A Look into a Psychopath’s Head (Literally)

It has been a long time since I’ve felt that kind of  fear which makes me want to reluctantly glance behind my back and dread turning the lights off. But at half past midnight the other night, I experienced such kind of fear.

No, I didn’t watch a horror movie, nor did I experience any ghostly encounters.

The thing is, I had just finished watching a documentary which delivered the kind of gripping terror created by horrifying real life events involving real people. Entitled “Secrets of Your Mind,” the show explored the possible link between psychopathic behavior and certain distinguishing characteristics of psychopaths’ brains. It was literally taking a look inside a criminal’s head. It asked the question, “Could one be actually born to kill?”

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The first psychopath featured was Tommy Sells, an American serial killer. He was serving his term in prison (or was in death row; I’m not so sure), and the show’s host was interviewing him there with simply a glass dividing their faces. When asked how many people he had murdered, Sells said he didn’t know. 10? Maybe. 20? Possibly. 50? Could be.

He started killing when he was 14. He said he got a certain “high” out of killing people, and that is the kind of rush that he is after—it’s what keeps him killing, much like what keeps drug addicts use drugs.

Tommy Lynn Sells

Tommy Lynn Sells

Tommy Sells had no specific profile targets; he murdered a variety of people. He killed women, often raping them first before executing whatever murder strategy he could think of—some he strangled, others he cut the throat, still others he shot in the head. He killed children, saying he didn’t want them to experience the hardships he himself had to endure. He said he was sexually molested when he was a child.

The interviewer asked him, “So, if I told you something you didn’t like, would you kill me?” Sells replied something like, “Your head would be cracked on the pavement…like a coconut…and then you die.

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Tommy Lynn Sells being interviewed in prison

 Out of all his murders, one that particularly struck me was when he victimized a woman who was 8 months pregnant. While he was on the process of murdering her, she had a spontaneous delivery of the baby. Reports reveal that the baby too was killed. When the interviewer asked him what he did to the baby when it came out, Sells answered, “You’re really pushing your luck, you know. Don’t get me to the bloody guts…

The interviewer aptly summarized what he was feeling with this line: “I couldn’t help but be grateful for the glass that was between the two of us.”

That woman also had a 3-year old child who Sells also killed. Three days later, the murdered body of the woman’s husband was also found in a different location.

A neuroscientist who has been studying the brains of psychopaths for about 30 years explained that psychopaths are people with no remorse and conscience. They are incapable of the disgust and horror people would normally experience during such circumstances.

 

The neuroscientist further said that his studies revealed a certain structural difference in the psychopaths’ amygdalae, the part of the brain involved in the processing of emotional reactions.

the amygdala

the amygdala

He explained that having such biological predisposition, added to the experience of certain events in the environment, would definitely increase the odds of making one a psychopath.

 

Tommy Sells’ last murder was witnessed by a 10-year old girl. She was sleeping over her friend’s house when the incident happened. She was sleeping on the upper bunk of a double deck bed when suddenly she was startled awake. She lifted her head just a bit to look around the room, and saw a man she has never seen before.

The man grabbed her friend who was sleeping in the lower bunk, cut her friend’s throat, and left the murdered body slumped on the floor. She recalled that the man was about to head out the door when he checked around the room and saw her. She instinctively held her hands in front of her neck. He moved towards her, held the knife ready and ordered her to move her hands aside.

He then slit her neck and left.

Sells had severed her windpipe and her carotid artery, but she survived the attack. She was the one who positively identified Sells as the murderer, which led to Sells’ arrest and eventual imprisonment. When asked what she saw in Sells’ eyes when he came face-to-face with her, she said his expression was blank. There was absolutely no emotion.

Krystal Surles, the girl who lived to tell the tale

Krystal Surles, the girl who lived to tell the tale

Sells was asked if he remembered that girl who survived. “Not a day passes that I don’t think of her,” he said. The interview asked him if he had a message for that girl, and he replied, “I bet you’d tell her my message, wouldn’t you?” After considering for a moment, Sells added, “She wouldn’t want to hear what I have to say.

