers,” he says.

One of his direct great-grandfathers, Thomas Cor­nell, was hanged in 1667 for mur­der­ing his mother. That line of Cor­nells pro­duced seven other alleged mur­der­ers, includ­ing Lizzy Bor­den. “Cousin Lizzy,” as Fal­lon wryly calls her, was accused (and con­tro­ver­sially acquit­ted) of killing her father and step­mother with an ax in Fall River, Mass., in 1882.

A lit­tle spooked by his ances­try, Fal­lon set out to see whether any­one in his fam­ily pos­sesses the brain of a ser­ial killer. Because he has stud­ied the brains of dozens of psy­chopaths, he knew pre­cisely what to look for. To demon­strate, he opened his lap­top and called up an image of a brain on his com­puter screen.


Fallon’s Scans


Fal­lon says nobody in his fam­ily has real prob­lems with those behav­iors. But he wanted to be sure. Con­ve­niently, he had every­thing he needed: Pre­vi­ously, he had per­suaded 10 of his close rel­a­tives to sub­mit to a PET brain scan and give a blood sam­ple as part of a project to see whether his fam­ily had a risk for devel­op­ing Alzheimer’s dis­ease.

After learn­ing his vio­lent fam­ily his­tory, he exam­ined the images and com­pared them with the brains of psy­chopaths. His wife’s scan was nor­mal. His mother: nor­mal. His sib­lings: nor­mal. His chil­dren: normal.

“And I took a look at my own PET scan and saw some­thing dis­turb­ing that I did not talk about,” he says.

What he didn’t want to reveal was that his orbital cor­tex looks inactive.

“If you look at the PET scan, I look just like one of those killers.”

Fal­lon cau­tions that this is a young field. Sci­en­tists are just begin­ning to study this area of the brain — much less the brains of crim­i­nals. Still, he says the evi­dence is accu­mu­lat­ing that some people’s brains pre­dis­pose them toward vio­lence and that psy­cho­pathic ten­den­cies may be passed down from one gen­er­a­tion to another.

The Three Ingredients

And that brings us to the next part of Jim Fallon’s fam­ily exper­i­ment. Along with brain scans, Fal­lon also tested each fam­ily member’s DNA for genes that are asso­ci­ated with vio­lence. He looked at 12 genes related to aggres­sion and vio­lence and zeroed in on the MAO-A gene (monoamine oxi­dase A). This gene, which has been the tar­get of con­sid­er­able research, is also known as the “war­rior gene” because it reg­u­lates sero­tonin in the brain. Sero­tonin affects your mood — think Prozac — and many sci­en­tists believe that if you have a cer­tain ver­sion of the war­rior gene, your brain won’t respond to the calm­ing effects of serotonin.

Fal­lon calls up another slide on his com­puter. It has a list of fam­ily mem­bers’ names, and next to them, the results of the geno­typ­ing. Every­one in his fam­ily has the low-aggression vari­ant of the MAO-A gene, except for one person.

“You see that? I’m 100 per­cent. I have the pat­tern, the risky pat­tern,” he says, then pauses. “In a sense, I’m a born killer.”

Fallon’s being tongue-in-cheek — sort of. He doesn’t believe his fate or any­one else’s is entirely deter­mined by genes. They merely tip you in one direc­tion or another.

And yet: “When I put the two together, it was frankly a lit­tle dis­turb­ing,” Fal­lon says with a laugh. “You start to look at your­self and you say, ‘I may be a sociopath.’ I don’t think I am, but this looks exactly like [the brains of] the psy­chopaths, the sociopaths, that I’ve seen before.”

I asked his wife, Diane, what she thought of the result.

“I wasn’t too con­cerned,” she says, laugh­ing. “I mean, I’ve known him since I was 12.”

Diane prob­a­bly does not need to worry, accord­ing to sci­en­tists who study this area. They believe that brain pat­terns and genetic makeup are not enough to make any­one a psy­chopath. You need a third ingre­di­ent: abuse or vio­lence in one’s child­hood.

“And for­tu­nately, he wasn’t abused as a young per­son,” Diane says, “so I’ve lived to be a ripe old age so far.”

The New World of ‘Neurolaw’

Jim Fal­lon says he had a ter­rific child­hood; he was doted on by his par­ents and had lov­ing rela­tion­ships with his broth­ers and sis­ters and entire extended fam­ily. Sig­nif­i­cantly, he says this jour­ney through his brain has changed the way he thinks about nature and nur­ture. He once believed that genes and brain func­tion could deter­mine every­thing about us. But now he thinks his child­hood may have made all the dif­fer­ence.

“We’ll never know, but the way these pat­terns are look­ing in gen­eral pop­u­la­tion, had I been abused, we might not be sit­ting here today,” he says.

As for the psy­chopaths he stud­ies, Fal­lon feels some com­pas­sion for these peo­ple who, he says, got “a bad roll of the dice.”

“It’s an unlucky day when all of these three things come together in a bad way, and I think one has to empathize with what hap­pened to them,” he says.


Greater soci­etal empa­thy for psy­chopaths and other vio­lent crim­i­nals may not be the first response that peo­ple have when try­ing to come to grips with the phe­nom­ena of mass mur­der, but if we really want to address these issues and find a solu­tion that doesn’t resem­ble some sort of Minor­ity Report–meets–Gat­taca dystopia, per­haps greater empa­thy for the many peo­ple exhibit­ing psychopathic/sociopathic per­son­al­ity traits can lead us towards a rea­son­able solu­tion? For instance, it’s cer­tainly true that the United States has an abun­dance of highly pow­er­ful weaponry avail­able and some sort of bal­ance in how we reg­u­late that weaponry is a clear part of any long-term solu­tion. But we might also want to remind our­selves that the United States has the high­est rates of child­hood poverty in the devel­oped world. We might also want to remind our­selves that child abuse is also mas­sive prob­lem this soci­ety and it can impact chil­dren across the socioe­co­nomic spec­trum. And what about the ongo­ing dis­grace of major insti­tu­tions that appear to have pro­tected and cov­ered up these crimes? And, of course, what about all the other hor­rific sys­temic abuses that take place to chil­dren and adults that rarely, if ever, get addressed. Obvi­ously, the vast vast major­ity of vic­tims of abuse don’t turn out to be psy­chopaths — oth­er­wise we would have MUCH BIGGER prob­lems in this soci­ety. But we have to keep in mind that there is going to be a small sub­set of abuse vic­tims that are espe­cially vul­ner­a­ble to the stresses and hor­rors of child abuse and those vul­ner­a­ble chil­dren may be more prone towards grow­ing up into psy­cho­pathic adults.

