[News article]What makes peaceful neighbours become mass murderers : Nature News & Comment
From the 11 May 2015 news item
It’s time to ask uncomfortable questions about the brain mechanisms that allow ‘ordinary’ people to turn violent, says Itzhak Fried.
What happens in the brains of people who go from being peaceable neighbours to slaughtering each other on a mass scale? Back in 1997, neurosurgeon Itzhak Fried at the University of California, Los Angeles, conscious of the recent massacres in Bosnia and Rwanda, described this switch in behaviour in terms of a medical syndrome, which he called ‘Syndrome E’ 2. Nearly 20 years later, Fried brought sociologists, historians, psychologists and neuroscientists together at the Institute of Advanced Studies in Paris to discuss the question anew. At the conference, called ‘The brains that pull the triggers‘, he talked to Nature about the need to consider this type of mass murder in scientific as well as sociological terms, and about the challenge of establishing interdisciplinary dialogue in this sensitive area.
What are the main features of the syndrome?
There was a myth that the primitive brain is held in check by our more-recently evolved prefrontal cortex, which is involved in complex analysis, and that the primitive, subcortical part takes over when we carry out brutal crimes such as repetitive murder. But I saw it the other way around. The signs and symptoms that I gathered in my research indicated that the prefrontal cortex, not the primitive brain, was responsible, because it was no longer heeding the normal controls from subcortical areas. I called it ‘cognitive fracture’ — the normal gut aversions to harming others, the emotional abhorrence of such acts, were disconnected from a hyper-aroused prefrontal cortex. I also proposed a neural circuitry in the brain that could perhaps account for this. In brief, specific parts of the prefrontal cortex become hyperactive and dampen the activity of the amygdala, which regulates emotion.
If mass murder happens because of activity in the brain, what does this say about personal responsibility?
Perpetrators of repeated killings have the capacity to reason and to solve problems — such as how best practically to kill lots of people rapidly. Proposing the existence of a syndrome does not absolve them of responsibility.
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