7 Lessons from Murderers’ Brain Scans

Brain Scans of Murderers

On Wednesday, May 20, 1998, 15-year-old Kip Kinkel was caught with a stolen gun in his locker and suspended from school, pending possible expulsion. Police booked him on criminal charges and sent him home with his parents. According to Kip’s confession, his father was sitting at the kitchen counter drinking coffee while Kip grabbed a .22 rifle from his room then fired a bullet into the back of his dad’s head. When his mother arrived home later that day, Kip met her in the garage, told her he loved her, then shot her multiple times.

The next morning, dressed in a long trench coat, Kip drove his mom’s Ford Explorer to a spot near Thurston High School and parked it. Carrying a rifle and two handguns, Kip walked down a hallway and into the school cafeteria, firing off over 50 rounds that killed two students and wounded about two dozen others. A group of classmates, including one teenager who had been shot in the chest, finally subdued him.

After he was arrested and taken to the police station, the freckle-faced teenager lunged at an officer with a knife that he had strapped to his leg, yelling, “Kill me, shoot me.” The officer stepped back and used pepper spray on him. Kip was sentenced to 112 years in prison for aggravated murder and was prosecuted as an adult. Under Oregon law he was too young to face the death penalty. Kip had once been voted as “most likely to start World War III,” according to a Thurston High School student. Before the shootings, students at the high school said that Kip had talked about shooting people. After the shootings, officials found 5 bombs at the Kinkel residence, one of which went off when it was being disarmed.

Authorities found a note in the living room that Kip wrote, saying: “My head just doesn’t work right. God damn these VOICES inside my head… I have to kill people. I don’t know why… I have no other choice.”

What drives some people to kill another human being? Or to gun down dozens of their schoolmates? America has been captivated by killers for centuries—digging into their family histories, psychological profiles, and so much more. Now, thanks to brain SPECT imaging, we can also see inside their brains. What do brain scans reveal about murderers?

America has been captivated by killers for centuries—digging into their family histories, psychological profiles, and much more. We use brain SPECT imaging to see inside their brains and have discovered 7 critical lessons. Click To Tweet

Amen Clinics, which has the world’s largest database of functional brain scans (over 160,0000 and growing), has scanned the brains of over 1,000 convicted felons, including over 100 murderers.

Here are 7 lessons from the brain scans of murderers.

1. People who do the worst things often have troubled brains.

The brains of murderers typically don’t look healthy. Brain SPECT imaging is a technology that measures blood flow and activity in the brain. It shows 3 things: areas with healthy activity, areas with too much activity, and areas with too little activity. On SPECT, the brains of murderers show abnormal activity in a variety of brain regions, especially the prefrontal cortex involved with empathy, judgment, and forethought. Look at this scan of a healthy brain compared to a scan from Kip Kinkel.

 

The healthy surface brain SPECT scan shows full, even, symmetrical activity.

 

Kip Kinkel’s surface brain SPECT scan shows several areas of low activity (the areas that look like holes indicate low blood flow).

2. Murder does not always look the same in the brain.

You might think there is a singular pattern in the brain of killers, but there isn’t. Look at the brain scans of two 15-year-old murderers, for example. They look very different. The brain scan of Kip Kinkel shows underlying damage and toxicity and is dramatically underactive. In the SPECT scan of Paul, a teen who murdered his mother and 8-year-old sister with a baseball bat, it is evident that his brain works too hard.

A healthy “active” scan shows the most active parts of the brain with blue representing the average activity and red (or sometimes red and white) representing the most active parts of the brain. In the healthy scan on the left, the most active area is in the cerebellum, at the back/bottom part of the brain.

 

Kip Kinkel’s active SPECT scan shows severe underactivity.

 

Paul’s active SPECT scan shows dramatic overactivity.

 

3. Traumatic brain injuries are a major cause of psychiatric illness and violence.

Few people know about the link between traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) and mental health problems because most psychiatrists never look at the brain. TBIs are associated with an increased risk of violent behavior, including suicide and murder. According to research in The Journal of Neuroscience, the rate of aggression and violence after a TBI ranges from 35%-90%. The brain scans of several of the murderers scanned at Amen Clinics show underlying damage to the brain from past head injuries.

4. Left temporal lobe abnormalities are common in violent people.

Many Amen Clinics patients who exhibited violence (murderers, arsonists, domestic assaults, rapists, bombers, etc.) had left temporal lobe abnormalities. The temporal lobes are located on either side of the brain behind the eyes and underneath the temples. Assault, murder, rape, arson, and other criminal behaviors are often associated with problems in this part of the brain. Other scientific research confirms that temporal lobe abnormalities are associated with increased aggression and violence.

