The neuroscience of murder

There is a killer lurking in the human brain. When the part of the brain that controls emotions and impulses is not suppressed, the killer within can wreak havoc on society. On March 16, I attended a discussion called “The Murderous Mind” with thriller writer Scott Turow and neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York. The event is part of the museum’s Brainwave series, now in its fourth year.

Many of us have had moments of rage where we’ve thought about killing someone. I’ve heard people say, I’m so mad, I could kill him (or her), but to my knowledge, they’ve never acted upon the thought. According to Gazzaniga, all people have a killer instinct that we keep controlled. “Everyone is capable of killing if triggered,” said Gazzaniga, who is a member of the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives and one of the world’s top cognitive neuroscientists. “The question is, can we overcome the trigger or impulse to do this?”

Gazzaniga differentiates between crimes of passion and premeditated crimes. “There are rage systems in the brain where the planning goes on, and when triggered, rage happens.” An example of this is when someone lashes out after being provoked. A person who is intent on committing a crime will plan out the act they want to commit, and carry it out whether they have been provoked or not.

Turow, a former prosecutor, defense attorney, and author of Presumed Innocent and other novels, has worked on cases with average citizens who seem to be nice people, but when wronged they immediately want retribution. “Victims were led to believe that retribution would make them feel restored,” said Turow. This is a way of thinking that tells us that since we were victimized and felt pain, someone else needs to feel pain as well. Turow also said that fictional police and crime shows make people believe retribution should be handled a certain way, instead of victims sitting down and thinking for themselves about how they would like to seek justice. In one case, Turow said, the criminal apologized to the family before being sentenced to life, and although it didn’t change what happened, his acknowledgement and act of compassion made the family members feel differently.

Gazzaniga said compassion can be measured on a scale of 1 to 10, with most of us being a four or five on average. “If you look at compassion,” said Gazzaniga, “and you look at the systems in the brain that process this, there’s a distribution [of brain chemicals] that goes into this.” Depending on the distribution, some people are able to express more or less compassion than others.

Sometimes thoughts and impulses go against the norm of society, but it’s up to us to control these feelings…unless we want our inner killer to break free.

–Blayne Jeffries

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