Ted Talk, Mind of a serial killer

I was drawn to this topic mainly because I have always been fascinated with Murder. I know that sounds terrible and psychotic, but there is a reason why shows like forensic files and murder mystery novels are popular, and that is that murder is interesting. The Ted talk itself was not as interesting in my opinion but it was done quite well and was very informative. During the talk Jim Fallon explained how he studied the brains of psychopathic killers. He talked about three main things that contribute to having the mind of a serial killer. The first contributor to serial killers is genes and how men inherit a specific gene from their mothers that causes them to resist the effects of serotonin. The second was brain damage and how most serial killers have the same specific parts of the brain that are damaged. The last contributor was the environment and how it can cause said genes to become expressed in the individual. Jim Fallon stated during the talk that all three of these things must come together at the right time to cause someone to become a murderer.

The most intriguing part of this talk was the idea that a portion of the population could have the genes to become serial killers. It made me wonder if anyone I know or even anyone in my family could have been or could be murderers. The presenter seems exceptionally trustworthy due to his credentials as a professor and researcher of neuroscience.

A research question I thought of after this Ted talk is weather or not cannibals show the same qualities as serial killers such as the specific brain damage and genes. I’m curious as to if they perceive the people they eat as people or as just another meal. I would conduct this research in the same manner as Jim Fallon. I would have someone look at the brains and genes of the cannibals without knowing that they are cannibals, and determine if they have similar brain damage and genes as serial killers.

Mind Readers Unite

Rebecca Saxe: How we read each other’s minds

Seeing a video suggesting that we would learn about how we as people, read what others are thinking, really caught my eye. I already wrote about how I struggle picking up on silent, social cues as well as being able to tell whether or not the person I was talking to was mad. As a funny personal little anecdote: Just recently, I mustered up the courage to talk to a boy and ask for his number. I texted him as a suggestion from my friend, but, he gave no response after 2 and a half days. Of course now I’m thinking, oh my gosh I made such a mistake. What was I thinking? What is he thinking? Why didn’t he respond? Why hasn’t this boy texted me back? This seems like a trivial problem, but when a boy I’m interested, or any other person in fact, doesn’t respond to my messages (whether that be through facebook messenger, text, DM, email, etc) I get super upset and anxious, wondering about what the other person is thinking on the other side.

This talk  basically surrounded the problem of  why it is hard to “know what somebody else wants” as well as “how is it so easy to know people’s minds.” Rebecca, the TED Talk speaker, began with showing a picture of a mother looking down (fondly) at her baby. She said that of course we could assume what the mother was thinking at that moment. Rebecca is a cognitive neuroscientist. She created a project and basically discovered the special place in our brains dedicated especially to think about what other’s might think- called the “Parietal Junction. It’s used just for the purpose of understanding others.

She also points out that it takes an extensive amount of time to develop this skill of understanding others. Understanding beliefs different from their own is something that we learned in psychology that it is no easy task and is not fully developed till adulthood. A standard puzzle false belief task was used. The kid at age 5 understood that other people get false beliefs and understands that there are consequences with those. The kid at age 3 could not see the other’s point of view. So, the three year old comes up with an alternative explanation. At age seven is when another kid finally says that the wind, not the person is to blame. The same is repeated for moral judgement. Rebecca’s study sent kids to get their brain scanned to track ability development. The children’s parietal junction’s This shows again, the continuous development of the human mind, especially in that parietal junction region.

The cognitive and brain system develops slowly. Even in adulthood, some adults vary in degrees of aptitude when thinking of others’ thoughts. Rebecca showed us some evidence that implied that it would be possible to see how adults think and how to actually change those thoughts slightly. I found the adult end results most interesting. Another example was used for the adults. It was basically talking about intent and how much blame if any the culprit should get for giving powder to another that was thought by her to be poison. Using the TMS: Trans-Cranial Magnetic Stimulation tool, a magnetic pulse was passed through the skull into that brain region which temporarily scrambled the neural functions in that space. If there was less activity in that region, people said the culprit deserved a lot of brain. If there was a lot of activity on the right side of the brain, people thought she deserved less brain for the accident.


To me, the presenter was very knowledgable as well as trustworthy. She spoke in a tone that was easy to understand and seemed to really say things with an authoritative tone, implying her understand of the research done. The way she stood up and talked as well as giving example after example of what had happened: case studies with kids, bringing up MIT student brains, saying that she took brain scans of both kids and adults,… really convinced me that the material was truthful especially when she seemed to speak with good intentions. Also, she never paused. I find when the presenter smoothly presents her work, I am more inclined to think that he or she knows what he or she is talking about.

