Over the past few years we as nation have witnessed a series of mass killings that have appalled the general public. The horrific acts of Newtown, Orlando Pulse, Las Vegas and Texas killed hundreds of innocent lives and left the nation in a state of shock and grief. The seemingly endless journey of healing never seems to start, as we watch, sick and weary, as yet another tragedy unfolds on live television.
What triggers people to become cold blooded killers? I wondered after finishing the sandwich I had made during the CBS special report on the Texas shooting. Then came a more frightening idea: could I become a monster like the ones I see on TV? Is it Genes? Access to guns? Stress? Substance abuse? There were so many potential biological, behavioral, and societal triggers. And with every killing, mass shooting, heavily publicized and politized, it is hard for one to find truth in the tangled mess of public bias and political maneuvering and newspeak. One caught my attention. After the Newtown shooting that killed young elementary age children, the FBI conducted a thorough search of Adam Lanza’s room revealing a sickening man cave filled with violent comic book and video games. The discovery led to a government backed study that examined the effects of exposure to violence through media has on people, particularly teenagers. Could we be influenced by the various forms of graphic entertainment we consume?
Self conscious, I began to take note of the daily actives I do. Frighteningly, I spend a lot time absorbing violence through media. The music I prefer, heavy metal and rap, have an emphasis on aggression and rebelliousness; the video games I play, like Counter Strike, often involves guns and combat simulation; the authors I adore: King, Patterson, Lovecraft, all thrive off shock and gore; the movies I watch, Alien and Deadpool, have cartoonish violence as their main attraction. Am I a killer in the making? Is my daily dose of violence slowly shutting off my ability to emphasize and turning me into a psycho?
Luckily for me, recent studies have shown that most people are unaffected by violent forms of entertainment in the long term, and the short term effects are close to negligible. Dr. Christopher Ferguson, a professor of psychology at Texas A&M, through a meta analysis of earlier studies pointed out obvious flaws in the data produced. First, many of the studies were observational, meaning they show little proof of a cause and effect relationship. Second, the studies used measures of assessing aggression that does not correlate with real-world violence (Harvard, 2010). Further researched proved that mentally healthy people are capable of deciphering reality from fiction and know how to act accordingly. This is especially true for the Post-Millennial generation who grew up surrounded by the Internet and mass media. Boys that play Call of Duty know that Call of Duty is just a game.
So what is the root cause of violent behavior? FBI Profilers, people that specialize in studying the mindset of serial killers, have reached a consensus that “there is no generic template for a serial killer” (NCAVC, 2010). This essentially means we cannot predict a person’s likelihood of committing mass murder based on their race, income, religion, or age. Instead there is a complex web of biological, social, and environmental factors that trigger these types of killings. Experts in the National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime (NCAVC, 2010) tie in scientific research into their forensic understanding allowing them to better understand the internal workings of serial killers. most notably the consensus among neurobiologists “that our nervous systems are environmentally sensitive, thereby allowing individual nervous systems to be shaped throughout a lifetime”, which means that trauma and stress can affect a person’s psyche. In fact even physical injuries, severe head trauma or concussion, can play a large role in our nervous system’s development. Using this knowledge NCAVC’s Behavioral Analysis Units (BAUs) have found the only real consistency among serial killers is childhood abuse and neglect.
According to neuroscientist Robert James R. Blair (2013) of the National Institute of National Health, “[p]sychopathy is a developmental disorder marked by emotional deficits and an increased risk for antisocial behavior”. Characterized by the lack of guilt and empathy, beguiling charm, and manipulative behavior, psychopaths and their close relatives sociopaths seem to be the perfect serial killers in the making. Yet the NCAVC describes the relationship between the two as “interesting”, as not all serial killers are psychopaths and not all psychopaths are serial killers (NCAVC, 2010). Because of this, psychopathy poses a interesting question: how can some psychopaths lead completely normal lives? We know that psychopathy is genetic, passed down through genes. But the human genome is much more complicated than that. DNA has very few active genes, genes that create observable traits, the rest are a series on switches and levers capable of manipulating the active genes. Collectively the concept of changing genetic traits without changing DNA is called epigenetics. The epigenome is “made up of chemical compounds and proteins that can attach to DNA and direct such actions as turning genes on or off, controlling the production of proteins in particular cells”(“Epigenomics”, 2016). Imagine your cell as a construction worker, tasked with building an apartment complex (protein). DNA is the blueprint of the complex, the instructions per say. The epigenome would be the construction manager, modifying the blueprint in various ways. The end result could be vastly different depending on how the epigenome affects the DNA. With this relatively new area of study, scientist are discovering that environmental pressure can change how our genes are expressed.
