Adam Lanza Was a Psychopath
The real reasons behind his actions at Sandy Hook
“A 48-page report released on Monday by the state’s attorney in Danbury, Stephen J. Sedensky III, offers a vivid and chilling portrait of the young man responsible for one of the nation’s worst mass shootings…The report notes that while ‘significant mental health issues’ affected his ability to live a normal life and interact with others, it remained unclear if they contributed in any way to his actions last December.” - New York Times, 11/25/13
How the Obvious Becomes Mysterious
Even after the release of the official state report on the Sandy Hook massacre, many are still asking the most fundamental & seemingly confounding questions about the tragedy. Why did Adam Lanza do the heinous things that he did? How could anyone have done such things? Although myriad misguided & half-baked theories have been offered in the year following that morning, the most obvious & likely answer to these questions has been strangely dismissed by most: Adam Lanza was a psychopath.
Don’t the plain, horrible facts insist upon such a conclusion? A doted-upon, well-provided-for youth with no history of traumatically-violent experiences coldly chose—without any direct or indirect provocation—to murder his endlessly-accomodating mother and reams of completely innocent & defenseless young children whom he had no personal nor symbolic vendetta against. Despite these facts, the predominate lament amongst the chattering class following the official report on Sandy Hook remains the same: all of this evidence, but we still don’t know why. How does any committee or consultant or commentator of any kind misinterpret this evidence as anything but dire proof of a psychopathic mind?
I believe that this obvious fact has been overlooked because current psychiatric diagnoses of psychopathic behavior are primarily based on evaluating behavioral symptoms & correlating that evaluation to a neurally-unfounded diagnostic checklist of symptoms. After evaluating the evidence, many “experts” concluded—both pre- & post-mortem—that Lanza simply did not meet the criteria required to be identified as a psychopath. These checklists, however, are not based on any hypotheses explaining what neural deficit actually causes these behaviors nor how the normal systems of cognition are negatively impacted by this deficit.
Thus, such checklists cannot truly account for how psychopathic behavior might vary from individual-to-individual depending upon environment & experience. In other words, a current diagnosis of psychopathy is merely psychiatry’s best guess at how a psychopath ought to behave based on observations of previously-identified (or possibly mis-identified) psychopaths.
This kind of approach has led to a good deal of ambiguity in making these diagnoses and equal controversy over what actually defines a true clinical psychopath. However, using the neural model of consciousness & behavior proposed by our theory, Narrative Complexity, we can lift the veil of psychopathic behavior and provide exactly what current psychiatry cannot: a compelling hypothesis explaining the neural deficit that is actually causing these behaviors and how the normal systems of cognition are negatively impacted by this deficit. And by using this hypothesis we can answer that fundamental question posed by Sandy Hook: why did Adam Lanza choose to murder all of those children?
We’ll begin at the end. We’ll provide the answer to what Lanza was likely thinking on that final day, then go all the way back to the beginning and explain—based on his behavior—how he got there, and how that path reveals evidence of a psychopathic brain. Based on our theory, that morning Lanza had essentially one primary goal: to commit one of the worst & most heinous acts of mass murder in American history, possibly placing himself atop the list of massacres he’d deeply studied and meticulously assembled in his custom-made spreadsheet. In the most crass-but-true terms: he was going for the high score.
This is what psychopaths do. Whether they grow up to be serial killers or corporate executives, a psychopath’s brain (for reasons we’ll explore in a bit) is enamored with accumulating self-serving gains—in whatever pleasure-producing arena they’ve developed a particular interest in or possibility for success. More significantly, these individuals lack the neural mechanism that helps healthy human brains to balance the accumulation of those gains with the possible harm we might cause to others in the process. They go for the high score—without mercy.
