Denver, Evil & Neuroscience

My heart is broken for the people of Denver today.  I spent the morning in prayer for the families and friends who face unexpected loss today.  Prayer typically motivates me to action, and that energy is frustrating today because there isn't anything I can do to provide peace or comfort to those who are hurting today.  As I write this in the early hours while my wife is out running and my children are asleep, I am left mainly with questions.

My mind, like yours, is drawn inexorably to a question in times like these: "Why?"  For most of us, the action of walking into a theater to fire upon innocent people is completely unfathomable.  Some of us find comfort in the idea that evil is supernaturally motivated, that people allow a weakness where evil forces work through them.  Others are content to write these people off as sick, or to say that moral failings in society lead to such acts.  After all, the world is more violent everyday. 

Well, except that it's not.  By objective measures, the level of violence in the world is actually declining.  This runs counter to our intuition, because we all perceive more violence in our daily lives.  This largely seems to be related to the very rapid distribution of information thanks to media and networking.  As Steven Pinker tells us rather conclusively, the world is likely in its most peaceful period in human history.

So, the world seems to be in a declining pattern of violence, but the trend line is anything but smooth.  We also have to acknowledge that these acts of mass violence are disturbing, frightening and unsettling regardless of how rare they may be statistically.  These events shock us and scare us specifically because they are so rare.  It is our worst fears made real.

Why does it happen?  As mentioned in our second paragraph, these actions are completely inconceivable to most of us.  There must be some gap between healthy people and people who are willing to gun down other humans indiscriminately.  What is it?  Where do we find it?  I believe we must look to the brain.

As far back as 1966, Charles Whitman showed us that problems in the brain can lead to very violent behavior.  Mr. Whitman is the gun man who shot 48 people from a tower at the University of Texas.  In his suicide note he requested an autopsy and he spoke of an increase in irrational and violent thoughts.  The autopsy revealed a sizable brain tumor was putting pressure on his amygdala-the part of the brain that generates and partially regulated aggressive behavior.  We're missing a lot of other key data about Mr. Whitman that would tell us how predisposed he was to violent behavior.  MRI and PET scans were not around.  What we do see is that a fairly normal member of society grew into something else, and that seems to correlate with the growth of a tumor in his brain.

Today we do have advanced brain imaging.  Today we have the human genome mapped.  What does that tell us about violent individuals?  For starters, it tells us there are genes that are closely linked with psychopaths, sociopaths and violent criminals.  It tells us that there is a signature dark pattern on brain scans of psychopaths.  The parts of their brains that create empathy, regulate aggression and create social cohesion don't work in the way that normal, healthy brains do.  Watch this video for the full scoop.

We see, clearly, that genes and brain activity are closely linked to violent behavior.  Some people are much more predisposed to acts of senseless behavior than others.  We also see that people who have these predispositions develop into exceptional people when they are raised in an environment that is loving, secure and stable.  Happiness seems to ward off these neurological and genetic demons very effectively.

I'm not arguing that people who have unhealthy brains are not accountable for their actions.  If I were struggling with violent thoughts, it would also be my responsibility to seek council and help.  I can reach out to clergy, or HR, or a mental health professional.  Imagine how Texas would be different if Charles Whitman talked to someone.

Its not likely, however, that these brain patterns or genetic markers are new.  Why is this phenomenon of mainly male, mainly white perpetrators visiting great violence on others growing?

Something in the fabric or our families and communities is fraying.  We live in a way that is more connected in terms of information but more distant in terms of intimacy.  We are highly mobile.  We are less involved in social organizations.  On average, we know less people and have fewer friends than previous generations.  If your brain structure lends you to violent acts, and you have no social sphere to mitigate your darker impulses you become the worst possible version of your potential.

We need to nurture meaningful connections in our lives.  We need to establish "safe" points of dialog.  We need to be more social in person, and focus less on the somewhat dehumanizing digital media.

I believe we have a great and growing understanding on the "why" in mass shootings.  The question now is how do we help our fellow society members to be the best version of their potential?

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