Research Paper: Brain Wiring of Serial Killers vs. Regular Citizens

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¶ … Psychology of Serial Killers: Brain Wiring or Lack of Conscience?

The issue of serial killers can bring any of a variety of images or feelings to mind. People often associate serial killers with sadist, cruel people who have no regard for human life or suffering. While this may often be the case, it is important to consider that the actions of such seemingly cruel, violent, inhuman people may be due to a difference in brain wiring. In essence, the thing that separates serial killers from the regular, functional members of modern society is a few pounds of gray-colored muscle in the center of the human head. This is not an unsupported fact. As a matter of fact, psychological journals and experts alike seem to agree that there is often a psychological issue that drives serial killers to commit the crimes they commit. In some cases, physical issues and injury can even drive a serial killer's cruel instincts.

While there is no uniform explanation as to how and why serial killers commit the crimes they do, there is no doubt about the fact that there are differences in their brains that are worth considering and exploring. Some research out there suggests that serial killers have psychological issues. Other research suggests that serial killers are the product of a poor family environment or a traumatic childhood. Other research suggests that serial killers are a product of society, and that the breakdown of modern society is to blame for the insane behavior of those who are compelled to kill. There is also research that leads nowhere, and cases of serial killers that suggest that some people just kill for the sake of killing.

In "Some Thoughts on the Psychological Roots of the Behavior of Serial Killers," author Zelda G. Knight of Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa suggests that some serial killers have experienced traumatic head injuries, thus presenting a neuropsychological reason for the difference in their thinking (Knight, 2006). This is a rarity, though. While it can be used as a basis in certain situations as to why serial killers act the way they do, there are other factors that come into play, as well. Other research also suggests that an abnormal wiring of the brain due to trauma to the head may also be to blame for the psychological differences in some serial killers. "Some cases of serial killers had a history of head injury and abnormality on computerized topography, electroencephalography scans and neuropsychological testing," says Dalal in "A Case Study of Serial Killers" (2009). He goes on to mention that the difference in brain waves of serial killers is only seen in half of the population of psychopathic serial killers and only 15% of the non-psychopathic population. The limbic area of the brain is that which controls many emotions, including fear and anger. Trauma to that area of the brain may be one of the causes of a serial killer's rages, as they can produce violent episodes (Dalal, 2009).

Dalal explores the psychology of serial killers from a chemical perspective as well. "Studies have shown a number of neurotransmitters which can influence cortical and subcortical mechanisms for aggression and violence in particular," he says. "5-HIAA, a metabolic byproduct of the neurotransmitter abnormalities may thus play a role in the offense of serial killers (2009).

Knight suggests that serial killers are different from regular people in one major way: they do not have the same feelings as normal human beings do. "These individuals cannot empathize or feel guilt and are largely indifferent to others, while their relationships may be described as shallow," she points out. She goes on to describe that many serial killers are even diagnosed with paraphilias, "the most common being sadomasochism, fetishisms and voyeurism" (Knight, 2006). In this sense, Knight is suggesting that many serial killers are completely compelled to kill, and are unable to stop themselves from committing the act. She also suggests that serial killers do not know right from wrong, but there is other research out there that suggests that this is not a uniform hypothesis.

In "A Case Study of Serial Killers" published in the Journal of Punjab Academy of Forensic Medicine and Toxicology, the authors explore several psychological differences between serial killers and regular citizens. One of the significant differences were the psychological issues presented by drug use. This ties in to the issue in more than one way; not only can extended periods of drug use cause problems with the brain, but drug use is also often linked to trauma, such as the trauma experienced in childhood (Dalal, et al., 2009).

They suggest that the personality disorders that can contribute to a person's likelihood of being a serial killer are often linked to a family history of having such problems. "Many such families have a history of psychological and behavioral problems like alcoholism, drug abuse or sexual abuse and the serial killers were abused physically, emotionally or sexually with poor relationships with family members, especially mothers," they point out. They indicate that the difference in the brain wiring of serial killers is often due to the trauma and psychological issues caused by a poor family environment.

One of the most common conclusions reached in the research done into the psychology of serial killers is the inability to differentiate between right and wrong as well as the presence of "negative personality traits," (Dalal, 2009). Dalal et al. suggests that "preference for auto erotic activity, aggression, chronic lying, rebelliousness and fetish behavior, [and the] inability to distinguish fantasy from reality are some negative personality traits which develop in serial killers resulting in their increased isolation."

He even goes so far as to suggest that the insecurity and instability that some serial killers feel is what drives them to such extreme episodes of violence. Again, feelings such as this can often be traced back to traumatic childhoods, broken families and other traumatic events that create those feelings of isolation and anger. People work out their emotions differently, but between the psychological differences of serial killers and those of regular people, the two groups lash out in very different ways.

In "The FBI Behavioral Science Unit's Evil Minds Research Museum," author Gregory M. Vechhi points out an interesting behavioral difference experienced with many serial killers: the concern for their image. By reviewing the interactions between killers and their friends and families, researchers were able to "provide unique insights into the killers' motivations, personalities, and the meaning behind their behavior" (Vecchi, 2009). During these correspondences with friends and family, killers seemed less intent on creating an image and putting up a facade. To the contrary, when dealing with police serial killers often felt "compelled to present a certain image or demeanor" (Vecchi, 2009).

Apparently, not all serial killers do so out of pyschological compulsion or brain injury, though. In "Theorizing the Puzzle That Is Harold Shipman," authors Keith Soothill and David Wilson attempt to understand why the serial killer Harold Shipman committed his crimes. They attempt to "understand the meaning of serial killing at a societal level," (Soothill and Wilson, 2005) and suggest that the psychological differences between serial killers and normal people can be used to identify the areas in which society is breaking down. To date, psychologists have had difficulty identifying any psychological issues present in Harold Shipman that may have driven him to kill. It was concluded that Shipman killed simply for the enjoyment of it, with no regard to a difference in gray matter, a chemical imbalance or any other issues related to the wiring or function of his brain (Soothill and Wilson, 2005).

It is interesting to consider Harold Shipman in the context of other serial killers. He serves as evidence to the psychological community that not all serial killers are just compelled to kill because of some unexplained psychological issue. This puts holes in a lot of the research out there that suggests that people kill because their brains are wired differently, and that they have no other choice. A lack of medical reasoning behind serial killing means a lack of a means of treating the cause of it. This is more than many psychologists and criminal profilers are willing to concede to.

While it is not a psychological reason behind his serial-killing tendencies, Soothill and Wilson do consider the possibility that Shipman killed as a manner of working out his frustration with his role in society. They refer to this as "socieconomic frustration" but also "claim that it would be a bold and inappropriate to identify socio-economic frustration as either a necessary or sufficient condition for serial killing" (2009). One of the holes they identified in this theory was that the victims of serial killers are usually children, women, young adults, gay men and the elderly. This makes it difficult to attribute non-psychologically-based serial killing to what they call "homicidal protest" as the victims of serial killing are often the members of society with the least power and… [END OF PREVIEW]

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