A research idea of my own would be to test how long the usual Austin College boy waits to text a girl back. This a petty test, but humor me. Based on the talk, I would use another method to perform some tests asking people of their opinions. I would ask a random selection of boys freshman to senior year to listen to a scenario. It would take a while, but I would say something along the lines of: “A girl named Sophie texts you. You two hit it off and she gives you her number. How long would you wait to text her back.” So, in this case, the boy will need to realize that he should, in the scenario, already show interest in Sophie. Then, I would record all the results of how many hours or days or even if he replies at all. Then, I would find a region of the brain from past literature that showed thoughts about these things and then use that same TMS tool to see what would happen if I were to touch that region in the brain and then I would record my results.


Inside the Mind of a Killer

USA - Crime - O.J. Simpson Trial - Armed Robbery and Kidnapping

I chose to watch Jim Fallon’s TED talk about investigating the minds of killers. My own morbid curiosity is what attracted me to this talk. In addition to this, the connection between abnormal behaviors and irregularities in the brain is also something that interests me.

Jim Fallon, a neuroscientist, gave a summary of his research on psychopathic killers. He examined the combination of genes, environment, and brain damage that give rise to psychopathic killers. The main culprit appeared to be damage to the orbital cortex and the anterior part of the temporal lobe. He also identified an X-linked “violence” gene called MAOA. In utero, the MAOA gene causes the brain to be bathed in serotonin. Later in life, this confers a decreased sensitivity of the brain to serotonin. Although having the MAOA gene produces violent tendencies, it alone cannot create a psychopathic killer. Serial killers often have both the MAOA gene and are exposed to violence in early development.

I found the speaker and his findings to be very credible. The jargon that he used to describe his research demonstrated that he had experience in the field of psychology. He discussed factors that shape development (environment, genes, and trauma) that we recently learned about. The mechanism by which the MAOA gene increases somebody’s violent tendencies is also sound. Your brain’s tolerance to a neurotransmitter directly correlates with how often you expose your brain to it. He also mentioned that the study he conducted was double-bind. In this type of experiment, neither the researcher nor the participants knew what group, experimental or control, the participants are in.

In the future, I would like to see if the MAOA gene can be linked to other psychological disorders, since serotonin deficiency is linked to so many other problems. I would use case studies to track the development of individuals with the MAOA gene over the course of their lives. By doing this, I could examine traits that can be attributed to genetics as well as traits that can be attributed one’s environment.

Week 4 First Impression


As I mentioned in my first post, I have some background in philosophy and am fascinated by morality. Morality can be very simply described as the way by which we distinguish right from wrong in a given situation. It is important because it has a profound effect on our behavior. We tend to be far more likely to do things that are considered to be good than things that are considered to be bad. This is obvious, but how do we determine what is good or bad? Most of us will use religion or the law, which is a societal construct, as our moral framework but neither of these options are flawless. Philosophers started to try and answer this question over two thousand years ago and we still don’t have a perfect answer. This TED talk interested me because I saw the word morality in the title and wanted to know what the presenter had to say on the topic.

This talk by Dr. Paul Zak, a professor of psychology at Claremont Graduate University, focuses on establishing oxytocin, normally released during birth, breastfeeding, and sex, as “the moral molecule.” Dr. Zak begins by pointing out the importance of morality and then explains his theory that oxytocin increases trust, trustworthiness, empathy, and morality. He bases this statement on a series of experiments he conducted. The first was an experiment designed to show that oxytocin increases trust and trustworthiness. He placed multiple individuals in isolation and gave them ten dollars. They were then asked if they would like to give a portion of the ten dollars, which would be tripled, to another participant of the study who would have the option of sending some money back to the original participant. Dr. Zak measured the amount of oxytocin before and after the experiment was performed and found that individuals who gave more and individuals who returned more had greater amounts of oxytocin in their blood. He then ran a series of similar experiments where he gave some of the participants a nasal inhaler of oxytocin and some a placebo and found that the oxytocin increased money transfers by 80%. He conducted another experiment to show that oxytocin was tied to empathy by having participants watch a video of a father with his four-year-old son who had brain cancer and then measuring their oxytocin levels. This was followed by testing people before and after a wedding as well as during social media usage to further draw a link between oxytocin and empathy. The presentation concludes with Dr. Zak instructing the audience that they could increase their oxytocin levels by giving 8 hugs a day and that it would make them happier by improving relationships of all kinds.

