Trigger Warning

Neurological abnormalities to explain acts of violence


Kaitlyn Khoe

It’s an overwhelming influx of tears, news alerts, and silence for the deadliest mass shooting in the US, while students across the country  sleep or stay up, preparing for a fresh week of school, only to wake up to news of the latest devastating event with incomprehensible motives.

Shootings come and go and then always come again. To prepare for a potential shooter on campus, schools have to implement emergency drills not just for natural disasters.

Most districts, including PAUSD, require just one code red drill for the entire school year; however, this semester, Paly will have another drill followed by a faculty training to refresh procedures — an appropriate measure given the recent rise in shootings.

“It [a shooter on campus] may not always be on the forefront of our mind, and that’s the part we want to improve on — making sure that were cognizant and vigilant about these possibilities becoming a reality,” says Janice Chen, the assistant principal of teaching and learning.

With increasing research looking at neurological abnormalities as a reason for acts of violence, there might be another way to ensure safety. Every high-profile mass shooting prompts the recurring question: Was the perpetrator or perpetrators mentally ill? In some cases, the answer appears to be “yes.” For example, extensive investigation of Eric Harris, one of the 1999 Columbine High School shooters, revealed his God complex and admiration for figures such as Adolf Hitler and Charles Manson.

“We have definitely found a trend nationwide that those who have been committing these types or crimes had some type of mental illness,” Chen says.

Someone with a rare allele of the MAOA gene that regulates serotonin in the brain and the breaking down of other critical neurotransmitters has an increased chance of exhibiting shooting and stabbing behaviors.

Possible signs of homicidal impulses include abusive, aggressive behavior, detachment from peers or combative nature. Parenting, school, the innate traits people are born with, and environmental factors could contribute to thoughts of violence, according to counselor James Hamilton.

“Violence usually comes from the psychological impact of other things––abuse or neglect at home,” Hamilton says. “Any number of things that should be there for the healthy development of a child that aren’t there can lead to that [violence].”

Twenty-five-year-old Charles Whitman shot his wife, who was not the only victim of his destructive outburst. He would kill his mother, as well as 17 strangers at the University of Texas from Austin’s tower deck on August 1966, before being shot dead by police. Prior to the shooting, Whitman had expressed fears that a psychiatric disorder was causing his aggression, according to the autopsy report reproduced by the Austin History Center.

“Lately (I can’t recall when it started) I have been a victim of many unusual and irrational thoughts,” Whitman wrote in his suicide note, also published by the Austin History Center. “It was after much thought that I decided to kill my wife, Kathy. I cannot rationally [sic] pinpoint any specific reason for doing this.”

An autopsy performed on Whitman by his own request seemed to confirm his fears, finding a pecan-sized tumor in the brain. Based on these facts alone, it is tempting to jump to the conclusion that Whitman’s brain tumor caused his cravings of violence; although authors of Whitman’s autopsy report found “no correlation [of the brain tumor] to psychosis or permanent pains”.

Aside from psychological conditions, genetics, specifically mutations in the MAOA gene, has also been a common explanation for aggressive or violent behavior. Despite having several moments in the media — receiving the nickname of “warrior gene” — studies have yet to provide irrefutable conclusions.

Someone with a rare allele of the MAOA gene that regulates serotonin in the brain and the breaking down of other critical neurotransmitters has an increased chance of exhibiting shooting and stabbing behaviors, according to a study of African American males by Kevin Beaver, James Barnes, and Brian Boutwell.

In a trailer home in Tennessee, Bradley Waldroup shot his wife’s friend eight times and cut her head open with a knife, then attempted to chop up his wife with a machete in 2006. To counter the death penalty Waldroup face, his genes were studied at a lab to find that his X chromosome had the MAOA genetic variant, allowing his legal team to claim that the buildup of chemicals led to his loss in impulse control, according to Lois Parshley’s article written in 2016 “Can Your Genes Make You Kill?”

Other scientists also try to use parts of the brain that could cause mental health issues to explain violence. The orbitofrontal cortex, located in the frontal lobes of the brain, is involved in the decision-making process and ethical behaviors, according to a study by Michael Koenigs.

James Fallon, a professor in psychiatry and human behavior at the University of California-Irvine, has studied many brain scans. He took a PET scan of his own brain and found that his orbital cortex appeared similar to the brain scan of a psychopath. The dark patches on both scans implied inactivity of the orbitofrontal cortex, an indicator of a predisposition to violence that can be passed down genetically, according to Fallon.

Scientists have continued research in predicting potential signs of harmful acts towards others. A group of neuropathologists, scientists who look at diseases in the nervous system, at Stanford are currently examining the brain tissue of the perpetrator from the Las Vegas mass shooting, Stephen Paddock, to look for a biological rationale behind his actions.

While scientists give optimism about gaining the ability to anticipate perpetrators of violent crimes, it’s important that the burden of a safer world falls on potential targets to be prepared by practicing safety procedures.

“We’ve seen so many cases where unfortunately this [code red] drill has become a reality… but the fact that we’ve done it so many times makes me less nervous about what to do [in a code red],” junior Riya Kumar says.