Forums

 
 FAQFAQ   SearchSearch   MemberlistMemberlist   UsergroupsUsergroups   ProfileProfile   Log in to check your private messagesLog in to check your private messages 
What Can Neuroscience Tell Us about Evil?
Goto page 1, 2  Next
 
Post new topic   Reply to topic    Fortean Times Message Board Forum Index -> The Human Condition
View previous topic :: View next topic  
Author Message
ramonmercadoOffline
Psycho Punk
Joined: 19 Aug 2003
Total posts: 21002
Location: Dublin
Gender: Male
PostPosted: 26-04-2007 10:24    Post subject: What Can Neuroscience Tell Us about Evil? Reply with quote

Quote:
Tuesday, April 24, 2007

What Can Neuroscience Tell Us about Evil?
Advanced brain-imaging techniques have begun to point to specific brain patterns common among sociopaths.
By Richard Brandt

"I had to do it. What other choice did you give me?"

These words, spoken by Cho Seung-Hui on a video in between the two sets of killings at Virginia Tech last week, raise more questions than answers. What made him believe that such a tragic act was necessary? Was he a psychopath, a man who killed in cold blood or in anger set off by the slightest provocation? Did he embody what most religions would simply classify as "evil"?



Psychiatrists and neuroscientists are making extraordinary advances in understanding the psychopathic or sociopathic mind, a mind that lacks empathy, compassion, fear, or remorse. In some of the most exciting research, advanced brain-imaging techniques are revealing that certain sections of psychopaths' brains seem to be misfiring.

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), researchers in the United States, Germany, and elsewhere have started taking scans of the brains of psychopaths while the patients view horrific images, such as photographs of bloody stabbings, shootings, or evisceration. When normal people view these images, fMRI scans light up to indicate heavy brain activity in sections of the emotion-generating limbic system, primarily the amygdala, which is believed to generate feelings of empathy. But in psychopathic patients, these sections of the amygdala remain dark, showing greatly reduced activity or none at all. This phenomenon, known as limbic underactivation, may indicate that some of these people lack the ability to generate the basic emotions that keep primitive killer instincts in check.


Other researchers see similar deficits from fMRI scans of the frontal cortex, part of the reasoning center of the brain, which helps regulate impulsive and irrational actions. These researchers say that frontal-deficit syndrome creates a psychopathic inability to rein in overly emotional, impulsive, and violent reactions to the slightest provocation.

James Blair, head of the National Institute of Mental Health's Unit on Affective Cognitive Neuroscience, believes that a dysfunctional amygdala affects the frontal cortex. In just-completed studies of psychopathic brains, to be published late this year or early next, Blair's fMRI scans show that a lack of normal activity in the amygdala is mirrored in the frontal cortex. He believes that the amygdala forwards the wrong signals to the frontal cortex.

Still, some scientists say that this focus on the amygdala is too simplistic. "I'm not sure if the amygdala is the core of the problem," says Joshua Greene, assistant professor of psychology at Harvard University. Greene says that while the amygdala may be "one of the areas compromised," the affected part of the brain might be different in different patients. Greene has not studied psychopathic patients, but he has used fMRI to look at the brains of people as they make moral decisions. He has found that either an emotional center or a reasoning center may play the dominant role, depending on the kind of moral decision being pondered.

Of course, not everyone demonstrating these brain abnormalities ends up a killer. Some individuals with limbic underactivation end up in heroic professions, becoming firefighters, police officers, or fighter pilots, possibly because of a reduced fear response and a need for strong emotional stimuli. One theory is that other triggers, such as severe childhood abuse or neglect, are needed to turn people with already suppressed emotions into cold-blooded killers.

And of course not all killers are psychopaths. Thomas Lewis, a psychiatrist who has extensively studied the research on psychopathy and who specializes in the neurochemistry of depression at the University of California, San Francisco, describes an extraordinarily rare condition in which a nonpsychopathic person can become a "rampage killer." This individual starts out severely depressed, traumatized, and suicidal, a condition that could be caused by anything from genetics to a brain tumor. Then some perceived crisis causes him or her to snap and go on a killing spree before taking his or her own life. "It's kind of like throwing a temper tantrum--only with automatic weapons," says Lewis.

