Grand Rounds

Why we do the things we do

Guns, Butterflies, and the Developing Brain

Biologically speaking, how easy is it to pull that trigger?

Though I am (putatively) an adult, I turn most often to my childhood to make sense of the world. I think I did this well before I became a child psychiatrist.  

So, it was during my childhood, in the halcyon days of summer camp, that I learned first how to fire a gun.  We had riflery every day, and as a pudgy kid with sometimes troubling asthma, firing that gun felt good.  I excelled at riflery, at one point placing in the top 20 at a national shooting competition.  Holding my breath, squeezing the trigger, absorbing the kick of the gunpowder as the missile shot towards the cocentric-circled target, made me forget both my girth and my wheeze. 

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One day, my riflery instructor, leaning forward and peering through his telescope, noted the presence of a butterfly on the top of another kid's target.

"Monarch at 2 o'clock."

That was all he said, but he didn't bark this sentence like an order.  It was more of a tease, really, and the pressure therefore almost blithely settled over Billy, the poor kid who now had a butterfly resting in his crosshairs.  Billy was supposed to kill that insect.  I suppose our rifle instructor was teaching us that in our hands we held power.  He also meant to show us that with this power came  great responsibility.  However, in the brain of 12 year-old boys, power almost always trumps responsibility.  I know now there is neuroscience to support this assertion, though every teenager knows this viscerally without reading it in a textbook. 

Billy fired a round quickly, not carefully, the bullet raising a cloud of dust far to the left of his target.  The butterfly sat there, unfazed, it's wings opening and closing in the summer sun.

"You missed," our instructor said.  "It's still there."

Billy reloaded, fired again, and did the same thing once more before the butterfly imploded into a brown-purple smudge on the corner of his target.

I felt sick.  I know – only a butterfly – but still it felt as if there were meaning in what had just transpired at the rifle range. I loved firing those guns, but I worried that our rifle instructor would someday order me as well to destroy something delicate and alive.  I also knew, in the midst of my barely pubescent brain, that the peer pressure would be ferocious.  Would I pull the trigger? I had been taught by my parents to catch spiders in the house and to set them free outdoors. 

Could I shoot a butterfly? 

As a physician and as an advocate of neuroscience, I know a bit about the brain. What I sensed intuitively then I could show you empirically now - the human brain, in the absence of all sorts of training, will nearly always succumb to the power of the bullet.  The impulse to pull the trigger is great.  The desire to hold back is flimsy.  This is especially the case for adolescents, and our brains remain “adolescent” well into the second decade of life.  Even as adults, it doesn’t take much to make your brain act like a teenager…just drive your car at rush hour and watch how you feel.   

We are all, all of us, already loaded weapons.   

 

Schlozman's novel, The Zombie Autopsies, is currently being adapted for film.

 

Steven Schlozman, M.D., is an Associate Director of Medical Student Education in Psychiatry for Harvard Medical School.

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