Are we going to include these top­ics in our national dia­logue over ‘men­tal health’ in the United States? And does soci­ety even have the capac­ity for empa­thy for those that com­mit hor­ri­ble crimes? How about empathiz­ing with some­one like Dr. Fal­lon? We will be miss­ing a huge oppor­tu­nity if we don’t rec­og­nize that the world we are col­lec­tively cre­at­ing can make a BIG dif­fer­ence in whether or not a kid with Dr. Fallon’s genetic pre­dis­po­si­tion turns out to be a cool doc­tor that makes a per­sonal sac­ri­fice for oth­ers or a vio­lent psy­chopath. Pro­posed Mass school screen­ings for men­tal ill­ness in chil­dren will no doubt do some good for some kids at risk and in need of help but it’s also guar­an­teed to result in a num­ber of ‘false pos­i­tive’ diag­noses that could be pro­foundly detri­men­tal to a child’s psy­cho­log­i­cal devel­op­ment (just imag­ine get­ting the “we think you may be a psy­cho” talk from the coun­selor and how hav­ing that on your per­ma­nent record would impact you). So per­haps we should also con­sider approaches that don’t have nearly as many down­sides like address­ing grow­ing poverty and stun­ning rates of child abuse.

How many of today’s psy­chopaths and sociopaths could have ended up like Dr. Fal­lon but instead are either walk­ing the streets or rot­ting in jail due, in part, to life expe­ri­ences com­pletely out­side of their con­trol? Could Dr. Fal­lon even have become a doc­tor or even gone to col­lege if he was found to have the ‘evil gene’? Kids don’t ask for their genes...they just get them. And no one asks for abuse, espe­cially child abuse. And most abusers were, them­selves, vic­tims of abuse or awful cir­cum­stance. How do we han­dle and empathize with abused abusers? Awful ques­tions regard­ing the cul­pa­bil­ity of those caught in hor­rific crim­i­nal act have always been with us. But the devel­op­ment of new ‘pre­dic­tive’ tech­nolo­gies like genetic screen­ing and fMRI brain scan­ning made it a ques­tion of “when” not “if” soci­eties were going to have to face a choice of really going to go down the Minor­ity Report–meets–Gat­taca approach to crime pre­ven­tion. The dan­gers that arise from the mis­use or abuse of these tech­nolo­gies are only going grow as the power of these tech­nolo­gies also grow in both scope and ease of admin­is­tra­tion. Like many of the tech­no­log­i­cal rev­o­lu­tions on the hori­zon, brain scan­ning and genetic analy­sis tech­nolo­gies could and should be incred­i­ble tools that could help future indi­vid­u­als learn more about them­selves, cure dis­eases, and increase our over­all level of self aware­ness and poten­tial. Sci­ence can be fun like that. But these same tech­nolo­gies could also become traps, where super­fi­cial met­rics like genes and brain scans are used to sin­gle out and destroy those that devi­ate from a pre­scribed ‘norm’ or ‘raise red flags’, regard­less of how impre­cise those ‘red flags’ may be.

Sci­ence, tech­nol­ogy, and pub­lic pol­icy is often a scary mix. Sci­ence involv­ing pre­dic­tive sur­veil­lance tech­nolo­gies that delve into the most inti­mate aspects of our­selves — our bod­ies and minds — has immense poten­tial for harm if mis­used. When cou­pled with pub­lic pol­icy related to emo­tion­ally charged top­ics like mass killers — espe­cially mass child killers — pre­dic­tive sur­veil­lance tech­nolo­gies are quite pos­si­bly one of the most volatile mixes human­ity has ever faced. These kinds of top­ics aren’t new. We know where this can go. Soci­eties are going to have the abil­ity to poke and prod inside the bod­ies and minds of indi­vid­u­als in ways few imag­ined as the future unfolds. If the national debate that fol­lowed this tragedy in New­town is any indi­ca­tion of what to expect as these pre­dic­tive sur­veil­lance tech­nolo­gies become avail­able, future soci­eties may not be the kinds of places where any­one would want to raise a child.


10 comments for “The tragedy in Newtown, CT, and a tragic national response”

  1. I must, must thank you for this well con­sid­ered, nuanced, and his­tor­i­cal per­spec­tive. (Includ­ing your pre­vi­ous posts on the sub­ject) The ‘media’ will shape the his­tory of this event, regard­less of the facts. Thats true enough. But at least your on record, here.

    I gen­er­ally don’t like to com­ment just for the sake of praise, but this deserves a spe­cial ‘tip of the hat’ to you, Sir.

    Posted by GrumpusRex | December 29, 2012, 11:25 pm
  2. Good Arti­cle! I am con­cerned about those with psy­cho­pathic ten­den­cies who Act Out in the polit­i­cal and finan­cial realms.