 ♣

The next serial killer interviewed was Joel Rifkin. He recalls that his first victim was a prostitute he picked up one night. He said he just started beating her until his arms got tired, and then he started cutting her up.

The interviewer asked,  “…and you started severing the body? It must be pretty hard then…” Rifkin said that he cut on the joints to make it easier. He severed her elbows, and her knees, and then her throat. “And so I had 6 parts,” Rifkin concluded. He loaded the body in the trunk of his car.

Joel Rifkin

Joel Rifkin

He continued to murder more women, mostly prostitutes. He too explained that he got a “high” every time he killed, and the chase just intensifies the rush. The last of his murders was again a prostitute who he also put in his car trunk. His car’s plate number had fallen off so he was stopped by police on the road, and he said that at that point, he knew that that was it. He was arrested and imprisoned.

 

In wanting to know the reason why he kills, he had agreed for his brain to be studied by experts. Scans of his brain revealed that his frontal lobe showed very little activity compared to non-criminals. The frontal lobe is the part of the brain involved in choosing between good and bad actions, as well as suppressing unacceptable social responses. So that figures, doesn’t it?

the frontal lobe

the frontal lobe

The main controversy now surrounding this finding and these studies lies in its implications to judgments made in court trials for criminal cases such as this. Can these findings be used to justify criminal behavior and mitigate punishment?

 

There was a brief mention of a case of one serial killer (I didn’t catch his name) who had avoided the death penalty in part because his brain scans showed abnormalities in the area of the brain responsible for impulse control. Is it fair then, to lessen a person’s accountability for his actions because his very anatomy allegedly caused him to act the way he did? Where do we draw the line as to which actions are justified by biological discrepancies and which are acted out with personal malice and intent?

 ♠

And then there is the case of Chris Benoit. At first I wondered why his name sounded so familiar, then I recalled that he was one of those famous WWE wrestlers my brother used to watch a lot. Then came my puzzlement—why was he featured in a show talking about serial killers?

WWE Wrestler Chris Benoit

WWE Wrestler Chris Benoit

It turned out that Chris Benoit’s life ended in a double homicide-suicide. He killed his wife and his 7-year old son before committing suicide by hanging himself in one of his weight-lifting machines.

Chris with wife Nancy

Chris with wife Nancy

images (2)

with son Daniel

His wife Nancy was tied at the feet and wrists and asphyxiated. His son was killed by suffocation. Investigators found that before the murders, Benoit’s internet search history revealed that he was reading extensively about a character in the Bible, Elijah. Elijah was able to raise a dead child who was lying in his bed. Benoit’s son was found also lying in his bed.

 

Benoit’s father, Michael, also shared that shortly before the incident Chris was very devoted to reading the Bible, even able to quote scripture. He said that it was not the Chris he knew.

In an attempt for an explanation of his son’s behavior, Michael allowed experts to dissect Chris’ brain. Upon dissection, microscopic findings revealed extensive damage on Chris Benoit’s brain.

A postmortem study on Benoit's brain conducted by Sports Legacy Institute. The illustration on the left depicts healthy brain tissue, while the one on the right is Benoit's brain showing extensive damage.

A postmortem study on Benoit’s brain conducted by Sports Legacy Institute. The illustration on the left depicts healthy brain tissue, while the one on the right presents Benoit’s brain tissue showing extensive damage.

Michael stood his ground that if it weren’t for those damages caused by wrestling stunts, his son would not have committed those murders.

Is trying to find a link between brain anatomy and psychopathic behavior just being used by some to make excuses for criminal actions? Is it becoming a defense mechanism of those who are unwilling to take accountability for their actions, or to accept shame for their loved ones’ behavior?

I think we cannot tell for sure what the fair judgment really is. On one hand, I don’t think we can discount these people as totally blameless for their actions. They may have the brain of a psychopath, but is choice really absent in such cases? What if the urge to kill is strongly present but they actually still have a chance of fighting against that inborn instinct? Did they simply let themselves fulfill their craving for killing when in fact they could’ve stood up against it?

