Serial killers (individuals who murder multiple others and tend to have break or a “cool-off” period within their murders), and their stories constantly spur fascination among the public. But what do contemporary psychology and neuroscience have to say regarding what might be going on in these people’s heads?
A common trait of serial killers is their lack of compassion for other people and their apparent lack of conscience. Nevertheless, a lot of people have a talent for appearing attractive on the surface, which enables them to draw unsuspecting others into their network of devastation. One explanation for this intellectual dishonesty is that serial killers have two minds at once. One is a rational self that can successfully navigate the complexities of acceptable social behavior and even charm and seduce, and the other is a much more sinister self that is capable of the most heinous and violent acts against others. However, on the contrary, there is very little evidence that serial killers do actually suffer from D.I.D. (Dissociative identity disorder), where people suffer from having two or more personalities co-existing in their mind, completely being nonchalant to one another. Instead, abuse victims who develop many identities as a coping mechanism for the traumas they have experienced are more likely to have DID than abusers. Of course, abusers can also be victims, and many serial killers suffered abuse as children, but generally speaking, these criminals don’t seem to have many personalities; rather, they seem to be mindful of the actions they are committing. Even so, there is undoubtedly a conflict in such people’s minds, which is perhaps best exemplified by US murderer Ted Bundy, who was “a charming, handsome, successful individual [yet also] a sadist, necrophile, rapist, and murderer with zero remorse who took pride in his ability to successfully kill and evade capture.”
One perplexing element of serial killers’ minds is that they don’t seem to have—or have the ability to suppress—the emotional responses that in other individuals help us recognize and empathize with the agony and suffering of other people. A new brain imaging research revealed a potential cause for this deficiency. The amygdala, a part of the brain that absorbs negative emotion and those that cause scared reactions, and the prefrontal cortex, which analyzes amygdala responses, had less connection in criminal psychopaths. When there is poor connection between these two areas, the amygdala’s processing of unpleasant stimuli does not result in any strongly felt unpleasant emotions. This could help to explain why criminal psychopaths do not experience guilt from their actions, or even pity their victims. Serial killers also appear to have an increased emotional drive that motivates them to want to harm and kill other people. The apparent discrepancy in emotional responses still has to be neurologically explained. Nevertheless, we shouldn’t exclude societal effects as significant contributors to the emergence of such conflicting drives. It appears plausible that serial killers have acquired the ability to regard their victims as little more than objects to be abused or perhaps even as a collection of unrelated pieces. This may help to explain why certain killers engage in sexual activity with their deceased victims or even use their corpses as ornaments or useful objects, but it does not help to explain why they appear to be so motivated to harm and kill their victims. The latter tendency can be explained by the fact that many serial killers are insecure people who are driven to kill out of a neurotic dread of rejection. The fear of rejection appears to frequently be brought on by having been neglected or abused by a parent. A young serial murderer could feel driven by such anxiety to want to kill anyone they have feelings for. They could start to think that they might avoid being deserted, humiliated, or otherwise injured as they were as children by eliminating the person they desire.
Additionally, serial killers seem to have no social conscience. We learn to identify good from wrong from our parents, siblings, teachers, peers, and other influential people as we grow up. This is what prevents us from acting in an antisocial manner. Serial killers, though, seem to believe they are above the most fundamental societal rule of them all—never taking another person’s life.
Aamu Yalamanchili, Youth Medical Journal 2022