Deep Down, Are You a Murderer?

Sleep-walking-killers and how little we understand our own minds.

Posted Mar 15, 2016

Dario Lo Presti/Shutterstock
Source: Dario Lo Presti/Shutterstock

You may think you know yourself pretty well. After all, you’re you. But the mind has dark depths our waking selves rarely glimpse. These depths are not just unlit, but perhaps also evil—in other words, deep down, you could be a murderer.

This may seem preposterous, but let’s be honest—you’re not a saint. Just think of the number of times you’ve wished ill for others. When a rival has beaten you out for a promotion or stolen a romantic partner, you’ve probably consoled yourself with fantasies of vengeance and the rival suffering “accidental” injuries. Black fantasies and actually committing murder may seem light years apart, but all we might need is release from our conscious control. 

Maybe we just need some sleep.

Consider the case of Kenneth Parks. Parks is an unremarkable Canadian man, who in 1987 was 23 years old with a young wife, a new baby, and some substantial money problems. Not only are babies expensive but he was also struggling at his job and was prone to gambling—which often led to conflict with his wife. Nevertheless, he had a great relationship with his in-laws, especially his mother-in-law Barbara, who fondly called him her “gentle giant.” 

This makes the events of May 23, 1987 seem even more surprising.

That night, Parks fell asleep on the couch and then—while still asleep—drove 20 minutes to his in-laws' house. Once there, he grabbed a tire iron, walked up to the bedroom and used it to bludgeon Barbara to death. He then choked his father-in-law, Dennis, and left him for dead before driving to the police station to confess. 

He still hadn’t woken up. 

Parks's story may seem unbelievable. How can you kill your in-laws in your sleep? The prosecution shared this disbelief and suggested it was all a ploy to earn life-insurance money.  Fortunately for Parks, a half-dozen experts testified that he had disordered sleep states, which apparently made him a potentially lethal sleep walker. Based on this testimony, a jury found Parks non-guilty. Now 30 years later, Parks still lives in Toronto, has five children, and follows a steady regime of sleep medication. Since murdering Barbara, he has never lifted a hand against anyone. 

This story raises many questions, the most striking being whether you could be like Parks. Even if you are warm and empathic in everyday life, you could be a disordered brain state away from becoming a nocturnal killer. This may be terrifying for you (and your in-laws), but it illustrates broad a scientific point about how poorly we know our own minds.

We often think that we have direct access to the causes and reasons for our behavior, but decades of social psychology suggest otherwise: We perceive our own minds much like we perceive the minds of others. When our co-workers say something strange, or our spouse does something surprising, we are left to construct general theories about their behavior. And it turns out that we do the same thing when it comes to our own behavior. 

In a clever experiment, Swedish researchers Lars Hall and Petter Johansson presented participants with two pictures of members of the opposite sex, and asked them to pick which of the pair they preferred. They then asked why they preferred that person. Answers were predictable, and focused on bone structure, skin tone, and the radiance of a smile. 

There’s a catch, though: Sometimes the researchers sneakily switched the faces after the selection. If a man said he preferred Face One, they might immediately show him Face Two, and ask him to explain his reasons for the selection—the selection that he didn’t make! And yet, most participants never skipped a beat, easily providing an explanation—“Oh, she’s just beautiful”—for the face they had actually rejected only a second before.

To use Freud's metaphor, this study is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to our self-ignorance. Dozens of other studies reveal that we superficially perceive our own minds rather than deeply knowing them. 

If nothing else, don’t be so smug next time someone is convicted of murder. But for some sleep problems, it could have been you. 

To learn more about how little we know about ourselves, check out our new book, The Mind Club.