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Could Biofeedback Help Prevent Murder?

Publication date: 23 March 2015

Last week I watched a BBC Horizon documentary, "The mystery of murder", and found it very interesting. It showcased some easy-to-follow neuroscience that's relevant not just to murder but to anger and emotionality generally. In this post I summarise the science in the programme and relate it to therapy for anger management.

According to Horizon there are basically three types or murderer:

  • Hot-blooded killers - they go into a rage and lose control.
  • Psychopathic or cold-blooded killers - these people lack any sense of empathy for their victim as a human being.
  • Psychotic killers - people whose mental derangement is such that they lose the sense of consensual reality that most of us share - they kill for example because a voice in their head told them to.

The three types are not completely independent, and it seems that the same neural circuitry is involved in all three. They key brain regions are the prefrontal cortex (PFC) and the amygdala.

In normal functioning the amygdala serves as the emotional trip-wire. It detects emotionally salient situation and sends out a signal which is a sort of alarm to the rest of the body.

Meanwhile the PFC plays a key role in "executive function", meaning things like:

  • Focus and concentration.
  • Emotional regulation and body regulation – balancing over-excitement and under-arousal. Motivation and emotional drive – the ability to formulate values, goals and purposes.
  • Sense of self, and self-monitoring – being conscious of what you say and do, and knowing that it is appropriate.
  • Self-organisation – the ability make decisions, to formulate a considered plan of action, and to hold to it in the face of distractions, as well as to update it appropriately. The ability to check impulsiveness.
  • Empathy – the ability to appreciate the minds of other people, and to understand how our own behaviour impinges upon them. Ultimately this is the basis of our moral awareness.

(By the way the above is a cut-and-paste from my ebook "Emotional Intelligence: How to manage your mind using biofeedback and mindfulness".)

So overall the PFC is the executive control centre - the most human part of the brain. It appears to be rather delicate and is dysregulated in lots of mental and emotional disorders. It's not surprising that it's implicated in the neuropathology of murder.

Normally the PFC keeps a kind of brake on the amygdala - it calms down the alarm call in cases of false alarm and cases where an emotional outburst is not socially appropriate or helpful.

You might already be able to guess what's going wrong in the three types of murderer, but let's spell it out:

  • In hot-blooded killers the amygdala is over-active and the PFC is under-active.
  • In cold-blooded killers the amygdala appears to be unresponsive to normal social and emotional cues.
  • In psychotic killers there may be a combination of the above patterns, and other factors besides.

The Horizon programme listed a few wider causal factors that affect the balance of PFC and amygdala.

  • Low serotonin predisposes people to rage. Serotonin seems to be particularly important to PFC function.
  • High testosterone predisposes people to rage - perhaps by priming the amygdala? Testosterone-blocking drugs can help reduce rage.
  • Brain damage, even quite mild, can affect the PFC and predispose people to rage.
  • The experience of violence and abuse in childhood has epigenetic effects, and disrupts the normal development of the brain's emotional circuitry. It seems there are genes for low serotonin production, which aren't always expressed, but childhood abuse and violence can turn them on.

Does all this give us any clues about how best to help people prone to rage and violence? To some extent, yes. Psychopathy, or sociopathy as it's known nowadays, has no treatment shown to be effective, to my knowledge. I myself have never (to my knowledge) worked with sociopaths, but I wouldn't hold out much hope that basic biofeedback or neurofeedback techniques would offer any help. Conceivably some of the more advanced forms of neurofeedback my be useful.

I think there's much more hope for psychotic offenders. The causes of psychosis are no doubt complex, but I do think biofeedback and neurofeedback could play some part.

To risk being a little controversial, I imagine that hot-blooded murder is more comprehensible to most of us - it seems to be an everyday process (anger, losing one's temper) gone to the extreme. Certainly anger, hot-headedness and short temper are common enough problems. As a biofeedback practitioner I've had some good success with cases of anger management, though to my knowledge I've never worked with a murderer. I think the key ingredients of biofeedback therapy would be:

  • Breathing training with capnometry - over-breathing is a common concomitant of strong emotional states. It (somewhat paradoxically) starves the brain cells of oxygen, so that the normal PFC brake on the emotional centres is weakened. Optimal breathing training with capnometry biofeedback can help limit this loss of control.
  • HRV biofeedback - can help to shift the balance of the autonomic nervous system in favour of the calming and socialising parasympathetic. This may help to blunt the amygdala reactivity.
  • HEG neurofeedback is designed to strengthen PFC function, and support its braking effect on the amygdala.
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