The Hidden Truth About True Crime Stories

True crime is one of the most popular genres these days, and Americans can’t seem to get enough of these tales of murder, deception, and scandal. The Jinx, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, Dirty John—these are just some of the true crime stories that have captured our collective attention. The one burning question that all these books, documentaries, and TV series ask is why? Why did they do it?

The storytellers often point to many external factors—love, money, revenge—as the motives behind why people kill, cheat, and lie. But there’s one thing they’re missing—the brain. At the foundation of all these heinous acts is brain dysfunction. Yet, nobody is talking about it.

In this blog, you’ll discover how the brain is involved in literally every criminal act, every scandal, and every shocking case of deceit. More importantly, you’ll learn how improving brain health is the key to decreasing criminal activity.

The one burning question that all true crime books, documentaries, and TV series ask is why? Why did they do it? There’s one thing they’re missing—the brain. At the foundation of all these heinous acts is brain dysfunction. Click To Tweet


For over 30 years, Amen Clinics has been performing brain scans on patients using an advanced technology called single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT).

SPECT measures blood flow and activity in the brain. SPECT scans reveal areas of the brain with healthy activity, too much activity, and too little activity.

Amen Clinics has built the world’s largest database of functional brain scans related to behavior with over 250,000 SPECT scans. Based on these brain scans, it’s clear that when parts of the brain are overactive or underactive, it’s associated with emotional, cognitive, and behavioral problems.

In general, the brains of murderers, cheaters, and thieves don’t look healthy. Here are 5 ways the brain impacts criminal behavior.

  1. Aggression is related to 3 brain activity patterns.

Amen Clinics has scanned the brains of 75 murderers, in addition to hundreds of people who have committed violent crimes, including kidnapping, domestic assault, bombings, and rape. Their brain scans reveal 3 patterns of brain activity linked to aggression.

  • Impulsive Aggressive Type: This type is associated with reduced blood flow in the frontal lobes (hypofrontality). Research has linked this type to antisocial personality disorder. Individuals with low blood flow in the prefrontal cortex (PFC) often struggle to control aggressive impulses, increasing the likelihood of committing violent acts.
  • Compulsive Aggressive Type: This type is found in people with too much activity in the frontal lobes (hyperfrontality). These individuals tend to explode due to cognitive inflexibility or getting stuck on negative thoughts.
  • Temporal Lobe Abnormalities: This type involves abnormal blood flow levels in the temporal lobes and/or frontal lobes. In an analysis of SPECT and MRI scans involving 21 violent offenders convicted of impulsive crimes, experts found that 16 of the criminals had varying levels of reduced blood flow in these brain regions. The perpetrators’ MRI scans, however, showed no anatomical problems or other abnormalities.
  1. Murderers may have low blood flow in the brain.

Murderers all kill, but the brain activity that contributes to this terrible act isn’t uniform. In some cases, they may have low blood flow or underactivity in the brain, which was the case with Kip Kinkel.

In 1998, 15-year-old Kinkel murdered his parents in cold blood before using a semi-automatic rifle to gun down his classmates at Thurston High School in a horrific mass shooting. Kinkel, who had been diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), clinical depression, and dyslexia, killed two students and wounded 25 more.

A SPECT scan of Kinkel’s brain was displayed at his trial. The murderer’s brain scan revealed marked overall decreased blood flow, primarily in two regions:

  • Left medial temporal lobe
  • Inferior orbital prefrontal cortex

On SPECT scans, this pattern is often seen in people who have been exposed to toxins, those who have infections, and individuals who have experienced anoxia (when the brain is deprived of oxygen).

Look at the following scan of a healthy brain compared to a scan from Kip Kinkel.

Healthy Surface SPECT Scan

Healthy Surface SPECT Scan

Full, even, symmetrical activity.

Kip Kinkel’s Surface SPECT Scan

Kip Kinkel’s Surface SPECT Scan

Several areas of low blood flow (the areas that look like holes indicate low blood flow)

Kinkel’s brain scans also showed overall low activity throughout the brain.

Healthy Active SPECT Scan

Healthy Active SPECT Scan

 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 brain, the most active area is in the cerebellum, at the back/bottom part of the brain.