Psychopaths seek to continually accumulate more mental merit badges of ascending success in whatever twisted gain-seeking quest they’ve stumbled onto. The serial killer who starts with small animals, but can’t resist moving up the list, adding greater difficultly, novelty & significance to each OCD- & fetish-defined act of pleasure-producing violence. Or the isolated teenage mass murderer who, over time, combines his deeply-cultivated pleasure-producing obsessions with mastering firearms, mastering video-game violence & mastering knowledge of murderous massacres, eventually enacting the ultimate real-world culmination of those obsessions at his former elementary school.
Why did Lanza choose such innocent & defenseless victims as his targets? He chose them exactly because they were innocent & defenseless, because his unmitigated-gain-obsessed brain calculated that this fact would make his actions be perceived as even more horrifying to others. In the very sick & disturbed real-life game that his brain was seeking to win, both the quantity and the nature of the murders were important factors in how he felt his actions would ultimately be viewed — thus, significantly impacting how his own particular act of massacre might ultimately “rank” on his meticulous list. Sadly & discouragingly, the shrill ubiquity of 21st-century media has helped to ensure that Lanza’s calculations for achieving wide-spread, long-lasting infamy were all too accurate.
How did Adam Lanza arrive at this grotesque final expression of his long-building desires? First & foremost, he was likely born with the same neural deficit that (according to our theory) is at the root of all psychopathic behavior: a non-functioning belief system. In the view of Narrative Complexity, our belief system is a powerful, highly-evolved cognitive mechanism that serves a specific behavioral purpose—a mechanism that is entirely unique to the human brain, but whose neural roots are present in the earliest mammals. The Narrative Complexity essays spend a good deal of time exploring the complicated roots & results of this mechanism, but for an investigation of Lanza’s actions, a quick tour of our human belief system ought to suffice. (Some of this quick tour has been culled directly from my essay on emotions.)
Neurally-speaking, a belief is a high-value, high-validity prediction trope. It expresses a basic (although often complexly arrived at or applied), important, broadly-applicable and over-arching prediction that has achieved very high validity through the accumulated experience or study of actual or perceived-to-be-true events. I believe forgiveness is always better than revenge. Or more purely: I believe in forgiveness. Translated: in any choice that can be reduced to an act of forgiveness or revenge, choosing forgiveness is highly-likely to achieve a more desirable ultimate result.
There are special emotions (like guilt) that are specifically designed to use our beliefs to generate feelings. And these beliefs provide the foundation for a vast number of the decisions we make. You believe in God. You believe in the principles of conservatism or liberalism. You believe that love is always good and violence is always bad. You believe violence is a necessary evil. If you were to catalog them, your list of personal beliefs might seem nearly endless. Yet, the list would still have an hierarchy. And if a decision pits two opposing beliefs against each other, the stronger belief is very likely to win out.
The higher a belief’s related value (i.e., your soul’s eternal survival = extremely high value) and the higher its validity (being taught something from the moment your memory began, by people you implicitly trust = very high validity) the higher a belief rises in the hierarchy (Above all else, I believe in God). These top-level tropes are decision-making gladiators—taking on all contradictory ideas or choices and slaying them with the power of their “truth.” Our beliefs are superseding predictors, the express lane of decision-making, because if can we find a way to apply this predictive pattern—even without examining related data in detail —we think there is a strong likelihood of goal-success.
In the view of Narrative Complexity, when humans make focused “conscious” decisions about their actions, two uniquely-evolved & separate cognitive systems are the primary players in shaping those decisions: our syntactic rule-based (& language-based) system of reasoning (detailed in our essay of memory & cognition), and our emotional belief-based system of reasoning. The quickest way to distinguish these systems is by examining how we experience our own violations of rules & beliefs. When we violate a learned rule of grammar or rule of physical causality (taking an action that achieves an undesired or incorrectly-predicted result) we typically feel stupid or befuddled. How did I not know that? How did I not see that coming? But when we violate a learned belief, we feel guilt. I’m a terrible person. That was so wrong, I feel guilty.
And when someone doesn’t have a belief system those are thoughts that never cross that someone’s mind: I’m a terrible person. That was so wrong, I feel guilty. Never having those thoughts is what makes a psycopath a psychopath. Adam Lanza never had those thoughts.