5. Traditional mental health care is failing.

A number of our nation’s most notorious mass shooters—including Kip Kinkel (Springfield, OR, 1998), Eric Harris (Columbine, CO 1999), Seung-Hui Cho (Virginia Tech 2007), James Holmes (Aurora, CO, 2012), and Nikolas Cruz (Parkland, FL, 2018)—had seen psychiatrists or mental health professionals and had received “standard of care” treatment before their crimes.

The brain imaging work at Amen Clinics shows that cookie-cutter treatment plans for psychiatric illnesses don’t work. Not all brain types react the same way to psychotropic medications. For example, SSRIs, the most commonly prescribed antidepressants, are considered safe for many people. However, in some people with low activity in certain brain regions, they may increase impulsivity and behaviors that are out of character.

Scientific research, including a 2017 study in BMJ, has shown that some antidepressants increase the risk of violence, suicide, and homicide, and the FDA issues a black box warning for antidepressants for people up to the age of 24. A growing body of neuroimaging research, including a 2020 study in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences and a 2019 study in The American Journal of Psychiatry, shows that brain imaging may help predict which patients will respond favorably to antidepressants.

6. Murderous behavior based on brain problems can’t be fully excused.

Although brain dysfunction contributes to violence, it is not an excuse for bad behavior. People who commit heinous acts should not be excused and allowed to go home because they have a bad brain. Many people who have troubled brains never do anything bad. In judgment we must consider the brain. At this point in time, science shows that the brain is very important to moment-by-moment behavior, and it must be considered in sentencing people.

7. Brains can be rehabilitated.

What if our society evaluated and treated troubled brains, rather than simply warehousing them in toxic, stressful environments? Based on over 30 years at Amen Clinics of helping patients enhance their brain health and improve their lives, it’s clear that our society could potentially save tremendous amounts of money by making a significant percentage of these people more functional. With better brain health, violent criminals who get out of prison are more likely to be able to work, support themselves, and pay taxes. The Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky once said, “A society should be judged not by how it treats its outstanding citizens, but by how it treats its criminals.” Instead of just crime and punishment, SPECT imaging teaches us that we should also be thinking about crime, evaluation, and treatment.

Aggression, depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, and other mental health issues can’t wait. During these uncertain times, your mental well-being is more important than ever and waiting until life gets back to “normal” is likely to make your symptoms worsen over time.

At Amen Clinics, we’re here for you. We offer in-clinic brain scanning and appointments, as well as mental telehealth, remote clinical evaluations, and video therapy for adults, children, and couples. Find out more by speaking to a specialist today at 888-288-9834 or visit our contact page here.

33 Comments

  1. It has been said that the physical brain can be compared to a computer’s hardware, and the mind to its software. Defects in and damage to the hardware can most certainly affect the proper functioning of the software, but most problems are with the software itself.

    In the case of healthy/normal vs. unhealthy/abnormal human behavior, it goes without saying that there are many other variables, including other physical elements such as genes, DNA, diet, exposure to toxins, etc.; and since a brain is not literally a machine, those elements can also affect the “hardware”.

    Other factors in human thinking and behavior also include one’s basic individual “wiring” (personality), life experiences, education, etc.

    The bottom line (for me) is that no one is fully responsible for all of their actions; nevertheless, of course, criminals must be stopped from repeating or continuing their harmful behavior.

    Comment by Dolores Woodrum — February 5, 2021 @ 3:32 AM

  2. Dr. Amen,
    My husband has multiple traumas and multiple traumatic brain injuries. He has severe, chronic PTSD, delayed onset, with dissociate symptoms. He has been really symptomatic since January 9, 2021. I don’t know how to help him. He runs away from me every day and every night. I barely see him since January 8. I don’t know if a SPECT Scan would help us or not. I want my husband to feel better, and I’m at a loss. Should he pursue ECT? TMS? More medications? Talk therapy? The talk therapy is exacerbating the symptoms. I want him to go voluntarily to a hospital here in the Phoenix, AZ area, but he is refusing. He is a veteran and some of the trauma is due to abuse at the hospital. Please help.

    Angela

    Comment by Angela Smalley — February 5, 2021 @ 4:08 AM

  3. Your articles continue to sell what your clinics can read and the fact that your reads have been consistent with certain behaviors. What they are missing is what folks can do to support healthy brains. Unfortunately your services are very expensive and not affordable by the average citizen. Insurance doesn’t cover it. What can we do for the various afflictions you write about?

