Mass Shootings

The Futility of Looking for Mass Murder in Stephen Paddock's Brain

The reasons for the Las Vegas massacre cannot be found in the perpetrator's tissue or in the DSM.

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Next week Stanford neuropathologist Hannes Vogel expects to receive Las Vegas shooter Stephen Paddock's brain, which he plans to examine for an explanation of the man's horrifying crime. He is not optimistic.

"I think everybody is pretty doubtful that we're going to come up with something," Vogel told The New York Times. "The possibilities, neuropathologically, for explaining this kind of behavior are very few."

The Times notes that "there has been speculation focused on a disease process known as fronto-temporal lobar degeneration," which "affects areas of the brain that are vital for 'executive functions' like decision-making and social interaction." The disease "often strikes in a patient's 50s or 60s and can cause marked personality changes." People suffering from that condition, Vogel says, "are notoriously prone to errors in judgment and unrestrained behavior." But he points out that that Paddock's behavior does not seem consistent with fronto-temporal lobar degeneration, since "people will say in the same breath that this guy was so meticulous in planning" his attack.

According to the Times, Vogel will "look for signs of all the standard detectable neurological entities, including strokes, blood vessel diseases, tumors, certain types of epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, degenerative disorders, physical trauma and infections." Not that any of those conditions would explain Paddock's actions, inasmuch as millions of other people suffer from them without committing mass murder.

Although pathologists have dug into the brains of murderers such as Richard Speck and Charles Whitman, so far they have not managed to locate anyone's motives. Whitman reportedly had a tumor, but because of sloppy tissue handling a panel of experts "could not establish whether a block of tissue containing the mass…had come from Mr. Whitman's brain or from someone else's." The Times concedes that "even if the tumor was Mr. Whitman's, the role it might have played in the violent events was never determined."

Vogel observes that the supposed tumor "was a very handy excuse for the fact that he went out and shot people." He adds, "I don't think I ever heard in my own experience of someone on a homicidal rampage because they had a brain tumor."

Alas, the Times says, "most psychiatric illnesses…are not currently discernible by this type of examination." Most? I will go out on a limb and suggest that no psychiatric illness is discernible by this type of examination. If it were, as the late psychiatric gadfly Thomas Szasz often observed, it would be considered a neurological disease (or injury) rather than a mental illness. Without bothering to look at Paddock's brain, we are free to speculate that he suffered from a mental illness that caused him to fire upon a crowd of country music fans from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, just as people have made similar claims about previous mass shooters.

But a psychiatric diagnosis is not an explanation. No matter what label you pick for Paddock from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, it will remain true that virtually no one who shares that diagnosis does anything like what he did. Hence trying to identify future mass murderers based on that diagnosis, whether with the intent of disarming them, forcibly treating them, or preventively detaining them, would be worse than futile.

Although we may never understand Paddock's motives, he had reasons for doing what he did. That is the troubling reality people are trying to avoid when they ascribe his actions to a brain disease or a mental illness.

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  1. Just so long as they don’t stick the brain in a new host body during a thunderstorm.

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    2. We’re about due for a remake:

      Dr. Frederick Frankenstein: [to Igor] Now that brain that you gave me. Was it Hans Delbruck’s?
      Igor: [pause, then] No.
      Dr. Frederick Frankenstein: Ah! Very good. Would you mind telling me whose brain I DID put in?
      Igor: Then you won’t be angry?
      Dr. Frederick Frankenstein: I will NOT be angry.
      Igor: Stephen someone.
      Dr. Frederick Frankenstein: [pause, then] Abby someone. Abby who?
      Igor: Stephen… Paddock.
      Dr. Frederick Frankenstein: [pause, then] Stephen Paddock?
      Igor: I’m almost sure that was the name.
      Dr. Frederick Frankenstein: [chuckles, then] Are you saying that I put a mass murderer’s brain into a seven and a half foot long, fifty-four inch wide GORILLA?
      [grabs Igor and starts throttling him]
      Dr. Frederick Frankenstein: Is that what you’re telling me?