The Roots of The Cause
The differences between these two decision-impacting human cognitive systems have grown out of their distinctly separate evolutionary roots. Our syntactic rule system evolved out of those basic, but uniquely-dynamic & learned mammalian behavioral/motor scripts that generated creative responses to a vast array of environmental (& often heavily visually-based) stimuli: food, danger, other creatures.
When those earliest mammals encountered both novel & familiar problems (something yummy just out of reach, something scary heading their way) their cognitive responses were mostly determined by these kinds of syntactic rule-based systems—which use previous experiences to help determine dynamically-assembled, most-likely-to-be-beneficial action sequences. In contrast, our emotionally-based belief system is a much more specific neural mechanism that evolved from an equally specific “proto-emotional” mammalian behavioral response: primitive disgust.
As explained by Hannah Chapman & Adam Anderson in their brilliant 2012 paper “Understanding Disgust,” those earliest mammalian disgust responses were designed for one purpose: to generate disease-avoidance behavior. And early mammal brains (like rats) used a uniquely specific (& cognitively advanced) neural technique to produce this behavior: identifying a specific subset of olfactory data within a larger scent pattern. For example, rats could detect & identify a subset of disease-indicating olfactory data within the larger scent pattern of another rat, which triggered survival-aiding avoidance behavior.
In the view of Narrative Complexity, this neural mechanic—applying a specific, but broadly-applicable subset of data to larger data patterns in order to determine avoidance behavior—is what unites all forms of disgust. This mechanic is demonstrated by advancing mammals’ olfactory-based capacity to specifically judge, for example, disgust-producing (& possibly illness-causing) rottenness across a wide variety of unlike fruits & meats. More disease-prone advanced mammals like hominids even extended this olfactory-based disgust response to icky items like feces. (And research has shown that our distaste response—a bitterness designed to identify toxicity, not disease—is much more primitive & less sophisticated than disgust.)
Evidence of the neural connection between these original disease-avoidance mechanisms & our modern human belief systems is right there in our emotional responses. What is that feeling we have toward people who act in ways (like murdering & cheating) that violate our beliefs? Disgust. And what does this emotion signal to our brains? Avoid. Avoid this individual. Avoid modeling this behavioral. That stuff is bad for us. In other words, it seems that disgust evolved from…digust.
How, then, did disgust get from its primitive form to its modern one? According to Narrative Complexity’s theory, humans can probably thank an old friend for spurring this leap: fire. Fire allowed humans to finally begin cooking their meat, and the many benefits of cooking meant (including disease-avoidance) eventually led to an instinctive human preference for consuming cooked meat over raw. But this preference had to overcome a powerful urge: millions of years of desiring to eat raw meat—a desire exhibited by every other carnivore & omnivore ever to exist. What did our human ancestors’ brains ultimately employ to aid in finally extinguishing this primal desire? Disgust. That difficult-to-develop but survival-aiding preference for cooked meat eventually evolved into an inborn aversion to the sights & textures of raw meat—something that no other animal exhibits.
And this new form of raw-meat-avoiding disgust was very special. Why? Because unlike those early olfactory-based disgust responses, this one was visually-based. Consider: it’s not the smell of particularly bloody or gory raw meat that repulses us, it’s the sight of it. When this neural data-subset-to-larger-data-set disgust-producing comparison technique moved to our visual systems (which are more modern than those ancient & once-dominant olfactory systems) it gave our disgust responses access to those closely-connected & emerging cognitive mechanisms that are the foundation of human consciousness and now manage our beliefs. In other words, when human ancestors built their first fires, they were also lighting the way toward our most uniquely human neural mechanism, the mechanism that all psychopaths lack: a belief system.
The actions of psychopaths like Adam Lanza prove that without a functioning belief system, humans can become tragically inhuman. And by examining his behavior over the decades that preceded the massacre, we can find ample evidence that Lanza clearly appeared to lack a functioning belief system.