Kip Kinkel’s Active SPECT Scan

Kip Kinkel’s Active SPECT Scan

Severe underactivity throughout the brain

  1. Murderers may have overactive brains.

In some instances, killers may have brains with too much activity. As an example, look at Paul, a teenage murderer.

Paul was 15 years old when he used a baseball bat to murder his mom and 8-year-old sister. Diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia, Paul was confrontational and had a challenging relationship with his mother. In a heated rage, he grabbed the bat and killed her as well as his little sister.

Paul’s SPECT scan shows severe overactivity in the brain, especially in two regions:

  • Prefrontal cortex—associated with forethought, judgment, and empathy
  • Anterior cingulate gyrus (ACG)—the brain’s gear shifter, intended to help people go from one thought to another or one action to another

When there’s too much activity in the ACG, people tend to be more compulsive. In addition, they are more likely to get stuck on negative thought patterns and unhealthy behavior.

Paul’s Active SPECT Scan

Dramatic overactivity throughout the brain

  1. Traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) are linked to criminal behavior.

Concussions are a major cause of mental health disorders, but most people don’t know this because psychiatry is the only medical specialty that rarely looks at the organ it treats—the brain.

People who have had head injuries are far more likely to engage in violent behavior compared with those who have never experienced a concussion. In fact, research shows that 35% to 90% of traumatic brain injury sufferers display aggression and violence.

Having a concussion increases the risk of criminal behavior, according to brain-imaging research. One study found that people who have had a TBI are 2.5 times more likely to be incarcerated than those who had not suffered from head trauma.

In many of the murderers scanned at Amen Clinics, evidence of previous head trauma can be seen on their SPECT scans.

  1. Hidden dementia can lead to criminal behavior.

In some people, a specific type of dementia called frontotemporal dementia (FTD) can lead to uncharacteristic behaviors. Take Matthew, for example. Formerly a successful real estate developer, he became a compulsive gambler when he turned 60. Over time, he gambled away so much money, he was facing jail time because he owed the IRS a hefty amount of back taxes.

How could someone who had always been a law-abiding citizen turn into a criminal in later life? His SPECT scan showed evidence of a neurodegenerative disease. His brain showed severely abnormal activity in several areas related to impulse control, judgment, compulsive behavior, and more.

Matthew’s brain had changed, causing his bad behaviors.

  1. In some cases, standard mental health treatments can worsen symptoms.

The brain-imaging scans at Amen Clinics clearly show that many standard treatment programs for mental health problems don’t work for everyone. And in some cases, they can lead to aggressive behaviors.

In part, this is because mental health conditions are not singular or simple disorders. They all have multiple types. You need to know your type to get the most effective treatment.

Indeed, many of the criminals we have scanned at Amen Clinics were being treated for mental illness prior to getting scanned. Their SPECT scans helped us see that some of them had been misdiagnosed.

In addition, a high percentage of them were taking the wrong medications, which exacerbated their symptoms and may have contributed to their criminal behavior.

Take selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), for example. One of the most common types of antidepressants, SSRIs are typically viewed as safe. But they aren’t safe for everyone.

In some individuals with underactivity in specific areas of the brain, SSRIs can trigger impulsivity and uncharacteristic behaviors.

One study found that certain antidepressants can also heighten the likelihood of violence, murder, and self-harm. The risk for increased suicidal thinking and behaviors is so significant, antidepressants carry a black box warning for young people up to the age of 25.

Fortunately, new research shows that brain imaging—such as SPECT and functional MRI (fMRi)—can help psychiatrists understand which people are more likely to respond well to treatment with antidepressants.


The brain and mental health professionals at Amen Clinics have spent more than three decades helping people enhance their brain health and improve their life. This goes for people with a criminal history too.

In general, better brain function leads to better decision making, better judgment, and better behavior. Focusing on increasing brain health at the earliest signs of trouble may be a way to avoid the shocking behavior that leads to all those true crime stories.

Aggression, violence, and other mental health issues can’t wait. At Amen Clinics, we’re here for you. We offer in-clinic brain scanning and appointments, as well as mental telehealth, clinical evaluations, and therapy for adults, teens, children, and couples. Find out more by speaking to a specialist today at 888-288-9834 or visit our contact page here.

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