      1. Damn, missed a line. 🙂

  2. millions of other people suffer from them without committing mass murder

    yet.

    1. Yet most of the mass shooters were taking psychoactive drugs, and this guy had a prescription for Valium.

    2. The doctors tore his poor brain down
      But not a snitch of illness could be found
      Most folks couldn’t figure just a-why he did it
      And them that could would not admit it
      There’s still a lot of Eagle Scouts around

  3. The Futility of Looking for Mass Murder in Stephen Paddock’s Brain

    Don’t be so pessimistic, Jacob. They found the Higgs boson, didn’t they?

    1. Was Higgs the guy who led the mutiny on the Bounty?

      1. +1 forecastle

        1. You beat me to that joke. I bow to thee.

          1. You snooze you lose… 🙂

  4. or in the DSM.

    If he were still alive I’d bet someone could diagnose him with something in the DSM.

    1. Is rigor mortis in there?

      1. No, but it’s in Quincy’s medical handbook.

    2. We could all be diagnosed with something in the DSM.

  5. We all know why the mass shooting happened! It’s because of Rethuglican culture! If only we had elected Hillary, this would not have happened! I’s all Trump’s fault! Trump! Ban country western music concerts and this would not have happened!

  6. But a psychiatric diagnosis is not an explanation. No matter what label you pick for Paddock from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, it will remain true that virtually no one who shares that diagnosis does anything like what he did.

    As a mental health professional once said to me, there’s nothing in the DSM for “asshole”. My guess is, Paddock did suffer from an identifiable mental illness, but why he did what he did as opposed to many other people who may be afflicted with the same diagnosis may intersect with the fact that in addition to whatever psychosis he suffered, he may have also been a colossal asshole. The mental illness may have only lowered the barriers to his inhibitions, or his condition may have just intensified his assholishness.

    1. As a mental health professional once said to me, there’s nothing in the DSM for “asshole”.

      As a mental health professional once said to *me*, what we used to call “asshole” is now “bipolar”.

      1. My wife’s family have recently reclassified her brother from “bipolar” to “just an asshole,” so it tracks.

      2. They weren’t a very good mental health professional then– or the ones who would make that diagnosis aren’t very good.

        But as a joke, it gets a solid B.

        Same thing with calling women who’re annoying or crazy “borderline personality”.

        I was married to someone who was bipolar (diagnosed) and it’s night and day from someone who’s merely an asshole. In fact, many bipolar people are very likable, often the most likable person in the room.

        1. I’m glad to see some defense of people with mental illness here, both from Paul and Jacob. It bothers me a lot when people attempt to just ascribe mental illness to people they dislike. For multiple reason, not the least of which is it adds to this fear of people with mental illness.

          The reality is both sadder and more benign. Mental illness inflicts a lot of people, most people with them don’t do any dramatic acts of violence (The opposite in fact, people with mental illness are much more likely to be victims of violence.). Most of them struggle with an issue but are day to day functional people.

          The continued fear and loathing of mental illness is why the government has so much power with it still. It’s why certain diagnoses can mark you for life in social settings, and even times lead to complete loss of rights and freedoms of an individual. The government will fuck your ass and throw you in an institution for decades. And people will nod and agree as a person’s life is stolen from them, and is stolen from their family.

          1. Also, good job quoting Szasz. If you are unfamiliar with him I recommend him to everyone. He is an underappreciated fighter for liberty, oft maligned in his own field. He was a great man willing to stand against the powers that be in the Psychiatry industry..

        2. Personality disorders are not mental illnesses, according to the DSM. Personality disorders are actually more entrenched because they are patterns of behaviour, not anything that has to do with skewed perceptions of reality.

          1. DSM-V got rid of the axes, so there is no distinction between mental illness and personality disorder anymore.

          2. I can’t speak for borderline personality disorder, I believe that used to be a neurosis, but bipolar is a psychosis and has been as far back as I remember.

    2. It’s called “evil”.

  7. Vogel expects to receive Las Vegas shooter Stephen Paddock’s brain, which he plans to examine for an explanation of the man’s horrifying crime. He is not optimistic.

