Monday, 1 May 2017

Murderino Mondays - If your kid gets hit in the head, send 'em back!

“What in God’s name is a Murderino!?” I hear you screech, don’t worry, it’s not a strange cult or weird religion – it’s what fans of the top rated podcast “My Favourite Murder” are called! So, a little bit of background so you all get a basic understanding of what this is about – MFM is one of the best podcasts out there, and definitely one of my favourites. It’s 2 women, Georgia Hardstark and Karen Kilgariff getting together and talking about true crime, but it’s not as morbid or weird as you think – it’s hilarious (without being offensive), well done and intelligent - A little bit like having a discussion with your girlfriends over some wine and cheese! Topics discussed are not just limited to murder, but current social issues, the law and mental health are themes also commonly discussed. It’s very well rounded with a big focus on murders, with each week the girls choose a murderer to present, all the while discussing surrounding issues. So, what has this got to do with neuroscience!? Well, murderer neurobiology is interesting, don’t you think!? For the next few weeks, I’m going to be choosing an area of neuroscience/psychology related to murder, to discuss, and this week we’ll be looking at one of the biggest things the girls question when looking at murderer backgrounds – head injuries!
Head injuries have come up on the podcast from very early on, and something that the girls noticed was that it kept cropping up with a lot of the murderers they discussed; Ted Bundy, Richard Ramirez, Fred West, Albert Fish, Gary Ridgway and John Wayne Gacy – Just to name a few! There’s definitely a noticeable pattern there – however to clarify, these head injuries were from a young age. So the question is, are head injuries a risk factor for becoming a murderer in adulthood?

Several studies have found differences in behaviour of children following head injuries, ranging from mild injury to severe, and different degree of changes. In a study done by Evelyn Newman, impulsiveness was one of the biggest behavioural disturbance following injury, including in those where it was never a problem prior to it. Physical and verbal impulsiveness were recorded such as socially inappropriate behaviour, and when looking at murder – impulsivity can be dangerous; If it’s not a premeditated murder (or manslaughter), then it’s impulsive! Interestingly, frontal lobe damage has been associated with poor GABA synthesis during adolescence which explains why impulsivity is an issue, and the frontal lobe is also responsible for personality – something that has been demonstrated over and over again with the case of Phineas Gage and the subsequent studies following that case.
Quick Fact: GABA (Gamma-Amino-Butyric-Acid) is a neurotransmitter predominantly responsible for inhibitory behaviour. Think alcohol - Drink too much, lose inhibitions, BOOM - Impulse control goes out the window and you have no idea you've broken your leg trying to slut drop in Tesco because you can't feel a thing after 20 shots of Sambuca. Oops! Blame it on GABA!
With this in mind, another study found a huge difference in behaviours of head injured compared to controls, with higher levels of aggression, anxiety/depression and social withdrawal being the most statistically significant. Looking from a developmental point of view, social withdrawal at a young age can potentially turn into a type of resentment when older, whether it’s projected onto oneself or peers, and combined with personality development, that kind of isolation paired with depression and aggressive behaviours is a cocktail for disaster. An example of this is Gacy – Childhood abuse led to several head injuries which led to blackouts in adolescence, he was socially isolated as a child and as a result was bullied, and when looking further into his first murder it seemed to be an act of impulse. I don’t think murder was on his mind at that time compared to sodomy.

Richard Ramirez is another example of poor impulse control, exhibited by the range of his victims - he had no specific type of victim, he chose anyone. Poor decision making abilities presents strong ties to impulsive behaviour and a study by Franken et al. (2008) found that those with poor impulse control had problems with learning of reward and punishment associations when making decisions - Sound familiar?

Another study showing a strong link to head injury and crime – not murder specifically but criminal activity nonetheless – illustrated at least 50% of offenders in the study had reported head injury, and within that group feelings of anger and acting upon that anger were much higher than those without head injuries. Additionally, a study focusing on antisocial behaviour following traumatic brain injury in children by Tomaszewski et al. (2014) found that behaviour is severely disrupted in children following injury, with anger outbursts, physical and verbal aggression being the biggest changes.

In relation to murder – or murderers who suffered head injuries – these behavioural differences are apparent. In the case of Gary Ridgway, these changes were made obvious during his adolescent years, with his aggressive behaviour leading to him stabbing a boy at the age of 16. Another case of very obvious changes was Richard Ramirez, who had violent sexual fantasies during adolescence which led to him attempting to rape a woman at the hotel he worked at. That act of impulsive and violent behaviour can be explained by the several head injuries he sustained as a child and the influence he had at a young age – the human brain is malleable at that age, and can be influenced very easily. With trauma and negative external influence – which in many of these cases is violent abuse – it changes the personality, which is most likely why the similar background of abuse, violence and head injuries has led to such similar crimes in adulthood – rape and subsequently murder (or the other way round in some cases, eg. Bundy, Ridgway). With that said, keep in mind that rape is not about sex, but an act of aggression and violence.

So, what does that mean? Well, head injuries are dangerous, but don’t be too quick to send your child back for a refund too quick! There are a lot of other things to take into consideration, external factors play a huge role in how a person turns out, it’s not just nature, but nurture too! Murderer does not a brain injury make.

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