    Posted by LarryFW | December 29, 2012, 11:40 pm
  3. @Grumpus: Thanks! And yeah, this whole issue of pre­dict­ing behav­iors based on biol­ogy is just so tan­ta­liz­ing to the pub­lic that we’re bound to see more pro­pos­als like this in the future. When the early reports about the pro­posal first hit the news I was sure that the idea would be dis­missed by the sci­en­tific com­mu­nity and the whole thing would be dropped. Instead, it appears the idea is being dis­missed by almost the entire sci­en­tific com­mu­nity and yet the plans for the study are still pro­ceed­ing for­ward. It’s a really trou­bling devel­op­ment. We can at least be relieved that the sci­en­tific com­mu­nity isn’t endors­ing this, but like you say, it’s going to be the media that shapes the public’s under­stand­ing of what the researchers actu­ally learn from the study and that does not bode well at all. A lot of the report­ing on the pro­posal has been pretty decent and filled with the appro­pri­ate caveats but a lot of other reports have been of the ‘they’re look­ing for the evil-gene’ vari­ety and I’m really not look­ing for­ward to see­ing how those media out­lets treat the results of this study once it gets pub­li­cized. The researchers are almost guar­an­teed to find some­thing that falls into the cat­e­gory of “could this have con­tributed to the mass shoot­ing”? The same would be true for vir­tu­ally anyone’s genome.

    @LarryFW: Ever since I first read about this ‘psy­chopath test’ brain scan­ning tech­nol­ogy a few years back I’ve been won­der­ing what elite sociopaths would think about such a tech­nol­ogy becom­ing avail­able. On the one hand, there is just a ton of money to be made by some­one if the pub­lic can ever be sold on the idea of mass brain scan­ning to ‘find the bad guys’, regard­less of the dam­age done. On the other hand, because the peo­ple in power are sim­ply the ‘obvi­ous’ first choice for the pub­lic to select as a first test­ing ground for this kind of stuff, I’d have to imag­ine that there could be an extra level of wari­ness on the part of var­i­ous elites at see­ing this tech­nol­ogy put out there. What are the odds that psy­chos that reach great heights of power and influ­ence don’t know they’re kind of psy­cho? It’s a grimly fas­ci­nat­ing power elite conundrum.

    Posted by Pterrafractyl | January 1, 2013, 8:48 pm
  4. Just as I was read­ing this arti­cle a pro­gram came on the radio deal­ing with just this sub­ject.. It is an excel­lent inter­view with a geneti­cist and a neu­rol­o­gist on oppos­ing sides of this debate. Pro­gram is the Jan. 8, 2013 episode of The Cur­rent on CBC radio in Canada (www.cbc.ca ). There is also an inter­view deal­ing with sup­posed invis­i­bil­ity cloak­ing tech­nol­ogy for sol­diers devel­oped here in Canada.

    Posted by Ken Jarecki | January 8, 2013, 6:45 am
  5. Thanks for the info­ma­tive and thought pro­vok­ing article.

    I agree com­pletely with the assess­ment of sin­gling out men­tal ill­ness alone as the sole foun­da­tion and focus of pre­vent­ing mass killings. While men­tal ill­ness may be the enabler of such actions, it is more likely that our socio-economic health as a peo­ple is the real issue. The men­tally ill are sim­ply our “canaries”. They fash­ion their behav­iors from their envi­ron­ment and may well mir­ror and amplify the emo­tions and atti­tudes of their family/care-givers. Does our own angst and agi­ta­tion regard­ing our own socio-economic unease fuel their men­tal tur­moil? There does seem to be an obvi­ous cur­rent events correlation.

    Posted by Gary Rudolph | February 9, 2013, 7:42 am
  6. Here’s the lat­est ‘was it an evil gene?’ arti­cle:

    The Tele­graph
    Study­ing Adam Lanza: is evil in our genes?
    Study­ing the DNA of gun­man Adam Lanza could rev­o­lu­tionise our under­stand­ing of spree killers. Why are so many sci­en­tists against it? Julia Llewellyn Smith reports.

    By Julia Llewellyn Smith

    6:30AM BST 10 Apr 2013

    Adam Lanza was a loner: highly intel­li­gent with a ghostly pal­lor; awk­ward but pleas­ant seem­ing; described by his own brother as a “nerd”.

    On Decem­ber 14 last year, Lanza, 20, walked into Sandy Hook Ele­men­tary School in the afflu­ent town of New­town, Con­necti­cut, and over the next two hours shot 20 chil­dren and six adults dead, before turn­ing the gun on him­self. Already that day, he’d killed his mother with her shotgun.

    Why had this young man, as opposed to mil­lions of other “geeky” out­siders, mur­dered 27 inno­cents? The media talked about Lanza’s mother’s gun col­lec­tion; the fact he had no Face­book page and no photo of him appeared in his high-school year­book, only the words “camera-shy”. But at the same time, sci­en­tists at the Uni­ver­sity of Con­necti­cut were embark­ing on a dif­fer­ent line of inquiry. The genet­ics depart­ment was analysing Lanza’s DNA.

    The uni­ver­sity refused to give any details about these inves­ti­ga­tions – pos­si­bly of cells from Lanza’s brain, but equally likely from cells taken from his hair or the gun he used – or what they hoped they could reveal from the analy­sis. But the news shone a light on an area of behav­ioural genet­ics that pro­vokes deeply diver­gent opin­ions both within the sci­en­tific com­mu­nity and in wider soci­ety. Is it pos­si­ble that there is a gene that makes some peo­ple “evil”? Could future mur­der­ers be spot­ted before they have com­mit­ted a crime? And should they be pun­ished if they are sim­ply pris­on­ers of their own biology?

    Some sci­en­tists rejected the announce­ment, say­ing it was “almost incon­ceiv­able” there was a com­mon genetic fac­tor among mass mur­der­ers. But oth­ers applaud the initiative.

    “Only by study­ing indi­vid­u­als [like Lanza] as thor­oughly as pos­si­ble will we some day be able to reduce the fre­quency of these sad episodes,” says Dr Art Beaudet, chair­man of the Depart­ment of Mol­e­c­u­lar and Human Genet­ics at Bay­lor Col­lege of Med­i­cine in Hous­ton, Texas. “The genetic research should include genomic copy num­ber analy­sis, whole genome sequenc­ing and epi­ge­netic analy­sis of post-mortem brain tis­sue.”