    Well, for God’s sake, man, then examine Paddock’s *heart*!

    1. What’s podiatry? Chopped liver?

      1. Liver with bunions.

        1. HA!

          1. We missed the opportunity to try phrenology. It makes as much sense as AGW.

  8. I just figure “murder as many people as possible” was the last thing on his bucket list.

    1. Seriously. I don’t think this should be ruled out.

    2. One of the dangers of getting to the bottom of the list.

  9. Next week Stanford neuropathologist Hannes Vogel expects to receive Las Vegas shooter Stephen Paddock’s brain

    “That’s the last time i drink absinthe and then go on eBay.”

  10. Okaaaay… Since the science is now settled, can reporters and writers look at Paddock’s tax forms? What harm could it do? It the fellow was wealthy, that money had do come from somewhere, and income fluctuations can be revealing. Arnold Rothstein, shot soon after Herbert Hoover beat Al Smith in the 1928 election, was also listed as a “gambler,” and nobody knows who killed him or why. But a forensic investigator following the money found out enough about Rothstein’s volume dealings in illicit substances to cause stock market panics in New York. Where’s the reporting on all these properties we’re supposed to believe were arms depots? Did video poker pay for them all? Who was his last employer?

    1. He worked for the IRS at one point, so that tracks.

  11. If I recall correctly, Charles Whitman said that he felt something was wrong and wanted his brain studied after death .

    1. Someone who made that much candy must have been crazy.

      1. The Whitman’s Sampler guy?

        Maybe he was the real-life inspiration for Willy Wonka?

      2. heh….D+

    2. I thought that was Slim Whitman.

  12. If you can’t blood test people for crazy, what’s the point of science anyway?

    1. Who needs a blood test when you can just examine the shape of the skull?

  13. If it’s true that he was recruited by ISIS, maybe the problem, going by the DSM, would be some sort of psychotic break with paranoid ideation?

    The thing is, a lot of mental illnesses and personality disorders develop and often peak in the teenage years through to early adulthood. The fact that this guy went off his rocker and even subscribed to a radical fundamentalist belief system for the first time in his early retirement years suggest some kind of organic brain condition to me. If he had been schizophrenic all along, you’d think people would have noticed strange behavior long before.

    1. You can’t just take one look at the guy and tell he’s white. What else is there to know? Don’t make it hard.

    2. The guy came from a dysfunctional family with many criminal relatives. He was a professional gambler and investor. He may well have been a psychopath all his life. When he retired, he may have just redirected his energies from gambling to mass murder.

      1. Which is pretty much the ulitmate psychopathic thrill.

      2. His dad said he’d never do anything BIG

  14. “What ever happened to crazy? What, you can’t be crazy no more? Did we eliminate crazy from the dictionary?”

    — Chris Rock

  15. Vogel observes that the supposed tumor “was a very handy excuse for the fact that he went out and shot people.” He adds, “I don’t think I ever heard in my own experience of someone on a homicidal rampage because they had a brain tumor.”

    As has been said many times, the three most dangerous words in medicine are “in my experience”.

    Tumors absolutely can cause massive changes in personality and behavior. Or they can be completely undetectable. We’ve covered the story of a tumor that turned a straight (and straight-laced) middle aged father into a promiscuous homosexual… and removing the tumor reversed the change…. and when the tumor grew back, so did his changed sexuality. A quick google search turns up this blog detailing more examples, including a benign tumor that induced reversible pedophilia.

    You have to remember one very important fact: we are our brain. That is where every bit of your personality and though resides. So that is where all mental illness resides. All mental illness has a neurological cause. So does everything else you are thinking. Every thought that you have is in your brain… so any aberrant thoughts are in your brain. “We can’t identify” is not the same thing as “doesn’t exist”.

  16. Just another “media murderer”. Some people will want to speak to everyone via the web by means of outrageous acts. No mystery here.

    1. I watched a couple of minutes of the network special last night…. was it NBC?… They were speculating the same thing. This sounds like people just doing pattern fitting to their own ideas.

