Blame the Amygdala

The neuroscience of crime and violent behavior

Dissecting Empathy

How do killers experience other people?

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

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

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

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

Could a victim of a psychopathic killer or rapist simply ask their attacker to empathize with their pain? Probably not. Passively watching a video of a non-sexual and relatively innocuous act seems to be necessary for it to work, and we have to remember that empathy without action does not stop criminal behavior. This is not to undermine the above study, because showing that empathy can exist in psychopaths is a major finding. I would also like to know what would happen if the normal group in this study were asked to not empathize or at least fabricate irrational reasons why they hate the person getting hit by the ruler. Would we see something as devastating as the Stanford Prison Experiment?

So, empathizing with victims is clearly compromised in the mind of a killer, but what about empathizing with partners in crime? I bring this up because I think it adds another layer of complexity as to why people kill. Most serial killers act alone (Bundy, Dahmer, Gacy, Sowell, Keyes, etc.), but there are some infamous partnerships and groups who are also responsible for multiple murders. The D.C. Sniper (John Allen Mohammed), who terrorized Washington D.C. in early October 2002, had an accomplice – Lee Boyd Malvo. Mohammed had become a father-figure to Malvo after they met, and despite being separated numerous times, Malvo always sought out Mohammed. Malvo had only been 15 when the two met the first time. After the two were arrested, Malvo did later testify that Mohammed had pulled the trigger 10 times, and himself three times (Censer, 2010).

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

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

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

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

In law, when considering murder, the concept of guilty mind (mens rea) and guilty body (actus reus) are often considered, and I also think these concepts can be used to discuss psychopathic and sociopathic killers. Dahmer was a psychopath and tortured and killed animals as a teenager and later had uncontrollable urges to drug and kidnap other men, rape them, and carry out unspeakable acts with the bodies. In an interview with Stone Phillips, Dahmer discussed how he wanted complete sexual control over the men he abducted, and this was not explainable, other than he just felt the compulsion to commit these acts. The detective (Keppel) who helped bring the psychopath Ted Bundy to justice once interviewed Bundy, and Bundy explained his need for necrophilia like a chemical tidal wave — like the sudden need for a narcotic (Keppel & Birnes, 2010). These needs do not reflect a morality or a worldview consisting of many interlocking and self-supporting ideas.  Mohammed’s anti-US Islamic ideas, Manson’s race wars, and, I would argue, Anders Breivik’s National Socialism do.

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

© Jack Pemment, 2013

 

 

Sources

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

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

Keppel, R. D.; Birnes, W. J. (2010) The Riverman, Pocket Books, New York

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

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

Jack Pemment is a recent neuroscience graduate from the University of Mississippi. He explores the neurobiology of criminal behavior and personality disorders.

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