    Note that the exact same geneti­cist, Dr Art Beaudet, is used the ‘advo­cate’ for the study in vir­tu­ally every arti­cle one can find on this topic. He’s also one of the two sci­en­tists inter­viewed in this CBC radio inter­view Ken noted above (thanks Ken!). It’s a great inter­view on the topic.


    This is thought to be the first time sci­en­tists have analysed the genetic blue­print of a “spree killer”, but it’s far from the first attempt to exam­ine a murderer’s biol­ogy. In 1931, the brain of the “Vam­pire of Düs­sel­dorf”, Peter Kürten, a ser­ial killer, was removed from his corpse after his exe­cu­tion for exam­i­na­tion, although no use­ful con­clu­sions were pub­lished. Today, it is dis­played in Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! Museum in Wisconsin.

    Over the past decade, Dr Kent Kiehl, a neu­ro­sci­en­tist at the Uni­ver­sity of New Mex­ico, has vis­ited eight high-security pris­ons in two US states with a mobile MRI unit, scan­ning the brains of crim­i­nals to see if those defined as psy­chopaths have dif­fer­ent brain struc­tures from “some­one who com­mits a rob­bery out of poverty”, as Kiehl puts it.

    Dr Kiehl’s and oth­ers’ research has found that psy­chopaths’ brains tend to have very low lev­els of den­sity in the par­al­im­bic sys­tem, the area of the brain asso­ci­ated with the pro­cess­ing of emo­tion, some­thing that may be genet­i­cally deter­mined. The result is that psy­chopaths tend to have impul­sive per­son­al­i­ties and show lit­tle evi­dence of feel­ing guilt, remorse or empathy.

    In con­trast, “spree killers” tend to be extremely depressed, to the point of suf­fer­ing from a delu­sional psy­chosis accom­pa­nied by voices or hal­lu­ci­na­tions, or – as in Lanza’s case – to be young peo­ple with phys­i­o­log­i­cally imma­ture brains, who in their state of ultra-sensitivity decide to exact “revenge” on the world for per­ceived injustices.

    Recent years have seen huge advance­ments in DNA research, with researchers now able to iden­tify spe­cific genes that are linked to anti-social or aggres­sive behav­iour, in par­tic­u­lar the MAO-A gene (nick­named “the war­rior gene”), which appears to be hereditary.


    Essi Vidling, pro­fes­sor of devel­op­men­tal psy­chopathol­ogy at Uni­ver­sity Col­lege Lon­don, who has car­ried out exten­sive research into psy­chopa­thy in chil­dren, describes the research into Lanza’s genes as “a com­plete bloody waste of time”. She says: “Col­leagues and I are per­plexed as to what would be the point. The author­i­ties want to reas­sure peo­ple, ‘We are doing our best to explain why this hap­pened,’ but the aim of the exer­cise is not sci­en­tif­i­cally infor­ma­tive because it only involves one per­son. It’s a desire not to leave any stone unturned.”


    Could things have been dif­fer­ent for the Lanza fam­ily if their youngest son’s brain had been scanned at an early age? It’s all con­jec­ture. As Dr Kent Kiehl says: “The only thing we can be sure of is that if Lanza’s mother had locked away her guns, this tragedy might have been avoided.”

    It’s going to be fas­ci­nat­ing to see how soci­ety embraces this new poten­tial “self-improvement” tool once the brain-scanning tech­nol­ogy comes out for our iPhones (and you know it’s inevitable). Mar­keters will pay through the nose to be able to scan our brains while we’re watch­ing a com­mer­cial for the lat­est brain-scan har­mo­nized anti-depressants. And junk pop psy­chol­ogy could be taken to whole new lev­els. It’s going to be awesome.

    Posted by Pterrafractyl | April 10, 2013, 12:58 pm
  7. There’s a new Time mag­a­zine that dis­cusses the poten­tial use of brain scans on pris­on­ers to infer the like­li­hood of recidi­vism and design tar­geted ther­a­pies. It also dis­cusses the pos­si­bil­ity of using sim­i­lar strate­gies on chil­dren res­cued from abu­sive sit­u­a­tions since child abuse can lead to anti-social behav­ior as adults. Now, there’s noth­ing inher­ently wrong with spec­u­lat­ing about poten­tial uses for brain-scanning tech­nolo­gies and there’s no short­age of poten­tially nifty and ben­e­fi­cial appli­ca­tions that don’t end up warp­ing soci­ety. But it’s hard to have con­fi­dence in soci­ety using this kind of pow­er­ful tech­nol­ogy respon­si­bly and not in a sci­en­tif­i­cally illit­er­ate and reac­tion man­ner when your soci­ety is presently sci­en­tif­i­cally illit­er­ate and reac­tionary:

    The Evil Brain: What Lurks Inside a Killer’s Mind
    By Jef­frey Kluger­May 03, 2013

    Homi­ci­dal mad­men don’t have much of a capac­ity for grat­i­tude, but if they did, they’d offer a word of thanks to Charles Whit­man. Whit­man was the 25-year-old engi­neer­ing stu­dent and for­mer Marine who, in 1966, killed 17 peo­ple and wounded 32 in a mass shoot­ing at the Uni­ver­sity of Texas, before being shot and killed him­self by police. Ear­lier that day, he also mur­dered his wife and mother. Crim­i­nal inves­ti­ga­tors look­ing for a rea­son for the ram­page got what seemed to be their answer quickly, in the form of a sui­cide note Whit­man left at his home:

    I do not really under­stand myself these days. I am sup­posed to be an aver­age rea­son­able and intel­li­gent young man. How­ever, lately (I can­not recall when it started) I have been a vic­tim of many unusual and irra­tional thoughts…please pay off my debts [and] donate the rest anony­mously to a men­tal health foun­da­tion. Maybe research can pre­vent fur­ther tragedies of this type.