Using neuroscience to understand seemingly evil acts of violence is still in its very early days. Indeed, diagnosis and prediction of killing behavior are far off into the future, if at all possible. But many brain researchers see enormous potential in the new imaging work. "We've always regarded psychopathy as completely untreatable," says Blair. "This could absolutely change that."

http://www.technologyreview.com/Biotech/18573/
Back to top
View user's profile 
PeniGOffline
Proud children's writer
Joined: 31 Dec 2003
Total posts: 2990
Location: San Antonio, Texas
Age: 53
Gender: Female
PostPosted: 26-04-2007 14:10    Post subject: Reply with quote

Quote:
Thomas Lewis, ..., describes an extraordinarily rare condition in which a nonpsychopathic person can become a "rampage killer." This individual starts out severely depressed, traumatized, and suicidal, a condition that could be caused by anything from genetics to a brain tumor. Then some perceived crisis causes him or her to snap and go on a killing spree before taking his or her own life. "It's kind of like throwing a temper tantrum--only with automatic weapons," says Lewis.


It's striking how pervasive is the assumption in reports of this sort that the context of an event is unimportant. An individual may become severely depressed, traumatized, and suicidal due to exterior circumstances, not just as a result of interior states like genetics and brain tumors. While it's true that understanding the physiological states of people who do kill in order to find out what distinguishes them from the many equally depressed, traumatized, and suicidal people who do not kill, is important, the tacit assumption that physiology is the only variable is both huge and invalid.

If you couldn't turn an ordinary person into a rampage killer you couldn't conduct warfare. Most of the time this is a process of sociological conditioning. But we know, because of the existence of berserkers, that some people go past that. To what degree do berserkers, such as Audie Murphy, differ from rampage killers? If he hadn't had a war for context, would Murphy have broken under the stresses of civilian life and be remembered as a villain instead of a hero? If Cho had gone to Iraq instead of to Virginia Tech, would Dubya be pinning a medal on him right now?

We don't know and we can't tell - but we need to learn more on this subject if we are to make any progress in preventing rampages. Focusing on physiology in the case of civilian rampage killers and on sociology in the case of soldiers (which is how the research I'm aware of is divided - I may be ignorant of huge swathes of work) might get us headed in the right direction, but until both approaches are applied to both problems, we're likely to make the problem worse instead of better. If a person is depressed and angry because the people around him treat him like crap, giving him some medicine and telling him the problem's in his brain will just make him more depressed and angry. If a person who is treated reasonably well is depressed and angry because of a dysfunction in his brain, teaching him coping strategies and telling him to take action to improve his situation might be tantamount to giving him the green light to fulfill his violent fantasies.

If a person with a dysfunction of the brain is treated like crap - what the hell can you expect but a rampage?
Back to top
View user's profile Visit poster's website 
SemyazOffline
Starshine is everything to me
Joined: 26 Jun 2005
Total posts: 213
Location: The centre of your world
Gender: Male
PostPosted: 27-04-2007 10:34    Post subject: Reply with quote

PeniG wrote:
the tacit assumption that physiology is the only variable is both huge and invalid.


Not to mention, unscientific...
Back to top
View user's profile 
PeniGOffline
Proud children's writer
Joined: 31 Dec 2003
Total posts: 2990
Location: San Antonio, Texas
Age: 53
Gender: Female
PostPosted: 27-04-2007 18:21    Post subject: Reply with quote

In most cases where all I'm getting is reports filtered through journalists I'm more generous in my assumptions about what got left out; but my direct and vicarious experience with the mental health professionals does not encourage me to believe that their positions are being oversimplified in such cases. Research scientists may be more flexible than doctors in practice - but that's not the way to bet.

To be completely fair, the scientific method has its limitations and it's not possible to devise an experiment that covers every base. And if you assume that free will exists (which is another large assumption, but I make it because without that assumption what's the point of researching evil?), there will inevitably be a crucial point in every breakdown which is not, by its nature, amenable to scientific scrutiny or control, the moment of choice. Exterior and interior pressures may predispose one to this behavior or that, may make a normally unthinkable course of action seem logical or even inevitable, but at some point, you choose to pick up the gun or not, to load it or not, to point it at someone else or at yourself or at the tires of the car of the person who pissed you off. Without the moment of choice, there's no question of good or evil.

It's not scientists' fault that they can't study that. It's not their fault, either, that the people in Lab X are all qualified to study physiology and the people in Lab Y are all qualified to study behavior and self-reported subjective feelings. But they've got to talk to each other just like the palynologist, the carbon-14 lab, the lithics guy, the zoologist, the human anatomist, and the geologist at the archeological site. To go into this area involves studying everything around that moment of choice and figuring out the shape of that moment based on the negative space in the middle of the data. To do that, everybody needs to be constantly checking their own data against everybody else's.

