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Tuesday
Sep172013

What Caused the DC Shooter to Snap?

After feeling put down and pushed away long enough by the world, your mind can sometimes create voices telling you to get in and get even.

Well another tragic shooting and tragic loss of life that again seems so senseless.  As a neuroscientist and neuropsychiatrist I have tried my best to make sense of what, why and when causes Aaron Alexis and other shooters to snap.

This is a work in progress and I invite any and all to refute, dispute or refine what follows.

These are the stages that I believe many mass shooters go through that cause them to snap:

  1. Out of luck - rightly or wrongly it appears (to them) that life is just not going their way. This usually has occurred over a prolonged period of time often extending between months and years. No matter what they try, it appears to them that it never works out. And they have little or no insight into how they continually set themselves up to fail.
  2. Out of sync - this occurs both in their life and in their minds.  In their life they feel increasingly estranged and criticized (not being aware of how they are provoking this in others).  In their minds, their three brains - their human/thinking, mammalian/emotional, reptilian/"fight or flight" actional - begin to decouple from and get out of sync with each other.
  3. Out of sorts - when our three brains are in sync and working together we can "sort" out the universe to interact with it in reasonable and somewhat rational way.  However when a person's mind snaps, their brains (and minds) instead of being aligned (and able to talk themselves down from an impulse or an action) break apart (often triggered by an Amygdala Hijack that prevents them from tapping into their rational mind). The next step beyond feeling out of sorts is feeling that their mind could shatter.
  4. Out of time - when their brain and mind is between "out of sorts" and shattering, a state of panic steps in.  Panic is the feeling that their shattered mind is about to fragment.  At that point they are feeling desperate and will do anything to reassert control and will often hear voices commanding them to do something. That is when commanded by an auditory halluciation, their mind and brain align with retaliating against a world that they believe has caused this to them.  In essence, at the moment when a shooter hears a command hallucination, plans their murderous deed, heads towards their target and then perpetrates it, they haven't lost control. When we feel such a person has lost control, the reality is that we have lost control over them, and they ironically feel much more in control.

What can be done about this to prevent these awful tragedies. I believe that once the person in question has crossed over into being "out of sorts" they cannot make sense of the world and it's almost too late.

What needs to be done is to train more people who might be aware of the shooter (they usually come out after the fact, but had previously been following a "don't ask, don't tell" approach) when they are in the "out of luck" and "out of sync" phase to intervene, connect and bring them to help.

Perhaps there can be community trainings on how to intervene effectively or who to call when you see someone whose actions worry you.

That seems like an exhaustive task, but if the benefit is to prevent shootings like this, it's worth the effort.

In the meantime, here are some warning signs (source - "About Teenage Violence: It's the Rage"):

Reader Comments (2)

"What needs to be done is to train more people who might be aware of the shooter (they usually come out after the fact, but had previously been following a "don't ask, don't tell" approach) when they are in the "out of luck" and "out of sync" phase to intervene, connect and bring them to help."

More people need to be interested in the welfare of others. We have to be open to information that's being presented about those experiencing psychological hardship. And then, begin the process of sorting out underlying issues causing the illness to move toward recovery.

A work in progress for sure....

Three considerations are inherited predisposition, decisions made in response to life experiences and societal influences. A complex issue absent having any simple, easy remedies. Discussion and dialogue would go a long way in discovering what may be causing illness and better ways to respond.

We can't change predispositions or the effects of influences society, at least in the short term, but we can learn to make better decisions about how we respond to challenges ourselves and how we respond to others who are in need.

I think (in part) that acceptance both as individuals confronting life's hardships and our accepting our peers not being healthy needing assistance would result in considerably more favorable outcomes. We need exhibit interest in others and have the courage to address whatever it is we are experiencing and be committed to healing.

More focus on the long term through better choices made now in how we respond.

September 18, 2013 | Registered CommenterMark Johnson

Well-written and insightful Dr. Mark. I shared it on LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook.

@Mark Johnson, your post is spot on, in that we should be more interested in others, even if just to see if they need an ear or some help we can offer. Who knows what small kindness can change a person's path and save a massacre

We have to become more aware of people who seem to be struggling or ourselves struggling and reach out. Now, sometimes those deeply troubled will be in denial and reject encouragement, someone to listen or guidance but at least we can look in the mirror and say we made a concerted effort to lift up a fellow human being.

In the case of this shooter, who knows, maybe if he would have received some financial assistance, he would have been less disgruntled and enraged and would have just been difficult and not become a killer. Who knows.

September 22, 2013 | Registered CommenterMichael Toebe
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