One of the biggest revelations in the field of epigenetics is that stress hormones cause epigenetic changes, something that was speculated since the concept of the epigenome was conceived. The duo of Drs. James B. Potash and Gary S. Wand at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine led a study that tested the effects of increased levels of cortisone, a stress hormone released by the adrenal gland, on mice. The results showed clear behavioral changes, such as heightened anxiety. This is attributed to the higher levels of the FKBP5 protein, encoded by the DNA sequence of the same name, which can cause PTSD and mood disorders at abnormal levels (Wein, 2016).
This reveals the complex workings and interaction between biology and environment that could cause violent behavior. Genes and DNA create a foundation for our mental development. Some people have the genes that make them more predisposed to antisocial and violent behavior: psychopaths. Most of us are born with both empathy and a conscience. And at the center of everyone’s existence is our nervous systems, the brain and the various sensors it connects to. This byzantine array of neurons is responsible of a host of tasks. One of these tasks is the release of various chemicals, hormones, that regulate our bodies daily processes. Under stress and trauma our brain releases so-called stress hormones, like cortisone, a visage of our fight-or-flight instinct. Without a proper coping mechanism, some way to de-stress, these hormones build up and begin to change the structure of our epigenome, thus changing how our genes expressed. This in turn affects our volatile nervous system resulting in rewiring of neurons that increases our chances to develop mental disorders like PTSD and depression that increases our chance for violent behavior. This is the truth about the majority of killers: they are deeply sick people in desperate need of help.
Obviously mental healthcare is a complex issue that requires serious coordination and money to be effective. I would like to point out our hopelessly derelict mental health program, which offer bare bones treatment through underfunded and understaffed institutions. Among developed nations the U.S. lags behind in providing even basic healthcare, like maternity services and birth control. So it is no surprise that our mental health programs are practically nonexistent. This is troubling for our society as a whole. Ignoring mental health as a serious issue with real life repercussions has led to the deaths of millions of innocent lives not only through the acts of lone gunmen, but also through suicide. Even within the military, a profession with high rates of trauma and PTSD, mental health is rarely, if ever, addressed. A strong mental health care system serves as a crucial safety net that can prevent future disasters. With adequate help many potential killers will stabilize enough to lead normal crime free life. And even in a worst case scenario, where the person is longer capable of reason, institutions can warn law enforcement preemptively and potentially save many lives in the process. In order for this to happen we need a massive retooling of public services, shifting focus away from the subsidizing of private “worker” prisons and military spending, and reallocating the money to public health and higher education.
We also need to provide child service for needy families and improve child protection programs. Children and teens are most danger, as we grow older our epigenome changes less often and less readily, so early development is paramount to leading a stable life. Children from poorer families tend to suffer from substance, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse most. These children must be freed not only from their tormentors, but also from the cruel future they face as a serial criminal in the U.S.’s predatory prison system. Even children from lower income families with loving parents suffer from the effects of near constant stress. Across socio-economic divides teenagers that pose the most worrying problem. The sad truth is this: teens like me are more stressed and more depressed than ever. Suicide rate is at an all time high and so is mental health issues in teengaers across the U.S.. While adults might laugh it off as being part growing up, this is a serious problem. During puberty rapid hormonal changes in the body could can have a profound effect of the epigenome, especially if the process is hijacked by needless stress hormones. Increased stress and anxiety can have permanent effects on a person brain development. While they may not become serial killers, there might be serious mental health issues, like chronic depression, in the long run.
Why are these crucial changes not being implemented? It is because the useless and needless crusade against harmless entertainment has distracted our society from serious issues. On the political spectrum both liberal and conservatives bash violent media in a strange love-to-hate affair. Conservatives hate the potential degeneration of society that these media elements promote. Liberals, much like the conservatives, also seem to despise the glorification violence, especially the glorification of violence against women. Both have aimed to curb supposed negative effects of graphic violence in media through censorship and propaganda. Censorship attempts have failed, thanks to high profile Supreme Court cases that protected creators’ freedom of expression (see Brown v. EMA). But the public muckraking of violent media, particularly video games, have been successful in creating hysteria, especially among parents. After the horrific Sandy Hook shooting and the discovery of the violent video games, Call of Duty and Starcraft, in Adam Lanza’s possession, Democratic Senator Jay Rockefeller began calling for a thorough scientific investigation on the effects that violent video games and movies could pose on children. It was essentially a witch hunt, an ill advised attempt to put the blame of the shooting onto the shoulders of entertainment media.
