The Mind of the Las Vegas Shooter: Empathy Deficit

What was the motivation for a 64-year-old White male to turn his room on the 32nd floor of a Las Vegas hotel into a killing platform, with premeditated and purposeful intent to kill random innocent people attending a concert?  What motivated him to purposely cause such horror, grieving, and loss? There seems nothing to explain his motivation.  He had no “cause.”  He had no extremist ideology.  He left no delusional manifesto.  He seemed so normal… up until the killing of innocents.

It seemingly makes no sense.

I am a clinical psychologist.  Understanding the human mind and human motivation is what I do.  I understand why he did what he did, because I understand the way the human mind works, and the features of his actions reveal their cause.

I will attempt to reconstruct the shooter’s motivation based on the act.  There are only a limited number of psychological factors that can create that action.  Normal-range humans do not do what he did.  The abnormality of his actions provide the key clues into the motivational origins for the killing.

Like Alice having fallen down the rabbit hole of unfathomable insanity, we find ourselves in front of three locked doors.  On the table in the center of the room are three keys, one for each door.  One-by-one I will unlock each door and we will view the damaged mind within.  Once all three doors are opened, and once we have viewed the psychological damage behind each of these doors, I will weave together the psychological motivation for the senseless killing.  Then I will open a small bottle on the table that reads, “Drink me.”  This is the psychological trigger for the event.  Why now?  Why after 64 years of a seemingly normal life, did the shooter decide to kill and die, now.

There are three key features to the shooter’s action, the characteristic features of the terrorist mind of pathological violence:

1.)  A profound absence of normal-range empathy.

The developmental origins of empathy are understood by professional psychology, we understand how empathy networks develop, and we understand the causes for damage to the empathy networks.  There are a limited set of factors that will create such profoundly absent empathy.  The absence of empathy creates the capacity for human cruelty.

2.)  The absence of shared social morality.

Normal people do not turn their room on the 32nd floor of a Las Vegas hotel into a killing platform to randomly kill innocent people.  Normal people understand that this is morally repugnant and horrific.  The actions of the Las Vegas shooter are morally repulsive, emotionally and psychologically repulsive.  There are a limited set of factors that can overcome our normal-range moral repulsion for such an abhorrent act of senseless violence.

3.)  A desire to inflict immense suffering.

This third door is the most important door to unlock.  Behind this door we will find the source-origin for the savage brutality.  Normal people desire bonding.  Normal people want to be loved.  Normal people have compassion for others.  Normal people do not seek to inflict immense suffering on others.  Normal people do not obtain psychological gratification from the suffering of others.  Behind this door we will find the dark malignancy of evil.  What damage to the normal operation of brain systems is needed to create psychological satisfaction from causing immense suffering in others?  Unlocking this feature is key to unlocking the motivation of evil.

Absence of Empathy

In the developmental wiring of brain networks the guiding principle is, “We build what we use.”  This is called “use-dependent” development.  Every time we use a brain cell or brain network, structural and chemical changes take place that make it more likely that this brain cell or brain network will fire in the future. 

If we want to learn to play the piano, all we have to do is use the brain networks responsible for playing the piano over-and-over again, practice playing the piano, and soon we will be able to play the piano.  This is the use-dependent development of the brain networks for playing the piano.

The same is true for all brain networks.  If we want to become timid and afraid, then all we must do is continually focus our attention on frightening imagery and thoughts and we will become timid and frightened.  We build what we use.  If we want to learn a foreign language, we simply repeat the language, using it over-and-over, and we will build the brain networks used in the foreign language.  Use-dependent development; we build what we use.

Empathy is a set of social networks that allow us to feel what the other person feels as if we were having the experience ourselves.  The empathy networks of the brain are bi-directional social networks that bind us psychologically to the social group.  Being shown empathy in childhood builds our capacity to have empathy for others as adults.  Showing empathy for others build’s their capacity for empathy.

The foundational wiring of the empathy networks develop early in childhood through their use-dependent development by the parent who responds empathically to the child’s inner experience (rather than outward behavior).  When the parent responds with empathic attunement to the child’s inner experience, this builds through use-dependent neural processes the child’s own social-empathic capacity for others.  Use-dependent development; we build what we use.

Empathy networks are a bi-directional social brain system.  The child’s empathy networks are built when they are used by the parent who shows empathy for the child’s inner experience.

The profound absence of empathy evidenced in the actions of the Las Vegas shooter indicates that the shooter was not psychologically connected to the social community of shared humanity.  The absence of empathy is linked to the capacity for human cruelty.  The absence of empathy indicates that the shooter had a foundational deficit in the development of the empathy networks of the brain, meaning that as a child he was not shown empathy for his inner psychological experience so he did not develop the social-psychological capacity for empathy with the experience of others. 

He was psychologically alone to a degree that most of us cannot comprehend.  This psychological isolation from the shared social field meant that other people were objects for him.  He wanted us to be people, he wanted to be part of our shared social field, but his social-empathy networks were damaged.  He couldn’t live in us.

Through the empathy networks of the brain (called “intersubjectivity” in the developmental research literature) we create a shared psychological state.  This shared psychological state is called an “intersubjective field” in the research literature and has been extensively studied because of its central role in language acquisition and emotional regulation (the Harvard researcher Edward Tronick calls it a “dyadic state of consciousness”).

