Wednesday, April 18, 2012

No clues needed to explain Breivik's behaviour

Simon Baron-Cohen in an article in The Times predicts that an underdeveloped empathy circuit (whatever that is!?) would be found in an MRI scan of Anders Breivik's brain. I guess Baron-Cohen's unlikely to be given the opportunity to confirm his theory. He admits that neuroscience is an insufficient explanation of Breivik's cruelty and that his "offensive ideological convictions may [my emphasis] be one extra ingredient in the deadly mix".

However difficult it may be to contemplate the reasons for Breivik's killing spree does not excuse trying to reduce the reasons for his behaviour to a brain abnormality damaging his so-called affective empathy. (Autism is said by Baron-Cohen to be an abnormality of cognitive, rather than affective, empathy.)

This illustrates the problem of a biomedical understanding of mental illness. War (which is regarded as a sane action) is justified on the basis of "goodness not evil" in the same way as Breivik has justified his behaviour. Breivik himself compared his sacrifice of 77 people to the dropping of the atom bomb on Japan, preventing more deaths in a civil war which he believes will arise out of multiculturalism. His reasons couldn't be any clearer - speculating about his brain abnormality is a distraction.

13 comments:

Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree with the last sentence more! Spot on!

George Dawson, MD, DFAPA said...

It strikes me that both explanations are insufficient. Mass shooting needs much closer study than the usual media portrayals and opinions. In the US there is a surprising lack of interest in doing this given the number of mass shootings that occur in a typical year. A successful intervention that saves lives is a higher priority than an explanation.

zabla said...

If the purpose of a model is understanding what makes someone behave in a way that we do not currently understand, then how is that a distraction? You could say the same about all psychological research.

If your blog post is about the moral of killing people for the greater good, then I can see the model is not relevant to you. But this model suggests that Breivik's neurology is abnormal, which means his behaviour is not actually about the social issues but about how his brain functions. Now, whether his brain functioning is related to social events in his history, that's another subject altogether...

Sria said...
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Sria said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
zabla said...

Sria,

Don't we need a model for a killer's brain?

In an ideal world we also wouldn't need a model for cancer, AIDS, or people that abuse children. By having a model that explains behviours or conditions, we can then attempt to change them for the better. In other words, having an accurate model of something can enable us to predict how we can intervene to stop these thing happening again.

As for suggesting that he did this to become famous, I'm sure there's some truth in that. However, I don't think that's the only reason he did it, or why he felt the need to do it, or why he felt that it was the only way to get things done. There are other ways to become famous that don't involve killing people.

If you think that publicly discussing unpleasant aspects of human nature is not a good idea, then it doesn't seem very bright on your part to join in such a discussion.

George Dawson, MD, DFAPA said...

"But this model suggests that Breivik's neurology is abnormal, which means his behaviour is not actually about the social issues but about how his brain functions."

This is a problem that is unlikely to exist at the level of neurology. We are only scratching the surface in terms of the systems involved in behavior at the cell signaling and brain plasticity level and there is not necessarily any correlation with anatomy or any type of brain imaging. With the exception of Charles Whitman I don't think that there is any existing conceptualization to suggest that there is an abnormal neurological state that is consistently associated with mass shooting.

Sria said...
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Sria said...

I removed my previous comments because it is so out of my character to involve myself in an empty pointless debate/argument. I only allowed myself to get involved because I believed a murderer is a murderer, with or without a model.
It is so easy to talk empty talk because we are not the family of of the 77 victims.

Hi Zabla
To compare cancer/Aid sufferers to a mass killer is so unkind and unfair, even a child can work that out. Cancer sufferers were never given the choice to choose, and often the pain and stress they and their family have to go through are heart breaking.

To George,
I agreed with you:'A successful intervention that saves lives is a higher priority than an explanation.'

Adzcliff said...

I'm all for exposing the pseudo-science of biopsychiatry, but like to think I recognise the measured language of neuroscience when I see it. I'm willing to bet that Baron-Cohen is able to back up his assertions with compelling evidence, and that his 'empathy circuit' is a useful analogy for illustrating a scientific point.

I'm also not sure the war analogy necessarily works. You'd imagine that those with intact 'empathy circuits' reason about the morality of armed conflict very differently from those without - in many cases leaving little room for moral pacifism (e.g. UN intervention in Kosovo?). Although I've not read Breivik's manifesto, I'm pretty sure it's not hindsight that tells me that his slaughter of school kids and innocent civilians is going to 'solve' anything in the way Hiroshima or Nagasaki arguably did.

If there's a neurological component - alongside psychological and social considerations - to how his warped politics translated into the needless deaths of innocents, I for one am interested to hear about it. Quite how we use this neuroscience proactively, is another scientific/philosophical discourse altogether…

Juan Campos said...

I don´t believe there is necessarily a neurological explanation for Breivik´s behaviour.
But that doesn´t exclude a psychobiographical explanation in termes of his family relationships, his early experiences and their emotional sequels.This type of explanation is outside the issue of his responsibility, since I defend everybody should be considered responsible before a court, no matter what traumas they have endured. An israely psychoanalist, Avner Falk, has attempted that kind of explanation in Breivik´s case, which gets close to the truth when he talks about matricidal rage projected onto the political level, though his study is short of biographical detail and I suspect breivik endured rather extreme emotional deprivations and /or traumatic situations early in life, including maybe something more extreme than what is usually covered by the term sexual abuse.

zabla said...

A "neurological" explanation doesn't have to preclude traumatic experiences in early life. There have been studies that show (I can go and find them if anyone insists) that our early experiences can affect the so called "normal" development of the brain. Is it a social model or a medical one? Well, it suggests a starting point as a social explanation, but this still leaves room for SBC's neurological "mal-developed empathy circuit" concept.

Gary Guy said...

If the purpose of a model is understanding what makes someone behave in a way that we do not currently understand, then how is that a distraction? You could say the same about all psychological research. If your blog post is about the moral of killing people for the greater good, then I can see the model is not relevant to you. But this model suggests that Breivik's neurology is abnormal, which means his behaviour is not actually about the social issues but about how his brain functions. Now, whether his brain functioning is related to social events in his history, that's another subject altogether...