Heart Problems In Serial Killers

A very common biological feature of a serial killer is to be born with a lower resting heartrate to their peers (this is not considering sporting effect of decreasing heart rate but merely the person being born with a lower one) (Armstrong 2009).

As having a lower resting heart rate can be said to directly link to antisocial behaviour as antisocial adolescence normally have a lower resting heart rate. The relationship rate between antisocial behaviour and low resting heart rate is -0.44, this is a strong relationship compared to the fact the relationship between smoking and lung cancer is 0.8 (Ortiz 2013). Antisocial behaviour is a key characteristic of a serial killer as although they are often seen and described to be very charming, generally they are not very involved in big social situations as they are seen to enjoy their own company as most are narcissists. (Simons 2001)

The heart being one of the most important organs in our body, is controlled and stimulated by two different systems. These are the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system (Langley 1921), controlled by the hypothalamus in the brain, which work within the branches of the autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system (as seen in picture 2), is important in the processes of things like heart rate, digestion and sweating, and neuroendocrine influences (Schmidt, 1989) These are cells that will gather neuronal input, a process that involves the nerve/neurosecretory cells releasing neurotransmitters which then lead to the release of molecules in the blood (Malenka, 2009). An example being hormones like testosterone which are also a key component in a serial killer when in excess. Giammanco 2005 ) -Testosterone is predominately the male sex hormone and plays a numerous functions including the stimulation of secondary characteristics (Mooradian et al 1987) as well as being involved in health and wellbeing (Bassil 2009) it is considered that a man’s Testosterone level is normal if it falls between the 20% and 200% of the mean bracket and anything above 400% of the mean is seen to link men with more aggressive tendencies(Mcandrew 2009) .it has been suggested that Testosterone stimulates these aggressive tendencies by adjusting vasopressin receptors that are in the hypothalamus. This could consequently link to the violent acts of a serial killer, helping to explain some of their violent outbursts that could result in killing someone, or they could view killing as the only way to suppress their aggression therefore explaining why they commit multiple offences, as they could use as an almost ‘stress relief’.

Chronotropic, which is primarily the increasing of our heart rate is controlled by the Peripheral Nervous System (Chronotropic, n.d.). Whereas when the body is at rest the parasympathetic system takes over, this is especially true after eating, other things it deals with are sexual arousal and tears. Its action is complementary to the work of the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for stimulating activities associated with the fight-or-flight response (McCorry, 2007). Thus meaning that it will be more common for the individual to fight than flight when put in a situation that requires either response, linking them more to violence.

James and Cannon prior work believes that heartrate is thought to be link closely to emotional responses, with increases reflecting general emotional arousal, specific emotions, or both (Lang, 1994). Heart rate is also believed to reflect the influence of motivational systems that control behaviour in response to both internal and external cues (Fowles, 1988; Gray, 1987).

The autonomic nervous system clearly is a very important within the human body, that is at the centre of many different systems like emotional responses and releasing of hormones (Langley, 1921). So it is not surprising that when something seems to be going different to the ‘average’ person with some ones autonomic nervous system, it leads to the question is it surprising that it can lead to bad things. Lower heart rate in a serial killer is very common and there are three theories in which try to explain the link between violence and lower resting heart rate:

The stimulation-seeking theory: As people with lower resting heart rates will need to feel more excitement and thrill to reach the same level as thrill as someone with a higher heart rate it may mean they have to engage in more ruthless acts like brutal violence to feel any sense of thrill. This chronic under arousal can lead on to participating in more risk-seeking behaviour and, ultimately, since their brains also lack empathy, it can lead to torture and killing. As well as this seeing as the spike in heart rate will only come up for a matter of seconds, it is not surprising serial killers would kill again

Another theory is empathy, lower resting heart rate individuals will have an almost deficit of empathy towards other people meaning that serial killers are purely unable to put themselves in someone else’s position and feel how they would feel so cant sympathise towards their victim (Lovett & Sheffield 2007)

Fear explanation, a recent study from Sweden has made a concerning link between heart rate being lower in an individual, and predisposition for violent crime. They found that out of 710,264 men with a heart rate falling between 35 and 60 bpm 39% were more likely to be convicted of violent crime than those with a higher one. It could be concluded that those with a lower heart rate don’t feel fear in the same way as those with high heart rates this is known as the fearlessness theory (Cox D et al 1983) .When scared there would be a noticeable increase in heartrate– meaning, from a lower heartrate, fear isn’t felt as much and if fear is not present it can make the perpetrator more ruthless as they may not be scared of being in brutal situations or the consequences of their actions

