“Mindhunter” taught us that to get ahead of crazy, we need to know how crazy thinks. This introduces the heavily debated question of whether our behavior is influenced by upbringing or if we are neurologically predisposed toward certain characteristics. The answer isn’t as simple as we would like it to be and there is definitely some research involved, so let’s talk about murder.
If your upbringing determines your worldview and morals, why did Jeffrey Dahmer, who was raised with love, and Edmund Kemper, a man with lethal hatred for his mother, both end up as prolific serial killers? Ted Bundy, who had a wide range of personality disorders, was cared for by his parents but Netflix created an entire show just to tell his story. I had a positive childhood experience as well but I promise I don’t have any murderous inclinations.
So what sets me, or even you, apart from such monstrous people?
Let me walk you through the case of a serial killer who murdered 10 women over a period of two years. As an adolescent, he had three separate head injuries with periods of unconsciousness. One head injury included a right-sided skull fracture which resulted in academic and behavioral problems in high school. Soon after dropping out, he committed his first robbery at a nearby store. After serving in the army, he robbed a gas station and committed arson as well. He served time in prison, and less than a year later into his parole he was arrested again for killing two children. He served 15 years after pleading guilty to manslaughter and within a year of being placed on parole again, the killings began. All of the women were prostitutes whose bodies were found in deserted locations. He reported little or no memory of the killings but described uncontrollable rage. This led to an exploration of his amnesia and the possible role of a neurologic disorder. One medical expert witness concluded that his history of head injuries, lack of memory, and rage, along with the laboratory findings, indicated that the murders occurred during a seizure. Another medical expert witness disagreed due to a lack of history of seizures, however, they agreed that there was evidence pointing to sexual sadism and necrophilic activity.
Alongside these abnormalities, research shows that alterations in your prefrontal cortex lead to aggressive behavior including murder. Your impulse control center is located in the frontal lobe of your brain, and any dysfunction in this area will lead to a loss of human morality. Many of these irregularities are popular observations in the brain studies of many killers. Research on the comparison between the brains of psychopaths and non-psychopaths showed that the former had significantly less brain activity in regions involving emotions and decision making. Given all this information so far, we know for sure that nature can make a murder, but what about the common man?
Anyone who listens to true crime podcasts can tell you that people “snap.” A regular person without any brain abnormalities after being put under tremendous amounts of stress and pressure has the potential to cause damage. It’s similar to that feeling you get when you’re trying to complete a difficult assignment and you’re mentally prepared to just toss your laptop out the window. My favorite podcast, Crime Junkie, has covered quite a few cases where the father of a rather normal household will one day enter a state of blind rage and murder his entire family because of a buildup of stress. He would have had no prior record of violence and no existing mental conditions, but he simply did not choose the right outlet to resolve his emotions. Wendy Carr once said, “What happens to these men is normal, but the way they process it is not.”
A murderer is made through both nature and nurture. Not everyone with brain abnormalities uses violence as an outlet, and not everyone raised in the ideal household is mentally equipped to handle pressure. Sometimes your brain composition drives you to pick up a machete and sometimes it’s the job you lost or the divorce you’re dealing with. Forensic psychology and criminal profiling have taught us that there isn’t a specific formula through which someone reaches the conclusion to kill. In full disclosure, given the right brain composition and life events, it could even be you or me on the next episode of Crime Junkie.