He did not have “normal” or well-connected familial relationships. One of the most important function of beliefs is that they compel us to behave with others in socially-expected ways based on our relationship with that person. Whether you hug or kiss or shake hands when greeting a loved one depends on your culturally-learned belief about how you should respond—and you might feel guilty if you don’t respond how you should. Why didn’t I hug my mom? I’m a bad son. Without such beliefs, a psychopath only shows affection when that display might help them to achieve a gain. If there’s nothing else to be gained, they might completely ignore a brother (as Lanza did for years) or interact with their mother for months only via e-mail (as Lanza did, despite sharing her house).
He displayed obsessive-compulsive & ritualistic behaviors; he was extremely rigid & self-serving in his demands; he had an unusually difficult time adjusting to new environments & routines. The human brain is a persistently adaptable & deficit-overcoming machine. And when that deficit is a non-functioning belief system, the brain must adapt to the absence of those powerful predictive mechanisms. It appears that psychopaths’ brains typically adjust by developing more robust & rigid rule-based systems—to aid in making more complex & reliable predictions in the absence of those prediction-aiding tropes, beliefs. At its most extreme we can see this kind of overgrown rule system in the oddly ritualistic, obsessive & fetishistic behavior common to many psychopathic serial killers. But in more mundane contexts (like Lanza’s youth) these hard-wired, kudzu-like rule systems can result in more seemingly innocuous behaviors: arranging your food in highly specific ways; adhering to routines & demanding that others accomodate for their specificity; adjusting poorly when your highly-developed, specific rules encounter an enirely new environment.
When the rest of us are thrown into a new setting, we can also have a hard time adjusting our familiar rule-based routines—but we typically help to guide ourselves through such transitions by applying those more fundamental beliefs. If you work hard & don’t take short cuts, you can succeed anywhere. These beliefs lessen the anxiety we usually experience in these new environments. And without beliefs, new environments can produce even more debilitating & unmitigated anxiety. Psychopaths, thus, prefer to control their environment—and since they have no beliefs to calibrate their behavior toward others when controlling that environment, they can be prone to make callous, bizarre & rigid demands. Evicting his mother’s cat, refusing to celebrate holidays, making his mother buy an RV because he refused to stay in hotels.
He was not always withdrawn or totally asocial in his earlier youth; he could share a dry sense of humor with his friends; he was generally intelligent, and showed physical skills in areas like the handling of firearms. All of these things together demonstrate a more general truth about psychopaths: in the proper environment—using some basic coping mechanisms—they can exhibit social & balanced behavior, and develop a variety of skills. Pyschopaths can even frequently learn to be charming if they find that it aids in their goals. This kind of varied & sometimes robust interactive capacity contradicts a common misperception: that psychopaths are emotionless or lack the ability to read emotions. In the view of Narrative Complexity, neither are true. Lots of emotional calculations don’t require beliefs, and emotionally reading people (aka, mirror neurons) doesn’t require beliefs either.
Nonetheless, individuals without beliefs simply don’t care what other people are feeling, and they may have no reason to “act happy” when they get neural pleasure from some particular personal gain. Serial killers murder people, in part, because they like to—they receive neural pleasure because their sick brain has decided this act represents a type of personal gain. Without the ability to get some kind of pleasure from specific acts, the brain would possess no desire to do anything over another. (That inability is actually at the neural root of major depression, which is a truly emotionless & desire-less state.)
Until middle school, Lanza seemed to demonstrate those better coping mechanisms & more balanced behavior (although he was already also exhibiting some of his obsessive rigidity & curiosity with violence). As he entered his teens, his environment was becoming more unstable (his family slowly breaking-up, changing schools) and he became increasingly isolated. Under these circumstances, the effects of his psychopathy began to grow. He narrowed his interests to isolated environments & experiences that his rule-centric mind could control, be immersed within, and derive pleasure from. By his late teens, those interests had become darker, more obsessive, and primarily focused on two things: guns & murder.
