The Violent Brain: Ingredients of a Mass Murderer

(Editor’s note: This article is from the past issue of Brain World magazineIf you enjoyed this article, please support us with a print or digital subscription!)

This lack of power, which is most often in the form of rejection or loss of some sort, tends to make people fight back in an effort to regain a sense of control. Many of us don’t take the loss of a job, relationship or failed exam easily, but for someone who is already highly sensitized to such setbacks or is predisposed to violence, loss can be intolerable. The person ends up feeling excluded, ostracized and alone. Experts assert that without a sense of belonging, we lose our self-esteem and a sense of control over our lives—both of which are the recipe for successful social functioning.

These feelings of exclusion lead to a downward spiral that causes rumination and negative thoughts in a search for an explanation. Additionally, it will activate the brain’s pain centers, increase stress and incite depression and anger. But differently from you or me, when life seemingly falls apart, individuals like James Holmes don’t rely on support from family and friends. Instead, they become isolated from society and focus their emotional energy and feelings on planning their payback against those whom they regard as responsible.

Psychiatrist Emanuel Tanay believes that mass murderers have a defective sense of reality, and while they may appear productive members of society, inside of them a growing anger builds, waiting to explode. The person who materializes from this process is cold, deliberate and controlled. But unlike serial killers, who derive pleasure from killing, a mass murderer has a different emotional experience—a sense of serenity, as his previous feelings of powerlessness and victimization are replaced with the perfect opposite, a strong and controlled experience. What’s more, the mass murderer has convinced himself that the world brought the massacre on itself.

In many ways, mass murderers’ profiles parallel those of the clinical narcissist. Narcissism, a personality disorder defined mostly by disabling low self-esteem with an inflated sense of self, requires the sufferer to continuously seek recognition and reward. When plans don’t go their way and the people within those plans don’t respond as they should, narcissists are not just enraged but confounded. What emerges is a grandiose act in an effort to be noticed and regain that lost sense of control.

Additional risk factors that experts have identified as triggers include major depression, alcohol or drug abuse, and childhood trauma. A government study that looked at incidents of school violence found that more than half of all attackers had documented cases of extreme depression, and 25 percent had had serious problems with drugs and alcohol. Such was the case with Holmes, who had been seeing a university psychiatrist for mental health issues prior to withdrawing from the Ph.D. program. Did his psychiatrist have reason to think that Holmes would soon snap? Could the murders have been prevented?

The same government study found that in more than 75 percent of cases, at least one person had knowledge of the killer’s plans or at least a concern with violent conduct. Given the appropriate help and awareness, there’s a likely possibility of preventing these rampages. “The question we have to ask constantly is, ‘What more can we do?’” says Peter Langman, a psychologist who has spent years studying the Columbine massacre and similar incidents. “We may not be able to stop all of them, but we could stop more than we do.”

And it’s true. We can do more. Yes, we can debate and hypothesize and agree that we need stricter gun laws and regulations, but our culture, particularly the media, can play an equally important role. The media coverage that follows mass murders only feeds into the killer’s narcissistic tendencies as we magnify and glamorize a once-nobody into a famous and powerful celebrity. Everyone knows who James Holmes is, but it’s doubtful that we know the names of any of his victims.

In the end, what we need to continue to pin down is the inner workings of the minds in these killers and what triggers their violent behavior. Studying these mass murderers can prove as fascinating as it is frustrating, but after each rampage we gain a little more knowledge of what they’re composed of. There may not always be red flags, and we may not ever get all the answers we need, but as science and society continue to advance, the ability to thwart these impulsive massacres will hopefully do the same.

(Editor’s note: This article is from the past issue of Brain World magazineIf you enjoyed this article, please support us with a print or digital subscription!)

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