    Whit­man got his wish—after a fash­ion. With the approval of his fam­ily, an autopsy was con­ducted and inves­ti­ga­tors found both a tumor and a vas­cu­lar mal­for­ma­tion press­ing against his amyg­dala, the small and prim­i­tive region of the brain that con­trols emo­tion. A state com­mis­sion of inquiry con­cluded that the tumor might have con­tributed to the shoot­ings, earn­ing Whit­man a tiny mea­sure of posthu­mous redemption—and pro­vid­ing all killers since at least the fig leaf defense that some­thing sim­i­lar might be wrong with them too.

    For as long as evil has existed, peo­ple have won­dered about its source, and you don’t have to be too much of a sci­en­tific reduc­tion­ist to con­clude that the first place to look is the brain. There’s not a thing you’ve ever done, thought or felt in your life that isn’t ulti­mately trace­able a par­tic­u­lar web­work of nerve cells fir­ing in a par­tic­u­lar way, allow­ing the machine that is you to func­tion as it does. So if the machine is busted—if the oper­at­ing sys­tem in your head fires in crazy ways—are you fully respon­si­ble for the behav­ior that follows?

    That’s a ques­tion that has a lot more than just philo­soph­i­cal impli­ca­tions. No sooner were the Tsar­naev broth­ers iden­ti­fied as the Boston marathon bombers than spec­u­la­tion arose as to whether the behav­ior of older-brother Tamer­lan might have been influ­enced by brain dam­age sus­tained dur­ing his years as a boxer. The answer was almost cer­tainly no: Sports-related brain injury usu­ally leads to volatile and impul­sive behav­ior in peo­ple his age, and the bomb­ing was coldly and painstak­ingly planned. (This was made espe­cially clear by the later rev­e­la­tion that the broth­ers had orig­i­nally planned their attack for July 4, but by work­ing hard and apply­ing them­selves, they com­pleted their bombs ear­lier than planned—an illus­tra­tion of per­verse dili­gence if ever there was one.) But the med­ical his­to­ries of uncounted other killers and vio­lent offend­ers are filled with diag­noses of all man­ner of brain dis­eases and trau­mas, rais­ing both the issue of whether the perps were truly, fully, respon­si­ble for their crimes, and the pos­si­bil­ity that the acts could have been pre­vented in the first place if the ill­nesses had been treated.

    “I don’t think there’s any kind of neu­ro­log­i­cal con­di­tion that’s 100% pre­dic­tive,” says neu­ro­sci­en­tist Michael Koenigs of the Uni­ver­sity of Madison-Wisconsin. “But even when psy­chopaths know that what they’re doing is a crime, that doesn’t mean they’re in con­trol of their behav­ior when they offend.”


    Other, more recent stud­ies, are find­ing roots of crim­i­nal­ity in other parts of the brain. As Time.com’s Maia Szalavitz reported in April, a team of researchers led by Kent Kiehl, asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of psy­chol­ogy at the Uni­ver­sity of New Mex­ico, pub­lished a study in the Pro­ceed­ings of the National Acad­emy of Sci­ences in which the brains of 96 male felons sen­tenced to at least a year in jail for crimes includ­ing rob­bery, drug deal­ing and assault, were scanned in a func­tional mag­netic res­o­nance imager (fMRI). While they were in the fMRI, the men per­formed a task that required them to hit a key on a com­puter when they saw the let­ter X on a screen, but refrain when they saw the let­ter K. Since the X appeared 84% of the time and since the two let­ters look awfully sim­i­lar to begin with, it was easy to get into the habit of over-clicking. The abil­ity to avoid hit­ting the key too much calls for a mea­sure of impulse con­trol, a fac­ulty processed in a region of the brain known as the ante­rior cin­gu­late cor­tex (ACC). The inmates who did worse on the test turned out to have lower lev­els of activ­ity in the ACC; the ones who per­formed bet­ter had higher lev­els. Kiehl tracked all of the inmates for four years after their release from prison and found that those with the sleepy ACCs were also more than 4 times like­lier to be re-arrested than the oth­ers. If you can’t con­trol your impulse to click, the study sug­gested, you might have equal dif­fi­culty con­trol­ling the impulse to run afoul of the law.

    There are more papers com­ing out that show how MRIs pre­dict who reof­fends,” said Kiehl in a follow-up e-mail with Time. “We are exam­in­ing treat­ments that increase activ­ity in the ante­rior cin­gu­late. The goal is to see if we can help iden­tify the best ther­a­pies to reduce recidivism.”


    Other stud­ies make a sim­i­lar case for the mech­a­nis­tic roots of crime. Enzymes known as monoamine oxi­dases (MAO) are essen­tial to keep­ing human behav­ior in check, break­ing down neu­ro­trans­mit­ters such as sero­tonin and dopamine and ensur­ing that the brain remains in chem­i­cal bal­ance. Babies born with a defect in an MAO-related gene—known col­lo­qui­ally as the war­rior gene—have been shown to be at nine times higher risk of exhibit­ing anti­so­cial behav­ior later in life. Adrian Raine, pro­fes­sor of crim­i­nol­ogy at the Uni­ver­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia, has found that infants below six months old who have a brain struc­ture known as a cavum sep­tum pellucidum—a small gap in a for­ward region between the left and right hemispheres—are sim­i­larly like­lier to develop behav­ioral dis­or­ders, and face a higher risk of arrest and con­vic­tion as adults as well.