All of this also suggests that one of the most-commonly stated guesses about Lanza’s “condition”—that he had Aspergers—is very likely untrue. Research (& our own theory) suggests that “autism-spectrum” disorders like Aspergers involve mirror neuron dysfunction. Because mirror neurons are vital to both reading the expressions of others & learning complicated motor routines, individuals with Aspergers tend to lack emotional skills & physical dexterity (from a very early age). Lanza did not appear to exhibit either of these problems to a significant degree when he was younger, and he apparently showed capable dexterity in handling guns thoughout his pre-teen & teen years. Autism-spectrum individuals begin their childhood withdrawn & asocial—Lanza began relatively social, but he grew more withdrawn & asocial as his circumstances enhanced his psychopathy. Also: very few teens with Aspergers are particularly good with rifles. Adam Lanza did not have Aspergers.
He coldly chose—without any direct or indirect provocation—to murder his endlessly-accomodating mother and reams of completely innocent & defenseless young children whom he had no personal nor symbolic vendetta against. These are exactly the kinds of atrocities that can only come from a psychopathic brain. When other heinous non-psychopathic massacres occur—workplace shootings by a disgruntled employee, religiously-motivated suicide bombings, racially- or ethnically-targeted mass murders & “hate” crimes, family murders by a spurned spouse or lover—all of these sociopathically-driven acts are the result of functioning belief systems that have either acquired some twisted beliefs or have been overwhelmed by powerful emotional dysfunction or trauma.
In other words, Lanza had no specific anger toward nor any powerfully traumatic experiences associated with his victims. They were simply the best & most convenient means by which to achieve his goals. And although Lanza could recognize that to the rest of the world killing children was even worse than killing other people, to him such an act didn’t feel any more wrong than shooting a squirrel. In the end, our beliefs and our humanity might be considered the exact same thing.
The Real Question
Our world will not rid itself of psychopaths, nor will we devise the perfect system for identifying all of them before their faulty minds go off the rails into dark & dangerous corners of the brain. But we can try to be better at it. Much better. And trying begins with understanding.
Stubbornness, myopia & infighting within the clinical & academic psychiatric community has prevented reams of new brain science from being properly, innovatively & effectively woven into their diagnostic & treatment standards. And in many of the very worst cases, the lack of genuine expertise by self-proclaimed experts has too-easily allowed potentially dangerous individuals like Adam Lanza to grow into actually dangerous individuals.
Lanza did not fly under the radar of the multiple therapeutic & medical professionals that evaluated him. He flew directly across their radar, but they simply had no idea what they were seeing. Make no mistake, by the standards we’ve established here, Lanza was clearly demonstrating easily-observed psychopathic traits by his early teen years—at which point any competent evaluator should have absolutely advised his mother to cease Lanza’s involvement with firearms training. And the diagnostic red herring of Aspergers only served to further cloud his “treatment”—despite the fact that his dexterity-based competence in that firearms training (& several other factors) clearly contradict such a diagnosis.
But Adam Lanza was not just the product of a bad brain & a sieve-like mental health system, he was in great part created by the world that his bad brain was let loose into. Human brains are built on one massive task: accumulating & sorting data from the world around us. The amount & type of data accumulated matters. It shapes our behavior, makes us the person that we ultimately become.
Psychopaths have lurked among our communities since humans first developed beliefs. But the ways in which psychopaths’ overly-obsessive, rule-dominated, guilt-less minds express these dysfunctions in their behavior & actions is ultimately a reflection of the amount & type of data their brains have accumulated from the world around them. Psychopaths grow up to be the monsters that their specific world has fed. When we find ourselves aghast by something like the horror at Sandy Hook, we need to ask: what is this world that we’ve built feeding us, and how much more of it can we take?
R. Salvador Reyes’ full theory of consciousness & behavior, Narrative Complexity, can be found at his site: http://www.rsalvador.com/complexity.html.