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.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

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  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. Think a dialysis machine for the mind. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.