The Violent Brain: Ingredients of a Mass Murderer

By Lauren Migliore

On July 20, 2012, a heavily armed young man walked into a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, and opened fire on the audience, killing 12 people and injuring nearly 60.

Here’s the thing: On paper, James Holmes measured up seemingly well. Intelligent, disciplined, and raised by successful parents—his father, a senior scientist; mother, a nurse. Holmes graduated from UC San Diego at the top of his class and was working towards a PhD in neuroscience. It’s hard to imagine that this would be a person to carry out one of the nation’s deadliest recent massacres. But upon taking a closer look into the details of his behavior and characteristics leading up the massacre, experts agree that he does indeed fit the profile of a typical mass murderer.

Holmes has been put behind bars, but the question still lingers: What drives someone to go on such a violent rampage, indiscriminately killing innocent people? Are there clear motives behind these violent acts? Insanity, or a psychotic break? An absent conscience? Or are some people just born natural killers?

Researchers have posed the same questions and, with recent scientific advancements, have been able to note personality-based, neurological and even genetic-based commonalities in these violent individuals. Most experts will agree that there isn’t a single determining factor that creates a mass murderer, but when multiple triggers are combined, a killer is born. Furthermore, through various studies looking at brain images and scans of murderers, psychopaths and violent individuals, researchers are gaining leverage in mapping out the neural activity behind impulsive violence.


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