    All of this makes the case for a neu­ro­log­i­cal role in many vio­lent crimes hard to deny, but all of it raises a pow­er­ful ques­tion too: So what? For one thing, brain anom­alies are only part of the crim­i­nal puz­zle. A rot­ten MAO gene indeed may play a role in later-life crim­i­nal­ity, but in most cases it’s only when chil­dren have also been exposed to abuse or some other kind of child­hood trauma. A child with a sta­ble back­ground and bad genet­ics may han­dle his war­rior impulses just fine. Koenigs may have found crosstalk prob­lems between the ven­tro­me­dial and the amyg­dalae of psy­chopaths, but he also acknowl­edges that he didn’t get a look at the men’s brains until they were, on aver­age, 30 years old, and a lot could have gone on in that time. “They’ve had a life time of poor social­iza­tion, drugs, alco­hol, they’ve had their bell rung,” he says. “You don’t know what causes what.”


    That’s the zone in which sci­ence and the law always collide—the cau­sa­tion ques­tion that can’t sim­ply be brain-scanned or tissue-sampled or lon­gi­tu­di­nally tested away. Peo­ple like Morse believe that where once we attrib­uted all crime to moral lax­ity or sim­ple evil, we’ve now over­cor­rected, too often look­ing to excuse crim­i­nal behav­ior med­ically. “I call it the fun­da­men­tal psycho-legal error,” he says. “The belief that if you dis­cover a cause you’ve mit­i­gated or excused respon­si­bil­ity. If you have a bank rob­ber who can show that he com­mits crimes only when he’s in a hypo­manic state, that does not mean he deserves excuse or mitigation.”

    Koenigs take a more for­giv­ing view: “I’ve been part of a Depart­ment of Jus­tice project to help inform judges about how to assess cul­pa­bil­ity,” he says. “The legal sys­tem cur­rently goes about it the wrong way, rely­ing on whether crim­i­nals know right from wrong. Maybe they do, but the kinds of things that would then give most peo­ple pause just don’t reg­is­ter on some of them.”

    Where the two camps do agree is on the need to keep soci­ety safe from the pre­da­tions of peo­ple whose rag­ing brains—no mat­ter the cause—lead to so much death and suf­fer­ing. Here legal the­ory yields a lit­tle more eas­ily to hard sci­ence. Scan­ning every inmate’s ACC before mak­ing parole deci­sions will surely raise pri­vacy issues, but if the sci­ence can be proven and per­fected, isn’t there a strong case for try­ing it—especially if, as Kiehl sug­gests, it might lead to ther­a­peu­tic and reha­bil­i­ta­tive strate­gies? Babies taken from abu­sive par­ents might sim­i­larly be scanned as part of a rou­tine medial check, just in case a tell­tale gap in the brain hemi­spheres could exac­er­bate the trauma they’ve already endured, mak­ing ther­a­peu­tic inter­ven­tion all the more important.

    Evil is far too com­plex and far too woven into our natures for us to think that we can always adju­di­cate it fairly. But the bet­ter we can under­stand the brains that are home to such ugli­ness, the more effec­tively we can con­tain it, con­trol it and pun­ish it. Now and then, with the help of sci­ence, we may even be able to snuff it out alto­gether.

    Yes, now and then, with the help of sci­ence we may even be able to stuff out ‘evil’ alto­gether. Woohoo! But if we’re seri­ously going to start using brain scans to deter­mine whether or not some­one should remain in prison there are some oth­er­so­ci­etal evils that we should prob­a­bly elim­i­nate first, like for-profit pris­ons. Who knows, get­ting rid of those might even help with the recidi­vism prob­lem too:

    For­mer Pris­oner: ‘For-Profit’ Pris­ons Churn­ing Out Waves Of Vio­lent White Suprema­cists
    by Noah Roth­man | 4:27 pm, April 1st, 2013

    The nation’s “for-profit” pris­ons have been incu­bat­ing thou­sands of Aryan Broth­er­hood gang mem­bers and, as their sen­tences expire, they are pre­pared to flood the nation. This wave of white suprema­cist gang mem­bers will emerge from the nation’s pris­ons and engage in a ter­ror­ist cam­paign of tar­geted revenge which will soon evolve into indis­crim­i­nant may­hem and racial vio­lence. At least, this is the warn­ing of an anony­mous for­mer pris­oner writ­ing for The Daily Beast.

    “Law enforce­ment may have a real prob­lem on its hands,” writes a for­mer pris­oner who declined to share his name in a piece recently pub­lished in The Daily Beast. “They’re being tight-lipped about it, but it’s some­thing they should have been aware of for decades. They had to see it coming.”

    “Four peo­ple have been killed since the begin­ning of the year in a series of shoot­ings that appear to be con­nected to the home­grown jihadists of the Aryan Broth­er­hood,” Anony­mous asserts. He cites the mur­ders of Kauf­man County, Texas Dis­trict Attor­ney Mike McLel­land and his wife, his pre­de­ces­sor Mark Hass, and Col­orado prison chief Tom Clements as exam­ples of blood­shed com­mit­ted by the Aryan Broth­er­hood. Reports have linked the assas­si­na­tion of McLel­land to his tar­get­ing by Aryan Broth­er­hood members.

    The writer goes on to detail the ide­ol­ogy that moti­vates the aver­age Aryan Broth­er­hood member:

    They were still men­tally fight­ing the Civil War (like so many other whites) and traced their roots back to men like Con­fed­er­ate guer­rilla William Clarke Quantrill, whose Quantrill’s Raiders sacked the pro-abolitionist town of Lawrence, Kansas, at the begin­ning of the Civil War.

    The author of the post in The Daily Beast issues a stark warn­ing to Amer­i­cans: the Broth­er­hood is coming.

    America’s harsh judi­cial sys­tem, cou­pled with a grow­ing national affin­ity for uti­liz­ing com­plete iso­la­tion at super-max pris­ons as a cor­rec­tions tac­tic of first choice, in many cases turns men into mon­sters. And, truth be told, there is no such thing as truly lock­ing away the gang lead­ers so they can no longer call the shots on the prison yard … or even on the streets.

