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Inside the Mind of a Serial Killer

Question: What is it like inside the mind of a serial killer?
 

Michael Stone: Well, men who commit Serial Sexual Homicide, which is what the public usually is referring to when they talk about serial killers as opposed to nurses and doctors that kill patients in hospitals, “Angels of Death,” etc.  The serial killer, like Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy, and David Parker Ray, and those people, almost all of them, more than 90% meet criteria, hard criteria for psychopathy.  Almost all of them are sadists.  Meaning that they meet criteria for sadistic personality as it had been described in the official psychiatric manual, where there’s enjoyment of the suffering of others as a key quality, and a love of control and domination of others, etc.  Half of them are loners, men that can’t make long relationships with others.  So in effect, some of them use serial killing as a way of having a one-night stand where they rape the woman and then kill her to destroy evidence; dump their body along the road or whatever, like Ed Kemper out in California.  And then go on to the next because they are incapable of sustained romantic, intimate relationship.  

Some of them, seeking revenge—revenge is a motive in some of them, like Debarr Labon in Texas who had been brutalized by his father and his mother... so they're constantly getting back at the parents who abused them or neglected them.  That would probably be true of Leonard Lake that had this torture place he built in a remote area of California. 

And another motive... killing a specific parent over and over, but not actually killing the parent.  For example, when I interviewed Tommy Lynn Sells on death row in Texas, he had been neglected, abused, neglected again by his mother, never knew his father; terrible, terrible childhood.  And he went around killing about 70 people, most of them women.  And when I asked him, I said, “Tommy, you know, it sounds to me like maybe these women were like symbols or duplicates of your mother.  Did you ever have a thought about, you know, killing your mom?”  And he told me, ”Anyone touch a hair of her head, I’ll kill them in a minute.  You only got one mom.” 

So that was a very important point that I see over and over in these men.  They have the same kind of loyalty and love of a parent even if the parent was abusive and horrible, that you can whip and hurt and yell and scream at a child, but if you’re the mom or you’re the dad, there still going to love you. They may hate you as well, but they’re going to love you. So, he never touched a hair of his mother’s head, instead he did symbolically get back at her through these other murders.

Question: Are serial killers born or created?

Michael Stone:  Important question because there’s no one simple answer.  There are a few serial killers, six or seven in my very large series, who were adopted at birth into normal homes, never abused, never neglected.  But who, from adolescence on became violent and then in their 20’s embarked onto the career of serial sexual homicide that you can only ascribe to some genetic flaw along the lines of deficits in the amygdala or the prefrontal cortex that I had spoken about.  Gerald Stano would be an example of such a person who killed 40 women and was finally executed in San Quentin.  

There are other men who were raised in fairly good homes, or even rather normal homes, but who suffered a head injury that affected these key areas in the frontal lobe, such as Richard Starett in Georgia.  He was raised in a wealthy home.  He went around killing 10 women after he had married and had a daughter, but then he got kind of fed up with the marriage, et cetera.  Now he had suffered two bouts of prolonged unconsciousness when he fell from jungle gyms and things like that when he was a kid.  After which he underwent a dramatic and swift change in his personality.  The same thing, by the way, that happened to Phil Garrido, who was a normal kid in a normal home, but who fell off his older brother’s motorcycle when he was 14 and within days—he was unconscious, had to have a brain operation—within days, he began to develop rape fantasies.  And then carried out a number of rapes and finally kidnapped that young Jaycee Dugard girl that he kept for 18 years and had two children by her.  

Now, the thing there is, there are other areas of the brain in the limbic system connected to the frontal lobes and so on and involving the temporal lobes on the side that have to do with our sexual responsiveness.  What we respond to sexually.  If those areas are damaged, we may end up with pedophilia, or abnormal desires for inappropriate objects.  So that clearly happened to Phil Garrido and he became immediately fascinated and eager to commit rape when he was 14, 15 years old, after the head injury.  

So there’s... and about 30% of the serial killers had experienced some form of rather serious head injury.  So that’s a factor that not too many people know about, but that’s important also. 

So the bulk of them; however, have come from horrible homes where the early damage and misery of their home becomes a motivating force later for seeking revenge, against those who had hurt them, plus which they have also been raised in such a way that they don’t have the social skills in order to kind of compensate for that and to make a good relationship anyway and kind of get past it.  So they’re stuck, they’re mired in the misery of their childhood forever.

Recorded on July 27, 2010
Interviewed by Max Miller

Dr. Stone explains what motivates men who commit serial sexual homicide and whether or not they are born evil.

A new hydrogel might be strong enough for knee replacements

Duke University researchers might have solved a half-century old problem.

Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images
Technology & Innovation
  • Duke University researchers created a hydrogel that appears to be as strong and flexible as human cartilage.
  • The blend of three polymers provides enough flexibility and durability to mimic the knee.
  • The next step is to test this hydrogel in sheep; human use can take at least three years.
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Predicting PTSD symptoms becomes possible with a new test

An algorithm may allow doctors to assess PTSD candidates for early intervention after traumatic ER visits.

Image source: camillo jimenez/Unsplash
Technology & Innovation
  • 10-15% of people visiting emergency rooms eventually develop symptoms of long-lasting PTSD.
  • Early treatment is available but there's been no way to tell who needs it.
  • Using clinical data already being collected, machine learning can identify who's at risk.

The psychological scars a traumatic experience can leave behind may have a more profound effect on a person than the original traumatic experience. Long after an acute emergency is resolved, victims of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) continue to suffer its consequences.

In the U.S. some 30 million patients are annually treated in emergency departments (EDs) for a range of traumatic injuries. Add to that urgent admissions to the ED with the onset of COVID-19 symptoms. Health experts predict that some 10 percent to 15 percent of these people will develop long-lasting PTSD within a year of the initial incident. While there are interventions that can help individuals avoid PTSD, there's been no reliable way to identify those most likely to need it.

That may now have changed. A multi-disciplinary team of researchers has developed a method for predicting who is most likely to develop PTSD after a traumatic emergency-room experience. Their study is published in the journal Nature Medicine.

70 data points and machine learning

nurse wrapping patient's arm

Image source: Creators Collective/Unsplash

Study lead author Katharina Schultebraucks of Columbia University's Department Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons says:

"For many trauma patients, the ED visit is often their sole contact with the health care system. The time immediately after a traumatic injury is a critical window for identifying people at risk for PTSD and arranging appropriate follow-up treatment. The earlier we can treat those at risk, the better the likely outcomes."

The new PTSD test uses machine learning and 70 clinical data points plus a clinical stress-level assessment to develop a PTSD score for an individual that identifies their risk of acquiring the condition.

Among the 70 data points are stress hormone levels, inflammatory signals, high blood pressure, and an anxiety-level assessment. Says Schultebraucks, "We selected measures that are routinely collected in the ED and logged in the electronic medical record, plus answers to a few short questions about the psychological stress response. The idea was to create a tool that would be universally available and would add little burden to ED personnel."

Researchers used data from adult trauma survivors in Atlanta, Georgia (377 individuals) and New York City (221 individuals) to test their system.

Of this cohort, 90 percent of those predicted to be at high risk developed long-lasting PTSD symptoms within a year of the initial traumatic event — just 5 percent of people who never developed PTSD symptoms had been erroneously identified as being at risk.

On the other side of the coin, 29 percent of individuals were 'false negatives," tagged by the algorithm as not being at risk of PTSD, but then developing symptoms.

Going forward

person leaning their head on another's shoulder

Image source: Külli Kittus/Unsplash

Schultebraucks looks forward to more testing as the researchers continue to refine their algorithm and to instill confidence in the approach among ED clinicians: "Because previous models for predicting PTSD risk have not been validated in independent samples like our model, they haven't been adopted in clinical practice." She expects that, "Testing and validation of our model in larger samples will be necessary for the algorithm to be ready-to-use in the general population."

"Currently only 7% of level-1 trauma centers routinely screen for PTSD," notes Schultebraucks. "We hope that the algorithm will provide ED clinicians with a rapid, automatic readout that they could use for discharge planning and the prevention of PTSD." She envisions the algorithm being implemented in the future as a feature of electronic medical records.

The researchers also plan to test their algorithm at predicting PTSD in people whose traumatic experiences come in the form of health events such as heart attacks and strokes, as opposed to visits to the emergency department.

Hints of the 4th dimension have been detected by physicists

What would it be like to experience the 4th dimension?

Two different experiments show hints of a 4th spatial dimension. Credit: Zilberberg Group / ETH Zürich
Technology & Innovation

Physicists have understood at least theoretically, that there may be higher dimensions, besides our normal three. The first clue came in 1905 when Einstein developed his theory of special relativity. Of course, by dimensions we’re talking about length, width, and height. Generally speaking, when we talk about a fourth dimension, it’s considered space-time. But here, physicists mean a spatial dimension beyond the normal three, not a parallel universe, as such dimensions are mistaken for in popular sci-fi shows.

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How often do vaccine trials hit paydirt?

Vaccines find more success in development than any other kind of drug, but have been relatively neglected in recent decades.

Pedro Vilela/Getty Images
Surprising Science

Vaccines are more likely to get through clinical trials than any other type of drug — but have been given relatively little pharmaceutical industry support during the last two decades, according to a new study by MIT scholars.

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