And they might be doing that more than is evident from articles like this. Ever notice how much Fortean research involves second-guessing the performance of journalists?
Back to top
View user's profile Visit poster's website 
synchronicityOffline
Resistance is futile!
Joined: 05 Aug 2005
Total posts: 173
Location: out of my mind, thank you!
Age: 59
Gender: Female
PostPosted: 29-04-2007 14:51    Post subject: Reply with quote

What about that professor who had survived first the Holocaust, and then suffered for years in a repressive Communist state before finally going to Israel, and then coming to America to teach?

If anybody on earth has ever been persecuted, abused, treated like crap and pushed to the edge, it was this man.

But he never tried to kill anyone.

In fact, he died a hero--he gave his own life to save the lives of his students!!

How does neuroscience explain him???
Back to top
View user's profile 
SameOldVardoger
Great Old One
Location: Scandinavia
Gender: Male
PostPosted: 30-04-2007 10:20    Post subject: Reply with quote

People who kill other people for the fun of it could be called evil. But I don't think they're evil without having mental problems or brain damage which would make them behave like a sociopath/psychopath.
When people kill people for fun or excitement it's because they have lost all kind of empathy.
Back to top
View user's profile 
Alexius4
Alemdar i Nizam i Djedid
Gender: Male
PostPosted: 02-05-2007 18:02    Post subject: Reply with quote

I think it is tempting to reduce evil to some species of psychological disorder - but it is probably misguided.

For example, the men and women behind the planning and operation of Tiergartenstrasse-4 were medical professionals and civil servants; none of them were exotic or exceptional. I doubt they were motivated by malice; rather, they would argue they were acting for the common good. they attended meetings, kept agenda, flirted in corridors and enjoyed their weekends.

T4

In such cases, reducing evil to sociopathy falls short. Indeed, tempting though it is to see it in the failure of empathy, that also doesn't account for it all.

In the introduction to his book on the 1994 Rwandan genocide Season of Blood, Fergal Keene relates meeting a journalist newly returned from Kigali, wrecked by the experience, drunk and ranting about 'spiritual corrosion'. I believe there maybe something to that. Cruelty indulged dissolves the soul. Lines transgressed are erased. The moral compass spins.

In The Fifth Column, Hemingway has a character disfigured by torture state 'Those of us to whom terrible things have been done must take every opportunity to be kind'. That is the other side of this particular coin; if cruelty liquifies the soul, kindness crystalises it.

In the midst of life, the more I see, the more convinced I am of the Vices and Virtues being more than just theological niceties. But then I am, the papers assure me, at odds with The Modern World. Smile
Back to top
View user's profile 
OldTimeRadioOffline
Great Old One
Joined: 15 Aug 2005
Total posts: 5539
Location: Cincinnati, Ohio USA
Age: 72
Gender: Male
PostPosted: 02-05-2007 22:59    Post subject: Reply with quote

PeniG wrote:
To what degree do berserkers, such as Audie Murphy, differ from rampage killers? If he hadn't had a war for context, would Murphy have broken under the stresses of civilian life and be remembered as a villain instead of a hero?


Has it been established that Murphy was a berserker? He's usually said to have had a Paladin Complex, which is something else altogether. And it seems to have been that Paladin Complex which eventually got him murdered, in peacetime.

Moreover, I'm by no means convinced that berserkers are men of bloodshed and violence away from the battlefield. The witty and urbain David Niven seems to have been a true berserker in battle, but that doesn't mean that I'd have been the least bit concerned about him slicing steaks at my back.
Back to top
View user's profile 
PeniGOffline
Proud children's writer
Joined: 31 Dec 2003
Total posts: 2990
Location: San Antonio, Texas
Age: 53
Gender: Female
PostPosted: 03-05-2007 03:45    Post subject: Reply with quote

As I recall (and I am doing this from memory; my references are all inaccessibly at the library or in the attic, so feel free to correct me with sources) Murphy's own description of his first medal-winning frenzy sounded remarkably like descriptions of the berserk state to me. For his second medal, he was in "god-like sniper" mode. The people who filmed "To Hell and Back" with him found him creepy to be around, describing his affect in exactly the same ways that people who survive rampages describe the rampagers - though of course he killed no one on set. And how different from, and incompatible with, each other are the berserker state and a paladin complex?