    Comment by Bmmickey — February 5, 2021 @ 4:12 AM

  4. My SPECT was very abnormal. Areas of extreme activity and underactivity. I couldn’t hurt a fly but I am emotionally labile. It takes more than a bad brain.

    Comment by Kathy Weir — February 5, 2021 @ 5:09 AM

  5. Thank you for this published insight. I was principal to a reform school for women. This was before i read your books. Dr David Hawkins was our attending psychiatrist at that time. He was an astute and valuable asset to myself and ALL my teachers. I do not know if hes still aroundas he was older than i, but your published research can fill any void in that respect. The world needs to know sooo much more about brains and their care and feeding.
    I thank God for you and your research!!!

    Comment by Jo Ellard — February 5, 2021 @ 5:57 AM

  6. I would like to see a brain scan/study on young men (18-29 yrs) from being in prison system.
    A medium “correctional” facility to be exact. Where the innocence of our young people are
    being compromised by older inmates AND lace of protection for correction officers.

    Comment by Lisa Limoge — February 5, 2021 @ 6:00 AM

  7. This is all good information, but the problem herein lies that there are, probably most that cannot afford this kind of treatment. I’ve been to your clinic and had scans but that’s all we could afford, it’s sad to get this kind of health care you have to be rich.

    Comment by Brad Bear — February 5, 2021 @ 7:55 AM

  8. What are you doing to help people who cannot afford your high prices? You keep giving us all of this information but what good is it if we can’t afford? I feel like you’re teasing us. You’re putting more stress on us knowing that there’s some help out there but we can’t reach it because we can’t afford it.

    Comment by Barbara — February 5, 2021 @ 9:05 AM

  9. I did a scan exactly a year ago at Amen clinic. , there were couple of scallops. I got prescribe vitamins. The insomnia that took me there have not improved. I believe I was under treated

    Comment by Bernadette Uzo — February 5, 2021 @ 9:09 AM

  10. Angela Smalley:
    If your husband is a Veteran you need to go where ever institution in this Country that takes care of them. Write letters to President Biden . Call to Wonded Worriors Foundation and ask for a group support. Do what ever you think can do. And most of all PRAY!!

    Comment by Luz m zapata — February 5, 2021 @ 9:11 AM

  11. I’m curious if the brain functioning or damage is common to all murderers. What about family killers like Scott Peterson or Chris Watts who tend to premeditate the murders? Are their brains damaged or are they just plain evil.

    Comment by Patty Sullivan — February 5, 2021 @ 9:55 AM

  12. I find it interesting that Buddhists and other spiritual belief systems teach that the mind is in the heart. While I find Dr. Amen’s information fascinating, I cannot help but think that the brain is a computer lacking human qualities that can only be balanced by integrating heartfelt information into the body. In addition to the critical thinking skills taught in higher education, we also need lessons in meditation to balance mind, body, and spirit for the sake of our sanity.

    Comment by Susana — February 5, 2021 @ 5:36 PM

  13. my husband is a marine corps gulf war veteran. recently he has been diagnosed with cptsd and severe depression. could all the vaccines and pills that were given before and during his deployments cause a TBI.

    Comment by dee dee — February 5, 2021 @ 6:05 PM

  14. i would like to have my own scanner so i could see my brain’s activity – could monitor it better – would love to watch change over time
    thank you very much for your info – as always!

    Comment by penny waters — February 5, 2021 @ 9:02 PM

  15. I am crying because my son and I need and want help and can not afford this. So sad he has to go to jail because their is no help! So sad! So wrong!

    Comment by Bergey Heather — February 6, 2021 @ 2:47 AM

  16. You don’t need a brain scan to know the number one indicator of violence:

    Being a biological MALE!

    Comment by Katherine Adelaide — February 6, 2021 @ 4:42 AM

  17. Dear Angela,
    You are a wonderful caring wife who clearly loves her husband and is desperate for help. I just wanted you to know that someone across the country is thinking about and praying for you and your husband. I really hope he can get help. Too many good people are suffering.

    Comment by Jen — February 6, 2021 @ 5:04 AM

  18. Dr.
    I so wish I could go to your clinic. I cannot afford it. Doctors need to be trained from you so they can order spects and insurance pay. I have medicaid. Please help this. Love you and your wife

    Comment by Nadia Martin — February 6, 2021 @ 5:36 AM

  19. Angela,
    I’m a veteran with PTSD, TBI and resultant mental issues. I have friends with the same. Please don’t give up hope. There are ways to mitigate the things your husband is going through, and they aren’t necessarily expensive, nor what he will likely find at the VA. You are exactly correct in the result of talk therapy! I have experience (not medical advice) in other, easily available, less expensive, and not psychological ways that have helped me. And Badger Balm Stress Soother. Wonderful aromatherapy stuff. I use it for sleep and stress.

