Psychiatrist Sheds Light on the Minds of Mass Murderers



As people try to understand the motives of Nashville school shooter Audrey Hale, who was reportedly dealing with grief and undergoing treatment for mental illness, Dr. Daniel Amen sheds light on the brains of murderers. Dr. Amen, a psychiatrist and founder of Amen Clinics, has spent more than 30 years working with sophisticated brain imaging. That includes looking at scans of more than 100 murderers, such as Kip Kinkle, who killed his parents before carrying out a mass shooting at Thurston High School in Springfield, Ore., in 1998. To understand any person, Amen looks at four “circles” of behavior: biological, psychological, social and spiritual. “Brain abnormalities are often involved in these cases,” Amen said of the brain scans of murderers. “They may come from a brain injury at some point in the past, some form of brain toxin, prior substance abuse, or a mental illness.” Dr. Amen said the brain scans of murders show that “many had severely damaged brains and as a group they had significantly low activity in the prefrontal cortex, the most human, thoughtful part of the brain.” Psychological factors include how a person thinks and talks to themselves, along with their upbringing and defining events. “People who feel as though they do not have options may turn to suicide as a way out,” Amen said. “Many mass murderers know they are going to die and decide to take others with them in their suicidal behavior.” Negative social factors can cause stress that negatively impacts brain function, Amen said. “Social isolation or societal rejection is a very common theme among these mass murderers.” A lack of spiritual connection can contribute to a murderer’s mindset, but spiritual connections can also go “dangerously awry,” Amen said. “Many people go through spiritual crises, not knowing why their life has meaning, which sets them up for depression or substance abuse. A spiritual connection to others and the universe is critical for many people,” Amen said. “But often spiritual connections can go dangerously awry. Many terrorists have a distorted sense of spiritual meaning and are willing to kill innocent bystanders as a way to fulfill their belief system that is based on fear or hatred.” TMX contributed to this story.