Murphy is a particularly interesting case, as he covers so much ground and is so well-documented, and yet the implications of his life, behavior, choices, and context are not (to my knowledge) often or thoroughly considered in relation to questions of good and evil. Yet his life, if approached properly, contains a lot of data we could usefully sort through in order to understand ourselves.

These aren't issues we're comfortable with. Yet until we understand why good people do horrific things, and why we strive to redefine some horrific things as good (as opposed to admitting to ourselves that sometimes in this imperfect world you just have to do bad things) while ignoring others (as opposed to studying how to evade such behavior ourselves), we're going to keep doing horrific things to each other.

And until we study how and why people do wonderful things, we won't learn to do that, either.
Back to top
View user's profile Visit poster's website 
OldTimeRadioOffline
Great Old One
Joined: 15 Aug 2005
Total posts: 5539
Location: Cincinnati, Ohio USA
Age: 72
Gender: Male
PostPosted: 03-05-2007 08:02    Post subject: Reply with quote

PeniG wrote:
And how different from, and incompatible with, each other are the berserker state and a paladin complex?


It is the difference between blood lust for bloodshed's sake and "I'm sorry, gentlemen, but we don't treat women that way here."

According to press reports at the time, it was that attitude which got Murphy murdered.

I once had a friend with a Paladin Complex. A scholarly academic with a string of advanced degrees, he was capable of violence ONLY when he saw somebody physically or emotionally weaker than himself being bullied or abused. And even then it was a CONTROLLED violence.

To me that's not the same as the berserker state, although maybe I'm in error.

P. S. I wonder what David Niven's emotional state would have been on the set had a film been made of his own battle exploits and starring himself.
Back to top
View user's profile 
PeniGOffline
Proud children's writer
Joined: 31 Dec 2003
Total posts: 2990
Location: San Antonio, Texas
Age: 53
Gender: Female
PostPosted: 03-05-2007 15:09    Post subject: Reply with quote

There were no women on the battlefield when Murphy won his first medal, and the assumptions about what is and is not acceptable behavior change drastically there. You see what I mean about how much Murphy's life could teach us about ourselves, if we only knew how to study him? We can label states of mind and behavior as much as we want to, but an individual remains an individual remains an individual, full of infinite variety, however much we try to make them be only one thing. Once you realize that a person can be a berserker, and a paladin, and sniper, and an actor, and a murder victim, and a and a and a - it's every bit as liberating, dizzying, and frightening as contemplating the infinity of space. If he can be all those things and other things we don't notice because we regard them as normal, what can I be? Or you? Makes the folly of judging people leap out at you!

I wonder why nobody ever tried to use Niven's battlefield experience as the studio used Murphy's? Perhaps he was approached on the subject and rejected the project. Does anybody know? I've always wondered (vaguely, not enough to research it) why Murphy accepted the offer to make To Hell and Back. I can't imagine myself doing such a thing in his place regardless of how dire my financial straits got (but that's not really relevant because the odds that I could ever do the other things he did, either, are slim to none - in a war zone, I am so completely dead!).
Back to top
View user's profile Visit poster's website 
OldTimeRadioOffline
Great Old One
Joined: 15 Aug 2005
Total posts: 5539
Location: Cincinnati, Ohio USA
Age: 72
Gender: Male
PostPosted: 04-05-2007 04:48    Post subject: Reply with quote

PeniG wrote:
There were no women on the battlefield when Murphy won his first medal, and the assumptions about what is and is not acceptable behavior change drastically there.


The number of women who were raped by advancing American, British and Canadian G. I.s in northern France, Belgium and western Germany isn't known but it appears to have been quite high. While the percentage of the Allied infantryman who committed these rapes seems to have been low (I'm not talking about the Russians on the Eastern Front), the raw numbers, again, seem to have been considerable..

My sources for the above come from American veterans of the action. And even 30 - 40 years later they were still disgusted by what they'd seem a few of their comrades commit.

My gut suspicion is that Murphy was NOT one of the rapists.

But you have caught me up short on how little I actually know about Murphy. He was one of my favorite actors when I was a kid. And I read TO HELL AND BACK when it was first published and a year or so later saw the motion picture. But that's all been 50 years ago.