    “Many of the first men locked up when our nation embarked on a pol­icy of for-profit mass incar­cer­a­tion near the end of the last cen­tury are now return­ing into soci­ety,” the for­mer pris­oner writes. “And, as pre­dicted by numer­ous pro­fes­sion­als, they are sicker and more dan­ger­ous than when they went behind bars.”

    Posted by Pterrafractyl | May 3, 2013, 2:50 pm
  8. ...from the Time arti­cle: “Evil is far too com­plex and far too woven into our natures for us to think that we can always adju­di­cate it fairly.”

    This is wrong for mul­ti­ple rea­sons. There is an inchoate and dif­fuse cam­paign abroad, sev­eral decades in the works, to dis­tract the gen­eral pub­lic from the fact of sociopa­thy in high places. Hence, we sel­dom see the topic of clin­i­cal evil dis­cussed with­out an implied and exclu­sive link to crime com­mit­ted by the unsuc­cess­ful sociopath who ends up in prison and avail­able for study.

    The sociopaths who do the real dam­age to soci­ety wear $5000 suits and are not avail­able for our perusal. Yet the prob­lem is not unsolv­able and the solu­tion need not involve the fuzzy araa of free will. A lack of empa­thy towards oth­ers should exclude any human being from any posi­tion of power over oth­ers. Unless this is artic­u­lated clearly and kept in focus, solu­tions will elude us.

    Posted by Dwight | May 4, 2013, 2:40 am
  9. @Dwight: The idea that we might one day have the kind of tech­nol­ogy where you can scan brains and pre­dict one’s eth­i­cal responses is a sit­u­a­tion that kind of bog­gles the mind. In a way, you almost couldn’t ask for a bet­ter sce­nario for cat­alyz­ing a gen­eral dis­cus­sion about eth­i­cal behav­ior. We’re talk­ing about the eth­i­cal debate on using brains scan­ning tech­nol­ogy on peo­ple that involves record­ing their brain activ­ity while they’re think­ing about eth­i­cal sit­u­a­tions in order to make pre­dic­tions about their eth­i­cal char­ac­ter. It’s cer­tainly not an easy sit­u­a­tion to morally parse. Lot’s of free-will and “needs of the many vs the needs of the few” dynam­ics. But one pos­si­ble mas­sive ben­e­fit that could emerge if per­sonal brain-scanning tech­nol­ogy ever became pop­u­lar­ized is that peo­ple might stop and reassess just how empa­thetic they hap­pen to be. Peo­ple from all walks of life because the tech­nol­ogy will be just that fun. A sort of acci­den­tal moral character-building killer-app. The brain-scanning tech­nol­ogy doesn’t even have to be super accu­rate it just has to trig­ger the height­ened per­sonal self-awareness and reflec­tion. Once the brain-scan-o-matics get good enough to start accu­rately pre­dict­ing ass­holes we could see a hilar­i­ous rev­o­lu­tion in how we all view our­selves. Watch­ing your brain-scan visu­al­iza­tion while you reflect on your own past mis­deeds could become some sort of Ror­shach mir­ror of the soul. LOL! And who knows, if peo­ple just stopped and reflected more about their eth­i­cal char­ac­ter things might sud­denly start work­ing bet­ter. When you behave empa­thet­i­cally you change what you think and do to improve the lives of those around you and that improves the econ­omy. Empa­thy is what poten­tially makes the “invis­i­ble hand” of the mar­ket a helping-hand (it has to be intel­li­gent and/or luck empa­thy). Empa­thetic economies demand even more help­ful goods and ser­vices and that’s the height of eco­nomic pro­duc­tiv­ity: every­one being even more help­ful to each other (shhhhh....don’s tell the socioe­co­nomic Darwinists).

    So it will be fas­ci­nat­ing to see what, if any, impact per­sonal brain-scanning tech­nol­ogy has on our gen­eral char­ac­ter. This is a weirdly dif­fer­ent means of look­ing at our­selves. It could be a fas­ci­nat­ing way to stim­u­late Trickle-Up Good­ness eco­nomic growth if there’s a period where lot’s of peo­ple start try­ing to “do the right thing” in order to improve their scan-score. And the pit­falls of a false-positives from these “psycho-scan” that make this tech­nol­ogy so scary in a sit­u­a­tion like a parole hear­ing or job inter­view can be greatly dimin­ished if it’s peo­ple just pri­vately scan­ning them­selves for fun (although the “you’re a psy­cho” false-positives might be a bit trau­matic). The inter­net appears to have cre­ated a vari­ety of sig­nif­i­cant changes in the human psy­che. Col­lec­tive aware­ness and inter­con­nect­ed­ness is just dif­fer­ent now that we have the inter­webs. Part of that has to be the way it’s taught us all about each other in detail in ways never seen before. Any­one any­where can post them­selves being a jack­ass on the inter­net and any­one any­where can make a jack­ass com­ment. If you ignore all the cru­elty the inter­net can be amaz­ing empa­thy tool. Maybe brain-scanning could add a new dimen­sion to how we view our­selves that kind of induces an altered way of think­ing? It’ll force us to think about our own thoughts in a kind of mod­u­lar­ized net­work of func­tion­al­ity (since that’s all the fMRI imag­ing shows at this point) and that’s poten­tially a really outside-the-box way to view some­thing as inti­mate as one­self. At least that’s what I’m hop­ing for since it seems inevitable that we’re going to have hit a crit­i­cal mass in brain-scan tech­nol­ogy that’s going to make it a widely used tech­nol­ogy. Once a com­puter mouse can be eas­ily and cheaply con­trolled with your brain­waves this tech­nol­ogy is going to be every­where. Human­ity is so screwed that At this point that the ol’ brain-scan-induced global-empathy apoth­e­o­sis apoc­a­lypse is about as good as we could hope for. One big regret-filled cuddle-puddle of resolve to be a bet­ter global com­mu­nity. I won­der which parts of the brain get turned off and on when wishful-thinking is tak­ing place.