A good example for showing the link between feeling dominant and heartrate is that in the animal kingdom, it’s noticeable that mammals like mice, that are showing both violent and powerful characteristics have a much lower resting heart rate than the rest of the docile and non-violent group members. Moreover, when scientists experiment with these dominant mice and perform experiments to increase the amount of power they feel, it evidentially shows that heart rate goes down and is inversely proportional to the feeling of dominance (Cherkovish & Tatoyan 1973) When applied to a serial killer this make sense in the fact that most serial killers thrive off the feeling of dominance over their victims. However, an evaluation that could be made from this experiment and findings is that this discovery was concluded by research on animals. This could act as a limitation as although humans and animals are seen to have similar biological features, a human’s biology is a lot more complex and so it can’t be concluded- from this particular experiment, that the findings can be applied to human behaviour.

When looking into the brains of a serial killer scientists will commonly use positron emission tomography (PET) – this is a scan using a functional imaging technique that produces a 3dimensional detailed image of the inside of the body- in this case the brain and can show areas of the brain that are working less or more than the normal amount (NHS), this is good for the viewing of a serial killers brain as it allows scientists’ to scan the brains of a serial killer and compare to the brains of ‘normal’ controls in order to see any obvious differences between the two. Commonly, it has been found that when serial killers have PET scans you will be able to see a reduced frontal gray matter in their brain (Raine, 1997) - frontal gray matter is at the forepart of the frontal lobe, it’s meant to be is very developed in the ‘average’ human and plays a role in controlling of complex cognitive, behavioural and emotional operations. If this is reduced it means that both emotion and behaviour can be greatly impacted in the sense that emotional impulses may become either extremes- non-existent or heightened (Raine et al 2000)

The limbic system is often referred to as the habitat of emotions and somewhat some characteristics that will later be involved in our personality traits. Links between the limbic system and aggressive behaviour have been proposed by Papez-Maclean (1937), the idea of this system having a vital role in the onset of violent actives, ie. Becoming a serial killer, is to do with all the structures inside the system integrating and working together in the implication of reactive aggression. The limbic system is not only a centre for emotional impulses but has a lot of other attaching systems like the cingulate gyrus which primarily focuses our attention on events we class as significant. (Maclean, 2016)

Inside this system is the amygdala- this is also a bit of gray matter, circle shaped and situated in both cerebral hemispheres, in between the hypothalamus and hippocampus. It is essential emotional experience- it can heighten our emotions and can be the cause of violent responses (Adamec E 1990). Another vital component in the limbic system is the hippocampus, its deals with elements of the brain like memory and the connection of senses and emotional experiences together, it is also can be responsible for the outburst of violence (Elliott, F. A.1992) if this is not working properly it can result in more aggressive behaviour being regulated which will mean the person is more prone to predatory attacks (Adamec E.1991). When joined with the thalamus, the whole limbic system becomes essential in tasks like a person’s ability to learn, remember key things and how attentive they are thus its proposed that when this system is functioning abnormally it could potentially lead to problems such as not having the ability to form emotional responses to both standard and specific situations and not being able to learn from mistakes or certain situations (Damasio et al. 1990).This could be applied to a serial killer, through the way that a serial killer normally shows no emotions in standard situations that a normal person would be upset by hurting someone. Consequently, allowing them to commit the several murders, and the fact of the limbic system potentially causing someone to be unable to learn from their mistakes could potentially be a feature that separates a serial killer from a murderer, as the serial killer does not learn, but repeats the act.

The prefrontal cortex (seen in picture 3) is positioned at the front of the brain, it is the cerebral cortex (Elisabeth M 2016) it controls executive functions like general planning, behavioural functioning, and helps with the regulation of operating complex cognitive, emotions. (Yang, 2009) It has also been established that there could be a connection between the prefrontal cortex and a person’s will to live and their ability to judge behaviour is a social situation (DeYoung 2010). Damage or reduced activity in this area of the brain is paired to reduced empathy and increased impulsivity and aggression. (Yang, 2009). With regards to a serial killer, who are seen as fearless, not scared of death. Moreover, not being able to judge situations very well could explain why erratic, violent bursts occur as the person may misread the event and act quickly upon their anger resulting in killings. Having no empathy also directly corresponds with a serial killers’ main characteristics (Lee 1999)

Another very important function of the prefrontal cortex is distinguishing the line between what is right and what is wrong, and consequently the act that is taken up when in a social scenario that requires a choice or action to be made (Miller 2002). It is also paired with the ability to suppress temptations and hold social control, if social control is unable to be withheld it could lead to impulsive and potentially dangerous acts to occur (Badre D 2010) ie linking back to a serial killer.

29 April 2022
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