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A Crucial Fact about the Brain Is Missing When We Address the Problem of Violence

Many people are quite sure of what's needed after a tragedy, yet there is a lot of disagreement. How can this be? It's all about how the brain can form widely different opinions inside different people.

David Eagleman: When it comes to what to do about mass shooting there’s a variety of opinions and I think what this represents is the variety that people have on the inside. What I mean is people are very different. I’m talking about the decision-makers now, not the mass shooters. People are very different on the inside and who you are and what you believe about the world comes about as a confluence of your genetics and your environment. So the predispositions you come to the table with mixed with every experience you have from your family of origin to your culture, your neighborhood, your generation that you drop into. As a result, brains are all very different. They’re as unique as fingerprints. So when it comes to what to do about a mass shooting, there’s no surprise that you have completely different opinions.

On the one hand, you have people who say, "Look, let’s just get rid of all weapons," and on the other hand, on the other hand of the spectrum you have people who say, "Look, let’s make sure that everybody’s armed because it’s impossible to get rid of all of the weapons. So let’s do a mutually assured destruction approach." And these are all, you know, valid in some way. I mean it’s understandable why different people have different opinions about what to do. One of the things that I follow as a neuroscientist whenever there’s a mass shooting is the discussion that happens. People will often throw around words like, "Well the guy’s a psycho." Now you may know there’s no such thing as a psycho. That’s a meaningless term. What the commentator presumably means is either this person has a psychosis, something like schizophrenia where they have a disorder of cognition, or they mean this person is a psychopath which is not a disorder of cognition. Instead psychopathy is about having no empathy towards other people, not caring at all about other people, seeing other people as objects to get around. They’re also known as sociopaths. So somebody can have a psychosis or somebody can have a psychopathy or sociopathy and these are completely different things. An understanding of these things in the public dialogue I think would be very important; every time there’s a mass shooting there are all sorts of commentators that come out and say things like well I heard he had Asperger’s or I heard he had ADHD or I heard that he wrote dark poetry, which is, of course, true of most young teenagers. So a better understanding of the vocabulary and what are the issues that come along with these different things is something that I try to disseminate through my work in neuroscience and law.

Think of all the labels that get tossed around whenever there's a mass shooting or terrorist attack. "Psycho" and "sociopath," "ADHD" and "Aspergers": Often conditions people don't fully understand, yet are still quick to toss around like a smoking gun. David Eagleman, neuroscientist and host/author of PBS' The Brain, sheds light on how the brain forms different opinions inside of each of us and how we might use that information to have more informed discussions with each other.

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