The scientific community has been quick to criticize the government’s attempts to divert attention away from the real issue. In a heated op-ed on TIME, Christopher Ferguson (2012) sharply criticized the government’s malicious intent in their attempts to target the video game industry after both Columbine and Sandy Hook, high profile mass shootings where video games were blamed for. Stating that Congress in “moral panic mode”, Ferguson (2010) states the whatever research that will result of this bill will be tarnished by bias (Ferguson, 2010). According a PEW poll 97% of teenagers play video games, and 66% of these “gamers” play violent action games (Harvard, 2010). If the impact of video games on a youth’s psyche is so profound, we should have a lot more school shootings and violent crime among teens. Yet according to Dr. Ferguson (2010), “during the years in which video games soared in popularity, youth violence has declined to 40-year lows”.
What the older generation does not seem to comprehend is why chippin’ youngsters like me play video games. A 3 year study by Dr. Mizuko Ito shows the difference in perspective: “adults tend to view video games as isolating and antisocial, other studies found that most young respondents described the games as fun, exciting, something to counter boredom, and something to do with friends. For many youths, violent content is not the main draw” (Harvard, 2010). As stated much earlier in this paper, my generation has grown up with the the Internet our entire lives. We do not know of a world that is not filled with social media, movies, instant access to information, and video games. Because we spent our youth surrounded by these things, our brains are wired differently. In Dr. Ito’s words “the use of violent video games may be similar to the type of roughhousing play that boys engage in as part of normal development”(Harvard).
The thorough forensic and scientific investigation of the Sandy Hook and Columbine shootings, where the influence of video games was perceived to have played a large role, revealed that Lanza, Harris, and Klebold all had the telling signs of a killer in the making. Harris’s website showcased widespread anger toward society and Lanza displayed early developmental problems from age three that were clearly neglected (“Columbine”, n.d.; “Sandy Hook”, n.d.). Video games played literally no role in triggering the cold blooded killers inside of them, Instead, as science shows, their actions are a result of years of hormonal stress caused by neglect and trauma. Their story is tragic, but even more sad is the fact that it has been repeated over and over again. From the infamous Charles Manson and Jeffrey Dahmer, who have become pop culture icons, to Stephen Paddock and Devin Patrick Kelley, the most recent offenders, serial killers and mass shooters are borne of a cycle of trauma, neglect, and emotional isolation.
So no, the video games I play, and the other media I consume daily does not inspire me to kill. I am lucky enough living in a rich, middle class suburbia, where the biggest emotional stressor I suffer from is school and applying for top-tier colleges, with loving parents that have, and will, support me and provide me emotional comfort. But others are not so lucky. Some children are stuck in abusive relationships, bullied at school, and have never known what it is to love. They suffer alone, and eventually inside the crucible of pain they harden into emotionless killers whose only instincts are to seek pleasure and to survive. Every cold blooded killer has a tragic backstory, but it is one that could be changed and avoided. We have the capabilities to reach out to those the desperate need of help. Science has shown the causes of violence and science has shown ways to prevent it. Even a small scale expansion of mental health care, such as including it on basic health insurance, could have a profound impact on our society. The hysteria created by politicians that targets not only violent media, but also race issues, religion, and access to guns, serve as a convenient cover up of the real problem: the lack of adequate care for our mentally ill citizens, friends, acquaintances, partners, sons, daughters, veterans, and perhaps the potential killer next door.
Blair, Robert James R. (2013, June 15). Psychopathy: Cognitive and Neural Dysfunction. Retrieved from
Columbine High School Massacre. (n.d.). Retrived December 16, 2017 from Wikipedia: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Columbine_High_School_massacre.
Epigenomics Fact Sheet. (April 1. 2016) In National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI). Retrieved from
Ferguson, Christopher J. (2012, December 20). Sandy Hook Shooting: Video Games Blamed, Again. Retrieved from
Harvard Health Publishing. (2010, October). Violent Video Games and Young People. Retrieved from
NCAVC. (2010, May 21). Serial Murder. Retrieved from www.fbi.gov/stats-services/publications/serial-murder.
Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting. (n.d.). Retrieved Decmeber 16, 2017 from Wikipedia: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sandy_Hook_Elementary_School_shooting.
Wein, Harrison. (2016, March 30). Stress Hormone Causes Epigenetic Changes. Retrieved from www.nih.gov/news-events/nih-research-matters/stress-hormone-causes-epigenetic-changes.