    But with “glob­al­iza­tion” con­tin­u­ing to chug along, at some point we’re going to have to fig­ure out that empa­thy isn’t just a qual­ity that nice chumps have. It’s actu­ally vital to the proper func­tion­ing of the econ­omy, espe­cially a global econ­omy. Empa­thy is the start­ing point for how the mar­ket fixes itself and self-regulates. Any market-driven soci­ety that is truly sus­tain­able self-regulates with empa­thy at an indi­vid­ual level and national level because noth­ing else works. Unem­pa­thetic soci­eties are failed soci­eties. Every­one has to care about every­one, more or less, glob­ally for global cap­i­tal­ism or global whatever-ism to really work. Empa­thy isn’t optional if you want a decent society.

    Posted by Pterrafractyl | May 5, 2013, 11:07 pm
  10. One of the inter­est­ing things about the devel­op­ment of excit­ing new tech­nolo­gies is that they becomes simul­ta­ne­ously cooler and more mind-numbingly ter­ri­fy­ing:

    August 4, 2013, 1:39 pm
    The New York Times
    Computer-Brain Inter­faces Mak­ing Big Leaps

    Sci­en­tists haven’t yet found a way to mend a bro­ken heart, but they’re edg­ing closer to manip­u­lat­ing mem­ory and down­load­ing instruc­tions from a com­puter right into a brain.

    Researchers from the Riken-M.I.T. Cen­ter for Neural Cir­cuit Genet­ics at the Mass­a­chu­setts Insti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy took us closer to this science-fiction world of brain tweak­ing last week when they said they were able to cre­ate a false mem­ory in a mouse.

    The sci­en­tists reported in the jour­nal Sci­ence that they caused mice to remem­ber receiv­ing an elec­tri­cal shock in one loca­tion, when in real­ity they were zapped in a com­pletely dif­fer­ent place. The researchers weren’t able to cre­ate entirely new thoughts, but they applied good or bad feel­ings to mem­o­ries that already existed.

    “It wasn’t so much writ­ing a mem­ory from scratch, it was basi­cally con­nect­ing two dif­fer­ent types of mem­o­ries. We took a neu­tral mem­ory, and we arti­fi­cially updated that to make it a neg­a­tive mem­ory,” said Steve Ramirez, one of the M.I.T. neu­ro­sci­en­tists on the project.

    It may sound insignif­i­cant and per­haps not a nice way to treat mice, but it is not a dra­matic leap to imag­ine that one day this research could lead to computer-manipulation of the mind for things like the treat­ment of post-traumatic stress dis­or­der, Mr. Ramirez said.

    Tech­nol­o­gists are already work­ing on brain-computer inter­faces, which will allow us to inter­act with our smart­phones and com­put­ers sim­ply by using our minds. And there are already gad­gets that read our thoughts and allow us to do things like dodge vir­tual objects in a com­puter game or turn switches on and off with a thought.

    But the sci­en­tists who are work­ing on mem­ory manip­u­la­tion are the ones who seem to be push­ing the bound­aries of what we believe is pos­si­ble. Sure, it sounds like movie fan­tasy right now, but don’t laugh off the imag­i­na­tion of Hol­ly­wood screen­writ­ers; some­times the movies can be a great pre­dic­tor of things to come.

    In the movie, “Eter­nal Sun­shine of the Spot­less Mind,” a char­ac­ter played by Jim Car­rey uses a ser­vice that erases mem­o­ries to wipe his brain of his for­mer girl­friend, played by Kate Winslet.

    But it seems the movie’s screen­writer, Char­lie Kauf­man, was sell­ing sci­ence short.

    “The one thing that the movie “Eter­nal Sun­shine of the Spot­less Mind” gets wrong, is that they are eras­ing an entire mem­ory,” said Mr. Ramirez of M.I.T. “I think we can do bet­ter, while keep­ing the image of Kate Winslet, we can get rid of the sad part of that memory.”

    Hol­ly­wood and science-fiction writ­ers, of course, have had fun with mem­ory manip­u­la­tion over the years.

    In the film “Total Recall,” which is based on a short story by Philip K. Dick, a char­ac­ter played by Arnold Schwarzeneg­ger receives a mem­ory implant of a fake vaca­tion to Mars. In “The Matrix,” char­ac­ters can down­load new skills like lan­guages or fight­ing tech­niques to their mind, much like down­load­ing a file to a computer.

    Far-fetched? Per­haps, and we’re not yet fight­ing our robot over­lords as the humans were in “The Matrix,” but researchers really are explor­ing ways to upload new infor­ma­tion to the brain.

    In 2011, sci­en­tists work­ing in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Boston Uni­ver­sity and A.T.R. Com­pu­ta­tional Neu­ro­science Lab­o­ra­to­ries in Kyoto, Japan, pub­lished a paper on a process called Decoded Neu­ro­feed­back, or “Dec­Nef,” which sends sig­nals to the brain through a func­tional mag­netic res­o­nance imag­ing machine, or FMRI, that can alter a person’s brain activ­ity pat­tern. In time, these sci­en­tists believe they could teach peo­ple how to play a musi­cal instru­ment while they sleep, learn a new lan­guage or mas­ter a sport, all by “upload­ing” infor­ma­tion to the brain.

    Writ­ing to the brain could allow us to inter­act with our com­put­ers, or other human beings, just by think­ing about it.


    Just think: In a few more years, after these things become two-way devices, you’ll be able to upload Ron Paul’s Aus­trian School indoc­tri­na­tion lessons right into your kid’s head while they sleep! Now THAT’s cor­po­rate efficiency!

    The “vir­tual schools” indus­try is about to get weird. Er, weirder.

    Posted by Pterrafractyl | August 6, 2013, 10:24 am

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