I found this TED talk interesting primarily because of the implications of this research because having a chemical that can increase trust, trustworthiness, empathy, morality, happiness, and the strength of relationships sounds too good to be true. The information presented does, at first glance, seem solid but the longer you think about it, the more it starts to fall apart. To begin, most of the research focuses on empathy and trust and while these are both good attributes to have, they are not, in and of themselves morality. I also have an issue with the way that Dr. Zak brushed over the happiness claim by just stating that they had found it to be true but not explaining any kind of research or experiment. The claim that oxytocin increases happiness and improves relationships is the most grandiose but it also has the weakest basis in fact and would be extremely hard to prove. I’m not sure how you would operationalize happiness in a comprehensive way or how you would effectively demonstrate improvement in a relationship because there are so many variables you can’t control in people’s lives that it would be hard to definitively show that the oxytocin alone was responsible. Dr. Zak also doesn’t explain why he specified that you need to have eight hugs a day. Why does it need to be eight? Do you release a specific amount of oxytocin per hug and is there some kind of requisite amount of oxytocin necessary to experience the benefits of oxytocin? I also wonder if there may be some other attribute of the hug that increases happiness rather than oxytocin. For example, hugs, in our society, are demonstrations of affection and companionship. Could it be that increased feelings of acceptance and intimacy caused by the frequent hugs are what cause the increase in happiness? There is also the issue that other studies have found that oxytocin can increase feelings of envy and decrease cooperation. Consequently, it seems that we’ll need a lot more research before we can definitively describe the effects of oxytocin.

I would like to examine Dr. Zak’s claim that eight hugs a day will increase happiness by improving relationships. The focus of this research then would be to determine the effects of hugs on happiness. I would conduct this research by randomly selecting 200 people and assigning half of them to give exactly eight hugs a day without telling them why to reduce the possibility of participants experiencing a placebo effect. Over the course of six months, I would have participants rate their happiness on a scale of one to ten and write a short description of why they assigned that value to their happiness each week. At the end of this six-month period, I would give a comprehensive debriefing to the participants and then analyze the data retrieved by the experiment. I would look to see if the group who gave hugs showed an over-all increase in their happiness scale selections and then see if their short descriptions attributed their happiness to improvements in relationships or other factors. The main issue with this experiment would be that a person’s own reflection on their happiness may be inaccurate or may be affected by outside influences but as I mentioned in the previous paragraph, it would be extremely difficult to come up with a comprehensive operational value for happiness.

Neuroscience // Toward a New Understanding of Mental Illness

Thomas Insel: Toward a New Understanding of Mental Illness

This week, I watched a Tedx CalTech talk by Thomas Insel titled “Toward a new understanding of mental illness”. I was drawn to this talk in hopes of learning and understanding more about mental illness. The speaker, Thomas Insel, is not only a neuroscientist and psychiatrist, but also the Director of the National Institute of Mental Health. Insel’s abundant research and experience in neuroscience and neurobiology make him a trustworthy source on the topic of mental illness. In this talk, Insel compared deaths from commonly known illnesses (heart disease, leukemia, etc.) to deaths from mental illness. He discussed the importance of early detection, and how it has significantly lowered death rates of heart disease and leukemia over the years. Intel questions of we could do the same with mental illness. He suggests understanding the brain and brain disorders as the key to understanding mental illness. What I found most interesting from this talk is that Insel brought up how we only acknowledge mental illness when we observe a behavioral disorder. For mental illness, early detection is not emphasized. Insel pointed out by the time we observe the behavioral part of mental illness, it is already past the early detection stage.

If I were to come up with a research idea based on the information from this presentation, I will use the experimental method. This experiment will test the idea of early detection  of mental disorders and observable behavior of mental disorders. To conduct this experiment, I will use neuroimaging technology to detect brain abnormality in children from the ages of 3-10. The experiment will be conducted over a period of time, as I will have to follow up with the children’s parents each year to record whether there are signs of behavioral disorders.