The one scene that continues to stand out from memory is the one in which Murphy shot himself in the mirror.
Back to top
View user's profile 
PeniGOffline
Proud children's writer
Joined: 31 Dec 2003
Total posts: 2990
Location: San Antonio, Texas
Age: 53
Gender: Female
PostPosted: 04-05-2007 13:27    Post subject: Reply with quote

I would never have suggested that Murphy raped anybody under any conditions! And I am absolutely not dissing Murphy. But the fact that he is labeled a hero for actions which, in a different context, would have labeled him a villain, makes his life intrinsically interesting in any discussion of violence, evil and good, and the relationship between the society you live in and the person you become.

This all leaps off the page at me more because I live in Texas, am interested in history, and come from a service background. The ironies and contradictions that other people gloss over draw my attention. To say that Murphy was a rampage killer is merely a statement of fact, because his actions were identical to other rampage killers (except that he survived). The reasons he took those actions matter profoundly to us, remembering what he did; but the fact that he survived to talk about it and to give other examples of extraordinary behavior makes it possible to study him in ways that we cannot study rampage killers whose contexts made their survival and return to normal life impossible.

If I jump off my office building (22 stories) and land on a random passerby, it will matter to the newspapers and to the way my family reacts whether I jump because I am clinically depressed, because I am being chased by rapists with machetes, because we're being invaded by aliens and I am taking a desperate chance to leap onto a passing hovercraft and take control of it, because That Man In the White House is walking by below and I hope to land on and kill him in a sacrifice move, or because this is a condition set by the fiendish kidnapers before they will return my five-year-old niece to my sister's loving arms. These different situations would probably affect my internal states on the way down (though no one but me will ever know for sure, and I won't know for long). But none of it will make a blind bit of difference to the person I land on, to their families, or to what happens to my bones. I've still jumped off a building and landed on a random person. I'm still a suicide who committed manslaughter in the process.
Back to top
View user's profile Visit poster's website 
OldTimeRadioOffline
Great Old One
Joined: 15 Aug 2005
Total posts: 5539
Location: Cincinnati, Ohio USA
Age: 72
Gender: Male
PostPosted: 05-05-2007 02:20    Post subject: Reply with quote

PeniG wrote:
But the fact that he is labeled a hero for actions which, in a different context, would have labeled him a villain, makes his life intrinsically interesting in any discussion of violence, evil and good, and the relationship between the society you live in and the person you become.


Peni, forgive me if I'm simply being dense, but doesn't this leave us with a scenario in which our most-honored military decorations, including the Congressional Medal of Honor and the Victoria Cross become rewards "....for actions which, in....different context[s], would have labeled [the awardees]....villain[s]...."?

Then, again, maybe context is everthing. The life-saving surgeon and the life-robbing knifer both cut people.
Back to top
View user's profile 
PeniGOffline
Proud children's writer
Joined: 31 Dec 2003
Total posts: 2990
Location: San Antonio, Texas
Age: 53
Gender: Female
PostPosted: 05-05-2007 03:12    Post subject: Reply with quote

Yes, precisely. Pretending that killing in war has nothing in common with killing in schools won't get us anywhere. We have to understand what is different about them and what is the same, and then we can begin to understand massacres and prevent them.

It's none of my business how people would answer the following questions, but they are the sort of thing that I feel compelled to ponder for myself and revisit periodically: If Murphy had been German, would you still admire him? What if someone in Iraq today, on either side, behaved in a precisely similar way (this may be too big a stretch since the strategic and tactical situations in this war are so different)? What about Cho's behavior - what if he had snapped on a battlefield and identified his enemies as the enemies of his nation? Take the exact same action and put it in different contexts and ask youself which ones legitimately change your judgement of the action, and whether this is reasonable, and whether the families of the dead would agree with you.

It is far more important for each of us to understand and come to terms with the evil and good in our own selves than it is to divide the world into bad guys and good guys. None of us can control the world; most of us control ourselves to some extent. Science, and history, and the experiences of others can light the path into our own minds, but it's up to each of us to understand ourselves.
Back to top
View user's profile Visit poster's website 
Display posts from previous:   
Post new topic   Reply to topic    Fortean Times Message Board Forum Index -> The Human Condition All times are GMT
Goto page 1, 2  Next
Page 1 of 2

 
Jump to:  
You cannot post new topics in this forum
You cannot reply to topics in this forum
You cannot edit your posts in this forum
You cannot delete your posts in this forum
You cannot vote in polls in this forum


Powered by phpBB © 2001, 2005 phpBB Group