- - Tuesday, October 10, 2017

A nation bewildered and stunned by the carnage in Las Vegas searches for answers and hints of explanations but so far has found none.  The absence of a narrative confines us in our grief.  We are stuck in our mourning, unable to process our grief in the natural way; with a story.

Human beings live through our stories.  We are pattern-seeking creatures who create stories, from individual lives and relationships, through national history, and even beyond, through myth.  Our stories make sense; our stories make meaning.  Without them all is chaos and wind.  

Even when we experience the natural losses of life – the death of an aged parent, for example – we cope with our pain through narrative.  We craft a eulogy, and perhaps an obituary.  We share stories about the past.  We talk to friends – repeating ourselves over and over again - about our parent’s final days or years.  Once there was a diagnosis…then some treatment … there was progress, and setbacks.  We talk about her life … the better times  and more difficult ones, his quirks and habits, and what we will miss.  We tell our stories against the finality of death.  That’s how we mourn; by struggling to make sense of  a life through narrative.

Murderers, too, have stories.  Literature is full of murderers and their motivations, from Cain and Abel to Hamlet to Al Capone to last week’s episode of “Law and Order.”

People kill for many reasons. They kill for power and glory.  People kill out of hate, fear, jealousy, rage, ideology, loyalty … and a broken brain.

Let’s not forget about the brain.

I do not deny the existence of evil.  Evil exists.  But in our search to understand how a man, never known to be violent in his life, decides at age 64 to plan and execute mass murder, we must also consider the brain.
Many brain injuries, disorders and illnesses make violence more likely through a variety of mechanisms. Brain injuries and illnesses can foster violence, for example, by increasing impulsivity or by exaggerating paranoid beliefs.

Violence is not the only aberrant behavior associated with brain disease and injury. Parkinson’s Disease, which is usually diagnosed in mid or late life, is associated with pathological gambling.  Some researchers note that the class of drugs used to treat Parkinson’s (and restless leg syndrome) can lead to other compulsive behaviors besides gambling; compulsive sex, shopping, stealing and eating.

The brain is a powerful organ, both when it is well and when it goes awry.

Jonathan Pincus was a neurologist who examined convicted serial killers and others who committed acts of deadly violence. In his book “Base Instincts: What Makes Killers Kill,” he tells their stories and notes the factors they have in common – criminal fathers, histories of child abuse and brain damage/mental illness.

As we continue to try to fathom the evil unleashed in Las Vegas by an apparently ordinary man, we will need to consider all factors, including the health of the killer’s body and brain.

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