Toward a New Understanding of Mental Illness- First Impression Post

This week in psychology we are studying neuroscience, so beforehand I watched a TED Talk, given by Thomas Insel, about mental illness. When we typically think of psychology, we typically just think of the diseases, like schizophrenia, associated with psychology. What we don’t typically think of is how all of psychology is attached to the brain. Many don’t even get as far to think of mental disorders, or as Insel prefers them to be called, brain disorders. Mental illness has been highly stigmatized throughout history, and still is today; this is why few want to research them, because they could go on to “bigger” things like cancer and heart disease. Unless you have a brain disorder, or are very close to someone with one, you don’t usually understand mental illness, and are more accustomed to thinking about other diseases. Being a sufferer of depression and anxiety, I understand how debilitating the diseases can be, and know how true the early onset is. I’ve had symptoms of depression for many years, but I wasn’t diagnosed until a couple of months ago, because no one really knew about depression or anxiety around me, so I didn’t even know I needed help. Insel makes a good point about the umbrella of mental illnesses having connections to the brain, even on scans, because many think it’s all in a person’s view of the world and not biology. Another great thing he did was show the difference between the amount of work we’ve done with heart disease and other major diseases, because even though the other disease are important, we haven’t payed enough attention to mental illness. stop-the-stigma-of-mental-illness-e1381250784828Even though behaviors and symptoms are important, what causes them are more important, because we could use that to stop the disease or at least calm the symptoms. Personally, Neuroscience is my favorite part of psychology, because I think the brain is the world’s biggest puzzle, and I like to know how things work.

The Real Reason For Brains

First and foremost the reason I was drawn to this topic is because its not one that I’ve heard done in depth before. Everyone of course knows the basic reason for brains is thinking and thought processes but I figured maybe this man could provide a more detailed description or maybe even put me on to a new method of thinking for this topic.

To summarize the talk Wolpert states that our brains were made to do one thing and that is to produce movement. He argues throughout his presentation that their are other things that involve our brain such as love and memories and stuff of that nature but by using examples such as the Sea Squirts, he shows us that the thoughts are really irrelevant and that the only thing our brain does of importance is allowing us to think of how we need to move to further ourselves in evolution.

I feel as though Wolpert is a very reliable source because of his background in the subject. He states that he is a Neuroscientist and an engineer and I find these two subjects to be two of the hardest to master so if he was able to perform well in these two areas he must know what he is doing. Also he was very well informed on the subject at hand and knew everything about his power point before presenting.

To test this theory I can only find 1 way in my brain and for me to do this would be a little unethical but I feel like would result in the best results. In the power point he talks about movement being the only thing we need our brain to produce to survive.  I would like to take a control group of everyday people who are married with kids as a sense of passion and love and another group who was completely isolated from emotion much like that of the caveman style of living with 2 goals in life and those are to survive and repopulate. I would then study these 2 groups from beginning to end of their lives and compare how well they stack up to each other in terms of what we call a good life and their overall status of “life” or how healthy they are.


Serial Killers


I chose to watch Jim Fallon: Exploring the mind of a killer because I have a guilty pleasure of watching shows like Criminal Minds and CSI where they investigate serial killers. Serial killers are kind of a cultural fascination, and I think all of us wonder how someone gets to the point of killing multiple people. Jim Fallon is a neuroscientist from the University of California who studied the brains of psychopathic killers. He studies both normal brains and the brains of psychopaths and does not know if the brain belonged to a psychopath or a normal person in order to develop a blind experiment. Fallon notes that a combination of genes, biological-epigenetic brain damage, and environment along with timing can lead to the creation of a psychopath. The people who were murderers or serial killers all had damage to their orbital lobes and anterior temporal cortex. Fallon says the MAOA, which he refers to as a violence gene, can impact whether someone is a psychopath. The gene is sex linked, meaning it is found on the X chromosome. Fallon postulates that this is why serial killers may be more commonly male than female. Since the gene is on the X chromosome, a female has two which could balance one another out while a male only has one from his mother so the gene is more likely to be expressed. I thought it was very interesting that normal people can have this gene too without having any negative effect, but combined with other factors, the person could become a killer. I also thought that the attempt to explain why there are more male serial killers than female serial killers biologically was very interesting and deserves more thought. Fallon also links the MAOA gene to serotonin. He explains that an excess of serotonin during development in utero leads to the brain becoming insensitive to it, so the calming effects of serotonin can’t be felt later in life. He believes that this could lead to a person becoming a murderer.


I found this research very interesting and rooted in the scientific method until Fallon hypothesized about why areas of violence developed through the concentration of the MAOA gene. It may be an interesting idea, but I think the claim would need to be backed up with more evidence for the scientific community to believe it. Fallon then went into his own family tree which was more of an anecdotal case study. He talked about how he is related to Lizzie Borden and other murders and how he felt the need to use PET scans, EEGs, and genetic analysis on members of his family to see if there are any patterns that may show risk signs for psychopathy. It seems that they are all in the clear for now. I found this story interesting and kind of funny, but it does not lead to any conclusions about the MAOA gene or how murderous traits may be passed through generations.