    Any veteran can use the local ER system, and the VA will reimburse the hospital. Make sure to give the veterans information on check-in. Please don’t think you must rely on an appointment at the VA.

    I’d like to encourage you in that it’s not your fault. You are not the enemy, nor the cause. If he has left the a/o, it could be because he’s protecting you from what he’s going through. Please give him the space and understanding. Understanding – or even the willingness to try – is critical. If you pray, now is a good time to ask Jesus for protection of your husband’s mind, his person, and his emotions. For some guidance in prayers that will help and not hurt, look up The Power of a Praying Wife.

    There is a hotline for dealing with veterans issues. White House VA Hotline. (855) 948-2311. Stay on the line until you get a live person. If you don’t feel at ease with the person who answers the phone, simply tell them you’re having phone issues (I hate little white lies, but this one might be excusable) and call back. Hopefully you’ll get another person. It’s not connected with the VA – it’s to help you navigate their system, and for veterans who need someone to talk to. 24/7/365.

    Above all, there is hope. Don’t give up.

    N C Carlson, author
    Listed Alphabetically, The Prodigal Daughter

    Comment by Nancy Carlson — February 6, 2021 @ 5:46 AM

  20. I have a son who received a spect, (after fighting for it), frontal lobe-decreased blood flow…has had a multitude of doctors and walk away therapists….He is now 38…(just stated 2-3 years ago, “Mom, my siblings are going on with their families , i need my own life community quiet”.. Since then, in Maine we found him a home..with his dog ,and then the virus hit..and has been isolated for a year….YET-there is no TBI specialist-psych-therapists- etc….With everything this man has been through since 18…..Where is the help?…He is in Waldo county maine..any suggestions……Please..thankyou and God Bless all ….

    Comment by JUDITH a warner — February 6, 2021 @ 5:52 AM

  21. Angela Smalley, regarding your husband – I am in the care of two Amen Clinics doctors after SPECT scans revealed a TBI from multiple concussions, severe PTSD, a mood disorder that appears to be caused by injury to the area of mood regulation, and I have dissociative episodes. My symptoms left me mentally disabled in my 30’s. I am climbing my way out of that status through recovery with The Amen Clinics. Your husband may be a veteran, but the VA currently is not prepared to provide the level of physical improvement in your husband’s brain health that the Amen Clinics can and will if he follows their treatment for whatever his SPECT scans reveal. Please understand the importance of guided psychiatric care with use of SPECT scans. My mental health floundered dangerously while receiving standard psychiatric care for over two decades. In 2020, my mental functioning began improving within three months of the start of the Amen Clinics’ personalized treatment plan and continues to do so. My life is worth the $4000 scans. That is what it came down to. How much money is my quality of life worth? I wish your husband the best of care, and to you both I wish you less cause for concern. Much Respect – Leeann M.

    Comment by Leeann M. — February 6, 2021 @ 6:36 AM

  22. I feel like this starts at birth. Birth trauma can cause a lot of damage that affects the child well into adulthood. i would be fascinated to see what their birth and childhood history is . Similar to TBI. Being born blue at birth and having a cord wrapped around your neck – though ‘resolves quickly’ in the medical view – that trauma stays in the body and affects things. Any loss of O2 at birth or even other seemingly minor things like getting stuck in the birth canal, using forceps, vacuum suction – all affect the child and likely the brain.

    Comment by Amanda — February 6, 2021 @ 7:00 AM

  23. This is very interesting research. Hope you can do more of it.

    Comment by B.j. — February 6, 2021 @ 7:21 AM

  24. Would make common sense that an injured brain would bring about abnormal behavior.

    Comment by Egidio Migioia — February 6, 2021 @ 9:17 AM

  25. I’ve had what I’m told were probably three TIAs. It frightens me because at 77 all I really have to work with is my mind. I’ve had an MRI of my brain which shows minor damage in the past.
    When I was 13 I had a brain injury, the result of flying off my bicycle and landing on my head. I was unconscious for long enough that my brother thought I was dead. My parents did nothing fir me, though it was clear I’d had a concussion, terrible headache and double vision.
    Could this have damaged my brain enough to cause TIAs sixty four years later?