On the other hand, we cannot discount the evidence of the differences between the way psychopaths’ brains function and the way our (assuming you and I aren’t psychopaths) brains do. Are their brain activities so impaired that they are rendered incapable of fighting their killer instincts? In this light, I feel pity for them. In the unlucky circumstance of nature “wiring” them to murder others, can we totally blame them for being “born to kill”?

 ♠

And then we come to the case of neuroscientist James Fallon. For years he has been studying the brains of criminals, and has noticed that they would all show low activity levels in the orbitofrontal cortex, a region in the frontal lobe which plays a role in the control of impulses and possibly in the “modulation of antisocial behavior.

orbitofrontal

the orbitofrontal cortex

Fallon’s mother suggested he look into his own family history, because she has heard that there were also a number of convicted murderers on Fallon’s father side. And indeed when he looked it up, he found that he was a direct descendant of a certain number of murderers.

A picture of one of his ascendants featured in the documentary was particularly creepy for me. It was that of a lady who lived in the 1800s, looking silent and with eyes blank and empty. I can’t remember who it was exactly, but it might’ve been Lizzie Borden. I don’t know why, but to me it seems that black-and-white old pictures of ladies in aristocratic clothing have an eerie air about them.

James Fallon discovered that he was a relative of Lizzie Borden, an American woman tried for the axe murder of her father and stepmother in 1892. Though Borden was acquitted of the case, speculations continue to this day.

James Fallon discovered that he was a relative of Lizzie Borden, an American woman tried for the axe murder of her father and stepmother in 1892. Though Borden was acquitted of the case, speculations continue to this day.

And as if it wasn’t disturbing enough, a spine-chilling nursery song played in the background, with an accompanying narration saying that the song became symbolic of the murders the lady committed. It really must’ve been Lizzie Borden, as there was a rhyme popularized regarding the case:

“Lizzie Borden took an axe

And gave her mother forty whacks.

When she saw what she had done

She gave her father forty-one.”

 

Fallon then proceeded to have his own brain scanned, as well as those of his family. All the results came back normal as expected, except for one—as luck would have it, his own brain scan revealed he had a brain similar to those of the psychopaths and murderers he had studied.

Jim Fallon's study of killer's brains takes a surprising twist.

Jim Fallon’s study of killer’s brains took an ironic twist.

He tested his and his family’s genes as well, and again he found that he possessed what was called “warrior genes,” genes associated with higher levels of aggressive behavior.

And so with both neurological and genetic predispositions, Fallon himself was a “walking recipe” for a psychopath.

With that, he was forced to question the hypothesis that neurological and genetic markers are the causes why psychopaths act the way they do. If he had the anatomical and physiological makings of a serial killer, why wasn’t he out murdering people? (not that I want him to ;p)

He settled on the explanation that he may have been just lucky enough to be raised in a loving environment, experiencing a positive childhood and having supportive parents. He says that if it weren’t for those, he might have ended up as a serial killer as well. Environment, then, can neutralize bad genes, he concluded.

 ♣

It’s pretty interesting how twisted a human being can get. Serial killers are sick in a grotesque kind of way but there is also a kind of cleverness unique to them.

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I do not, in any way, approve of their perverse actions; I am just interested in better understanding what goes on inside their minds, what makes them so bloodthirsty and why they are addicted to killing.

After all, to be effective in putting an end to their killing sprees, we must first be able to get into their heads and know what their next move will be.

It’s truly one of the ironies in life: “In order to catch a killer, you have to think like a killer yourself.”

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3 thoughts on “A Look into a Psychopath’s Head (Literally)

    • Thank you for dropping by Victoria! So much is still unknown about this 3-pound mystery, but you’re right, we’re slowly untying some knots and uncovering certain facts about its inner workings.

  1. How interesting! I have always had a curiosity about the minds of killer, as I was always watching criminal type tv shows. Life is stranger than fiction, though. Thanks for you post.

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