I immediately found Fallon to be trustworthy because of his credentials as a professor. The fact that the scientific community trusted him with the brains of serial killers and normal people also spoke to his credibility. I found him most reputable in the first part of his lecture when he was talking about his lecture, but he began to lose a bit of credibility when he began postulating without scientific evidence and trying to use what he had found to explain a phenomena in violent areas. I think that this was a bit more of guess work and was very interesting a s an idea, but I did not find it to be reputable or held up by scientific data.


If I was going to continue along this kind of research, I would look at the brains of people who commit violent crimes other than murder such as rape, robbery, or assault to see if the brains of these kind of offenders are also different from the average brain. It would be interesting to note the difference between the brains of rapists and serial killers. I would use the same kind of experimental model as Fallon because by creating a blind experiment in which the researcher does not know who a  brain comes from eliminates some bias. The researcher would note the size of the structures of the brain and anything else that they find interesting about the brain. This data could then be used to see any kind of correlation in type of crime and brain shape and could be used to compare the brains of different types of offenders.


Over all, I found this TED talk very interesting, and I think more research should be done on this subject to be able to develop larger conclusions about the genetic seeds of violence.


Moral Molecule

screen-shot-2017-02-19-at-6-45-09-pmWhat is morality one might ask; morality is knowing the distinction between right and wrong and good or bad. I was drawn to this talk because everyday we are told to make decisions, some of them being hard and some being easy. But, for each decision there are two choices; one that you want to do and one that you need to do.

In this talk Paul Zak talked about how oxytocin is the morality drug. I was interested in this because he mentioned that oxytocin does not last very long and is a “shy” drug meaning that there needs to be a certain stimuli for the drug to be naturally released in the body. If this drug is the one that leads us to make decisions but only last a certain amount of time, how are we to make decisions properly. Another thing that I found interesting, as well as made Paul Zak a more trustworthy presenter was he based his result off of research. He made sure to explain the process of research that he did, as well as some of the challenges he faced when using oxytocin.

If I had to come up with a research idea of my own based on the information based on the talk I would probably do it in a similar fashion that Paul Zak conducted the research only because of the multiple limitations that oxytocin has. I would find participants and explain to them what we would be testing and how we would be testing it. Then I would inject the participant with the oxytocin and provide the participant with a stimulant so that the oxytocin naturally produced in the body would also be released. I would then ask a series of questions that would be same for all the participants and have a scale to measure their responses. After that I would be able to figure out results and since the sample was randomly selected be able to generalize them to a population!

First Impression Post (FIP) – The mind of a killer

This week in psychology, we are learning about different parts of the brain and how it affects different functions.  We were given multiple TED Talks to choose from to watch and I chose the TED Talks video titled “Exploring the mind of a killer.”

This topic is very interesting to me, because murderers don’t seem to have the same moral values that most people in society have, so the study of the way their mind works sounds interesting to me.  In the video, Jim Fallon, a neuroscientist and a professor at the University of California talked about his in depth research, specifically in the past few years, surrounding psychopathic killers.  He talked about the structural differences between the brains of these killers and the brains of normal individuals.  He also discussed how the gene MAOA, a major violence gene, can easily be passed on from mother to son, during the early developmental stages.  This could be a reason why most psychopathic killers are often males, because more men seem to carry this particular gene.  However, it is only triggered when the child with this gene has experienced something extremely violent before the age they hit puberty.  Jim Fallon went on to discuss his own dark family history and how it has shaped the way he views his own family tree.

What I found most interesting about the talk was the fact that many “normal” people in society could possibly be carriers of the MAOA gene and not even realize it.  It makes me question what act of violence would be so great that seeing it as a child would cause a lasting psychological change in that person’s mind.

Overall, I found the presenter to be trustworthy, primarily because he is an experienced neuroscientist and a professor and because he seemed very passionate about the topic he was discussing.  He also noted the many complex brains of killers that he had studied during his research.

By using the information presented in the video, I too, could conduct a research project, possibly surrounding the question of when do individuals with this triggered MAOA gene feel the need to murder or incite violence into the world?  I would look at specific cases of killers and see at what age they began to show signs of violence.  I think it would be interesting to know how the gene affected each of them at different times in their life and to look into possible reasons or triggers for this.