Thursday, 27 June 2019

Do you have a Criminal Mind?

Carl Jung suggested that we all have a ‘dark’ side and most of us spend our lives promoting the ‘good’ and downplaying the ‘evil’ tendencies in our personalities. Most of us would claim to be incapable of murder, but who’s to say if this is truly the case? We are certainly obsessed with the criminal mind, if you consider the popularity of crime fiction, true crime and TV detective dramas...

Apparently we love this stuff – why? Because we’re curious about what lurks beneath the surface. We want to replicate the drama of fear and jeopardy from the safety of our own sofas – the chemical reaction itself from tension to resolution, is addictive. On the one hand, it reinforces our sense of wellbeing when the good guy wins. On the other, it allows us to inhabit our darker side for a while; to see the world through the eyes of a killer and gain vicarious gratification of hidden impulses and fantasies.

Is there such a thing as ‘the criminal mind’? If so, how many average individuals out on the street are hiding a deadly secret? Robert I. Simon, author of Bad men do what Good Men Dream (2008), believes that psychopaths are all around us, in the office and on the Tube. Because they are competent and manipulative, they blend in. More chilling than this, he believes anyone has the potential to kill, but most of us choose to thrash our rivals on the squash court or revel in getting that promotion, instead. Simon states controversially, ‘After 40 years…as both a treating and forensic psychiatrist, I am absolutely convinced that there is no great gulf between the mental life of the common criminal and that of the everyday, upright citizen.’

As a psychotherapist, I have had the privilege of working with ex-offenders from high-security institutions, including Broadmore and Rampton hospitals. My work has taught me a lot about the criminal mind and the main conclusion I’ve come to is that there are numerous factors that contribute to an individual committing murder; biological, genetic, psychological, social, and that all forms of human behaviour exist on a continuum. Professor David Canter, Director of The International Centre for Investigative Psychology at Huddersfield University supports this view. ‘It is useful to think of criminal activity as being part of a process rather than a particular action or act committed by a particular type of person,’ he says.

Dr Michael Stone, professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University, USA, interviews convicts on death row and claims that more than ninety per cent of serial killers are psychopaths and most are sadists. These are the calculating murderers; cunning and callous without remorse. Hannibal Lecter is probably the most famous fictional psychopath we can all witness in action through film and books. Stone reckons around fifty per cent are also loners; men unable to sustain long-term relationships. But what makes them this way?

The nurture argument explains a great deal. A dog, for example, neglected, underfed and badly treated is more than likely to develop an aggressive streak. A dysfunctional upbringing can have the same result in a human. Stone believes that revenge is one of the strongest motives for murder. He has spoken with Tommy Lynn Sells, a killer of around seventy victims, mostly women, about his feelings for his mother. Tommy was appallingly abused by her as a child, but he has always remained disproportionately protective of her. Stone believes Tommy acted out his anger towards his mother symbolically by killing others, repeatedly paying his mother back for what she did to him in a disassociated manner.

Professor Adrian Raine, a neurocriminologist at the University Pennsylvania, believes biology plays a more important role than we think. In 1994, he took a sample of murderers and found the prefrontal cortex of the brain was significantly underdeveloped in comparison to non-offenders. In his book, The Anatomy of Violence, (2013), he explains how a range of biological factors can lead to violence. ‘Psychopaths have a core emotional deficit – they lack conscience, remorse, and guilt. They just don’t feel feelings the way we do,’ he says. ‘The amygdala – the seat of emotion…is also less activated in psychopaths when they contemplate moral dilemmas. It’s as if psychopaths don’t have the feeling for what is right and wrong – even if they know it at a cognitive level.’

According to Raine, dysfunction in the prefrontal cortex can bring about less control over emotions such as anger, rage and risk-taking, and leads to poor self-control and problem-solving skills, all traits that could predispose a person to violence. ‘Damage that emergency brake on behaviour, and explosive violence is not far away,’ he says.

Few people realise how many biological factors can come into play regarding the criminal mind. Something as simple as a low resting heart rate can lead to fearlessness and impulsive stimulation-seeking in children and adolescents. Raine also found that high testosterone and low cortisol are hormonal red flags and in terms of neurotransmitters, low serotonin can bring about impulsive violence.

In this way, Raine is suggesting that individuals can be predisposed to criminal behaviour; that they are not made the same way as the rest of us. Can such deficiencies be identified and treated? In his book, Raine describes a child, Danny, from a well-to-do family in LA who started stealing at the age of three. It wasn’t long before he became a compulsive liar, selling drugs (aged ten) and stealing cars. Danny described himself as bored with an insatiable thirst for stimulation. ‘The first clinical evaluation confirmed excessive slow-wave activity in Danny’s prefrontal cortex,’ describes Raine, ‘a classic sign of chronic under-arousal.’ After treatment to develop the boy’s focus and concentration, his behaviour radically improved and he became an A-grade student. In this way, Raine shows that biology doesn’t have to mean destiny.

Head injuries can also cause changes in personality - often swift and dramatic. A disturbingly high proportion of serial killers have sustained head injuries at some stage in their lives. Fred West is a case in point. He suffered two serious head injuries; one, through a motorcycle accident, the other when falling from a fire escape, both of which left him unconscious. His subsequent behaviour was deemed to be erratic as a result.

Not all psychopaths are serial killers and we tend to remember the most extreme cases. My own experiences of coming face to face with the criminal mind have been sad, rather than disturbing. I have mostly worked with people from dysfunctional backgrounds who were struggling to cope in dire situations. Caught up in domestic abuse, drug abuse and poverty, they felt they had no other course of action open to them, but to lash out. Some made fatal decisions as their only perceived way out of debt or to escape a damaging relationship. Some claimed they were protecting their children. Many chose a passive-aggressive approach, resorting to arson or poisoning, rather than physical attacks. Setting a fire meant they could walk away and let fate decide what happened. They were individuals who didn’t know how to communicate or contain their feelings or found themselves so deeply entrenched in unmanageable situations that they felt they had no way out.

I also came across people for whom crime was part of everyday life. These men or women had grown up with stabbings, shootings and muggings; they had mental health problems, a fragile personality-type, were easily led and got involved with criminal activity through the influence of others. They were anti-establishment; seeking leadership, gang-culture, excitement, risk-taking - often simply looking for a sense of ‘family’ and belonging.

There are also the cases I am most interested in writing about as an author of psychological thrillers. They are the normal fully-functioning individuals who make terrible mistakes under extreme duress. The average person in the street. They make matters worse by trying to cover up their crime with another one – the domino effect. Perhaps these people are most compelling, because they could be you or I – and they could get caught at any moment. It can start with a simple lie – we’ve all been there – but it their cases, it escalates to murder. The Simple Plan by Scott Smith is a good example of a novel based on this type of killer. It starts out as a ‘victimless’ crime of opportunity and greed, but one thing leads to another, and before you know it, someone is murdered to protect a secret.

The criminal mind, therefore, comes in many forms with complex biological, psychological as well as emotional triggers. One question remains: faced with overwhelming jealousy, hurt, rage, resentment or threats to loved ones - what would you do?

This post was originally published by the Crime Writer Assocation ©AJWaines

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