      After telling us that he left no note, no manifesto, no internet screed, no social media presence…. not even a rant to his friends… they speculate that because his dad was a big fugitive bank robber and later on the news as the owner of a bingo parlor that the local news investigated, the son needed to be “more famous than dad”.

      Wow. What a stretch. Not one single quote from anyone, anywhere that he ever even thought of his father. But that’s the motive for the whole thing. It is impossible to justify conclusions like that.

      It reminds me of Richard Jewel.. a completely different circumstance because he was innocent, but the TV experts told us “why he did it” all the same. They talked about how his difficulty getting a job with the police made him petty and jealous and hungry to show everyone that he was a hero. Never mind that none of that fit his personality or actions or how he was behaving after the news wanted to interview him. They had a narrative and were going to run with it.

      It was silly, and so is this. The only things we know is he liked to gamble and he murdered a bunch of people before killing himself.

      From that we can conclude that he was nuts. Because shooting a bunch of people you don’t know is nuts. Beyond that, we don’t have anything.

      1. After telling us that he left no note, no manifesto, no internet screed, no social media presence…. not even a rant to his friends…

        He left a stockpile of guns, a lot more than he could reasonably use in his killing spree. That suggests that the guns themselves were the message: “See what kind of crap you can buy legally? Time to implement more gun control!”

  17. Good to see that there is still a whiff of Szasz left at Reason. By and large libertarians are willing to allow the state to strip peaceful individuals of rights and liberty on the recommendation of a psychiatrist.

    1. The people making the No Fly/No Buy lists won’t be libertarians.

  18. People like Paddock are extremely rare and just don’t pose a significant threat; so even if you can diagnose a cause, it’s unlikely you can do anything about it; we can’t reliably diagnose or treat much more common conditions.

  19. What an interesting argument for absolutist mind-body dualism.

    However, here outside Religious Fantasy Land, it’s well-known that alterations to the brain can cause all sorts of alterations to behavior, because behavior is a product of the brain. That we do not yet have a comprehensive ability to predict the effects of any given change does not change that we know that you can alter behavior by altering the brain. The effort to map behavior to the physical state of the brain is not futile, it is merely in early stages yet.

    1. I appreciate your comment. I saw your comment after posting mine just below yours. It is extremely frustrating that many people feel that they are experts on things they know nothing about.

    2. The brain is hardware and software though. You can see hardware abnormalities, but software abnormalities manifest themselves in behavior.

  20. Jacob Sullum, you don’t know what you are talking about. You are making an artificial distinction between psychiatric illness and a neurological problem such as a brain tumor. Many psychiatric disorders are brain-based, related to brain chemistry and/or individual differences in brain structure and function. These factors can result in psychiatric symptoms such as depression and anxiety, and/or differences in there ability to understand social cues and communicate effectively, such as in autism. When you make the remark “I will go out on a limb and suggest that no psychiatric illness is discernible by this type of examination,” that is ridiculous. There are many neurological conditions, including brain tumors, head injuries, and degenerative diseases, that result in violent behavior. I am a psychologist, and I had a client whose husband had been kind and caring, but who became horribly abusive due to a medical condition that resulted in changes in his brain. The DSM5 includes diagnostic codes that specify when symptoms are “due to another medical illness.” If examination of Stephen Paddock’s brain is indicative of a condition that could lead to violent behavior, some individuals affected by this atrocity might be better able to have at least a partial answer to the question of why anyone could perpetrate such an act.

  21. Then again… Jacob may be right. Here it’s been 54 years and we don’t even know which agency had Jack Ruby as a confidential informant. If this shooter was some sort of undercover hitman for the Political State (which would account for the weapons collection and source of income) who went into an endless loop (which would fit the Las Vegas picture), their unions, spokesmen, politicians and lawyers can be expected to stall discovery for at least another half-century if– the past is any guide.

  22. Whitman was pretty convinced something was wrong, which is the reason why they ended up looking at his brain. They may have lost track of his brain matter later, but as I recall, the pathologist claimed to have found a tumor.

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