May 26 2014

The neurodevelopmental and parenting reasons behind the recent shooting spree

A few weeks ago I attended a workshop on the various brain structures that are developed as a child grows up from 0-12. It was a summary of the latest research in affective neuroscience, developmental psychology and behavioral biology.

The recent mass shooting can be explained quite well with what is technically called an underdeveloped “lateral tegmental” circuit. Colloquially known as the shame circuit. Let me explain with an example.

The instructor (also a therapist) explained how a client brought in her young son for some therapy because he had tried drowning his little infant sister.

The therapist when confronting the child scolded him for trying to do such a horrible thing. Meanwhile to the therapists surprise, the mother sitting at an angle was repeatedly puckering her lips and mouthing the words “I love you” to the child. In effect the mother was negating and undermining the scolding of the therapist.

Some parents simply will not shame their children when they do something bad. The parents may ideologically be pacifists or not have a shame circuit themselves or may be over-compensating for having felt too much shame in their childhood.

Experiencing shame is a critical part of childhood development and is a purposeful emotional miss-attunement between mother and child. When a child under age five wants to happily stick a fork in an electrical socket, crawl across a busy street or drown his/her little sibling ideally the parent gets upset and scolds the child. The child then sees the parent upset with him, feels a surge of the emotion shame, which really evokes a feeling of death. At this point the child may cry realizing something is wrong, where now ideally the parent comes over and comforts the child. The emotional message is: “no you won’t die, but don’t do that again”. The comforting is redemption, and critical otherwise shame turns into humiliation.

The vast majority of the population have healthy shame circuits and perhaps overdeveloped shame circuits leading to perpetual states of fear of humiliation.

However a small segment of people who had mothers that did not shame their children and isntead showered them with love and understanding, never learned how to cope with emotional miss-attunement. There is a critical age window here in that you can’t logically reason with a two or three your old about why they shouldn’t do certain things. The neo-cortex (reasoning mind) is just not yet developed. All the child has is the limbic emotional part of the brain to make sense of the adult communicating with him. This is similar to training a dog. You can’t logically reason with a dog, you must use firm emotional scolding to get a dog to learn appropriate behavior. They don’t have an intellectual brain and never will but they do have an emotional brain. Animals respond to emotion not logic, same goes for a three year old.

Thus for children in the critical years between age one and five scolding or shame is the only real way one can “socialize” a child. The fact a child does not have fully functioning linguistic logic capacity yet forces the social emotional parts of the brain to develop as an adaptive response to the stress of miss-attunement. By the time a child is five most of the emotional control brain development is completed and then the higher intellectual brain functions begin developing.

If the child does not learn how to deal with emotional miss-attunement from the parents it will experience great difficulty later on in life in terms of reading and understanding important social cues. Attention and ambition are also affected. This leads to aspergers a condition where people typically struggle keeping friends due to their peculiar lack of understanding certain social nuances.

After age five the aspergers child will logically (using the neo-cortex) learn how to interpret emotion to some degree, maybe even a high degree as a compensating factor. Usually though with substantial difficulty. However the lateral tegmental circuit part of the limbic system will remain under-developed having missed that critical window as the higher cortex takes over. Many social nuances that people normally would learn escape these people.

People with aspergers are incredibly open and honest about their emotions, unlike most people. (I personally have known over a handful in my life, a couple of them girls) Because they didn’t experience much shame they also don’t really engage in shaming in the typical way either. They may get frustrated and angry with people and lash out retributively but typically won’t insult people and maliciously try to hurt their feelings in a fashion designed to elicit shame. There is a real subtle distinction here in how they deal with emotional conflict in a social context.

It can be really challenging to understand the mind of someone with aspergers because for most people the fear of shame is thoroughly baked into literally all their social interactions and thoughts. It’s really difficult to imagine how it could be any other way, but for those with aspergers there is no self monitoring self censoring shame-fear. Only cognitive logic. Because of this they tend to be intellectual quite brilliant and will excel in the sciences but are prone to rationalizing other peoples behaviors and struggle with empathy. Shame forces a self-reflective process on ones behaviors. People with aspergers often therefore will do or not do the same thing over and over again, without self-evaluation and considering a new course.

People with aspergers can say “mean” things but in their mind they are merely being honest and objective and then get rather confused when someone acts shamed. They can understand hurt in self and others but won’t make the empathic connection to shame and how that relates in a relational fashion.

People with aspergers have emotions just like everyone else and desire mutual connection, it’s just that they process social-relational emotions in a manner that is very alien to most people.

Elliot Rodger had been diagnosed with Aspergers, and in his personal manifesto details very well how he was raised. His parents organized his friendships for him and he lived a pretty cushy life getting most of the things he desired. His mother seemed too perfect, and she probably was…overly nice to the point where she likely rarely scolded him.

In his videos he publicly talks about his lack of sex life. Most guys would feel shameful admitting such a thing, but not Elliot. This is highly characteristic of people with aspergers. Most people become a little shy or sensitive when discussing sex, but people with aspergers have no shame. They have a very matter fact way of talking about these kinds of things.

Because as children these kids grow up with rarely someone saying no to them in a scolding manner, they also develop a certain entitlement complex. They feel they deserve A or B. In Elliot’s case he nearly had everything handed to him a silver platter including friends provided to him by his parents. While this works at home with parents, this won’t work so well in college. Hence his frustration and confusion as to why girls simply didn’t fall into his lap. According to his manifesto he almost never pursued a girl. Underdevelopment in the shame circuit can also negatively affects ambition and motivation in this way.

In terms of socializing and making friends people with aspergers really struggle. They are intelligent enough to know something is wrong but lack the nuanced emotional calibration to navigate normal human relationships in a natural manner. Human interactions become extremely problematic, and children with aspergers quickly feel very isolated and frustrated. This is what happened to Elliot as he so eloquently explained.

There is something here to be said about growth through adversity and how it builds resiliency. Most people with aspergers are genuinely kind and compassionate and are clearly not killers. The key difference in Elliot’s case however is the lack of certain struggles in early life caused poor resiliency later on, which then coupled with other factors led to him lashing out.

Great video explaining the concept of “healthy adversity” and the dangers of “making everything positive” and how it creates resiliency.  http://tvoparents.tvo.org/video/175529/how-parenting-affects-your-childs-brain

For more information on how childhood development affects people in various ways read my recent post on my website:

Elliot’s main video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MQUW3Km01BM&bpctr=1401087974
Elliot’s channel: https://www.youtube.com/user/ElliotRodger/videos
Elliot’s life manifesto: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2014/05/25/us/shooting-document.html?_r=1