    Comment by Dianne Faucher — February 6, 2021 @ 9:46 AM

  26. Neurofeedback is a very potent technique for teaching the brain better self regulation skills. Applying it to the prison population has been done for decades, going back to the work of Doug Quirk in the 1970’s, dramatically reducing recidivism.
    Brain behavior, the basis for our external behaviors, can be altered!
    If you are struggling with unwanted behaviors, no matter what the cause, emotional trauma, TBI, etc. please find a neurofeedback practitioner in your area and train your brain to support your best intentions.

    Comment by John Mekrut — February 6, 2021 @ 10:18 AM

  27. I agree with Barbara’s comment Feb.5. It is frustrating to desire this kind of care, but it not be affordable. I wish insurance companies would get on board with new ideas and holistic therapy.

    Comment by Erin — February 6, 2021 @ 6:33 PM

  28. I love reading your books and articles, but the cost of your treatment facility is too high for most of us….. it’s sad, it hurts knowing there is help, but insurance company’s can not cover it…. and it will cause us into bankruptcy just to be healthy…

    Comment by Tasha Hoon — February 7, 2021 @ 9:37 AM

  29. Thank you, Daniel Amen and Team. This is such very important information and my hope is that eventually it moves into mainstream consideration as we continue to advance as a society and planet.

    Comment by Lisa Boisvert — February 7, 2021 @ 8:08 PM

  30. My 33 year old daughter had a SPECT Scan and evaluation two years ago, and was told that her previous diagnosis of Bi-polar Affective Disorder was incorrect, and she was actually displaying symptoms of high functioning Autism, and the correct diagnosis should be Asperger’s Syndrome. The attending psychiatrist at your clinic advised her to cut back, and eventually eliminate the medication she was taking for bi-polar disorder, and to increase an SSRI medication. Although we could see some of the symptoms that fit your psychiatrist’s diagnosis (and I do believe there is a “cluster” of symptoms that presently contribute to our daughter’s proper diagnosis), it was disastrous when she altered these medications. Bi-polar behaviors increased, along with some aggressive behaviors that she had not displayed previously. She has now discontinued the SSRI medication and is back on a medication for Bi-polar disorder, as prescribed by her local psychiatrist. I actually believe that your attending psychiatrist was projecting some of her own symptoms. I am a neurofeedback practitioner, and our daughter has benefited from sessions, as well. I believe that the work you do at Amen Clinic is of extreme importance, but I also feel that perhaps some of your psychiatrists’ work should be better peer reviewed, particularly of your younger, less experienced ones. Your attending psychiatrist ruled out Bi-polar disorder based on the fact that our daughter did not go for days without sleeping. Pretty much everyone in this field of work knows that there is more than one type of Bi-polar/mood disorder, and her assessment, I believe was incorrect. I am wondering if our daughter might have been given a completely different (or at least more comprehensive) diagnosis, had she seen a different psychiatrist at your clinic.

    Comment by Margaret Arter — February 12, 2021 @ 8:27 AM

  31. Hello Margaret, thank you for reaching out and informing us of your experience. Our Clinic Director at Amen Clinics Chicago would be happy to speak to you, please contact her at 224-804-9223.

    Comment by Amen Clinics — February 15, 2021 @ 1:40 PM

  32. If you cannot afford to pay for a scan or a clinic visit, you might find some relief in Dr. Amen’s book, Change Your Brain, Change Your Life. I bought a used paperback copy on Amazon. Contains tests that can tell you which remedies might help you. Some are very simple. Lots of tips for calming your mind.

    Comment by Barbara — February 16, 2021 @ 2:23 PM

  33. Interesting studies and ensuing discussion. I’m a 36 year old woman with moderate autism/Asperger Syndrome (which I wasn’t diagnosed with until age 29, in 2014; diagnosed previously with mild OCD and generalized anxiety as a teen). I always did well academically and love reading/researching things, but I’m not very good socially, or at managing frustration and very unexpected things. I did well at all grade levels in school, only to find employment very challenging. It’s easy for me to sit and learn patiently in a chair in a closed setting, like school, but not easy to adapt to all the social nuances and rapid pace of most lines of work. I’ve often wondered what my brain scans would show. I was born to an older mother (almost 43 years old at my birth), had umbilical cord wrapped around my neck, jaundice at birth. Older half sister suspected autism early, but I was too verbal, happy at home, and otherwise well adjusted for a diagnosis, especially back then in the 1980s and 1990s when only the more extreme, male, nonverbal forms of autism were understood. Hope to continue to learn more about the brain, human differences, and all the factors that affect us in this mysterious life.

    Comment by Khendra Murdock — February 19, 2021 @ 2:35 PM

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