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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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