From Tronic:  “When mutual regulation is particularly successful, that is when the age-appropriate forms of meaning (e.g., affects, relational intentions, representations; see Tronick 2002c, d) from one individual’s state of consciousness are coordinated with the meanings of another’s state of consciousness — I have hypothesized that a dyadic state of consciousness emerges.” (Tronick, 2003, p. 475)

The preeminent child development researcher Daniel Stern describes it as a “mutual interpenetration of minds.”

From Stern: “The present moments that interest us most are those that arise when two people make a special kind of mental contact – namely, an intersubjective contact.  This involves the mutual interpenetration of minds that permits us to say, “I know that you know that I know” or “I feel that you feel that I feel” (Stern, 2004, p. 75)

This brain system for the “mutual interpenetration of minds” has a neurological foundation in a set of brain cells called mirror neurons (NOVA: Mirror Neurons).

From Stern: “Our nervous systems are constructed to be captured by the nervous systems of others.  Our intentions are modified or born in a shifting dialogue with the felt intentions of others.  Our feelings are shaped by the intentions, thoughts, and feelings of others.  And our thoughts are cocreated in dialogue, even when it is only with ourselves.  In short, our mental life is cocreated.  This continuous cocreative dialogue with other minds is what I am calling the intersubjective matrix.” (Stern, 2004, p. 76)

The Las Vegas shooter was severely damaged in the development of this shared-psychological-state brain system for intersubjectivity (the capacity for empathy).  He lived in an isolated brain.  Psychologically he was deeply and profoundly alone, at a level most of us cannot comprehend because we live in a normal-range brain, with a normal-range capacity for shared empathy.  In his father, this deficit in empathy (intersubjectivity) was described as “psychopathic” in his FBI wanted poster.  This would be an accurate descriptive label for the neurologically-based (with developmental origins) absence of empathy (intersubjectivity).

Was the shooter psychopathic?  Labels are not useful.  He had a profound deficit in the capacity for shared social empathy (intersubjectivity).  This will create a set of symptom features often identified as “psychopathic” – but it’s a circular definition.  The absence of empathy is psychopathic, and the psychopath is identified by an absence of empathy.  Labels do not lead to understanding the cause.

The rest of us naturally live embedded in the motivational intentions of other people.  We swim in the sea of shared psychological experience and are so fully immersed in our shared “mutual interpenetration of minds” that we are not even aware of our shared social-psychological state because it is so natural to our experience. 

The 1960s philosopher Marshall McLuhan is attributed to have said, “We don’t know who discovered water, but we know it wasn’t the fish,” highlighting that we don’t see that which surrounds us.  Like the fish who don’t see the water that surrounds them, we don’t see the social water in which we swim, we don’t see the “mutual interpenetration of minds” that forms the very fabric of our psychological experience – until we see the fish out of water.

The Las Vegas shooter is the fish out of the social water of our collective shared psychological experience.

Our shared psychological experience connects us to the social group.  The absence of this psychological connection is experienced as immensely painful psychological loneliness, a psychological abyss of profound and deep emptiness called “alienation.”  But the person experiencing this psychological alienation doesn’t understand the origins of their suffering because they don’t know what it is to be part of the shared social mind.  They just know something hurts deep to their core.

All they know is that something is immensely painful, it feels deeply and profoundly empty inside at their core of experience, and this pain has something to do with others.  Their suffering creates a vague motivation toward bonding to others, but they have an impenetrable psychological wall that prevents their bonding, that prevents the normal-range psychological intimacy of a shared social mind. 

We cannot comprehend the suffering and loneliness of this isolated mind because we all swim in the sea of a shared psychological state.  Even in our loneliest hours, we nevertheless have a socially connected brain as we sit at the coffee house, as we interact with co-workers, as we attend public events.  In the profoundly isolated mind of the Las Vegas shooter, these social surrounds never led to a shared state of social being, of social belonging.

In the parlance of the attachment system, they have an “avoidant” attachment of low-protest, low-demand, and profound psychological isolation.

To be psychologically alone is immensely painful.  Our “intersubjective” shared connections to the social field provides our lives with meaning, within both a social and personal identity context.  To be deprived of intersubjective social integration is to live a meaningless existence, acting without connection, without joy, without the vitality of shared belonging.

From Stern:  “A second felt need for intersubjective orientation is to define, maintain, or reestablish self identity and self cohesion – to make contact with ourselves.  We need the eyes of others to make contact with ourselves.  We need the eyes of others to form and hold ourselves together.  Without some continual input from an intersubjective matrix, human identity dissolves or veers off in odd ways.”  (Stern, 2004, p. 107)

The symptom feature most consistent with this profound empathy deficit in the Las Vegas shooter is his obsessive focus on video Poker.  Gambling was his limited way of activating at least marginal feelings of being alive within the profound abyss of his emptiness of inner being.  But for him, gambling remained a solitary activity interacting with a machine – one “machine” with another – devoid of life – devoid of soul.  Empty.  A routine of emptiness.  He was surrounded by the sounds of social activity, but he remained isolated in a shared psychological state with an empty soulless machine – for hours on end.

He was drawn to the social – he went to casinos to gamble – but he did not play at the tables where he would be interacting with others in a shared psychological field.  He chose to interact, to establish the intersubjective field of social intimacy, with a lifeless machine.  Why?  Because that’s the best his damaged intersubjectivity networks – his shared empathy networks – could achieve.  His damaged intersubjectivity networks could not establish a “mutual interpenetration of minds” with other people.  We were too complex for his rudimentary and damaged empathy networks to absorb and psychologically model.  We were as much objects to him as the video Poker machine.  His psychological penetration into a lifeless and soulless machine was the best his damaged empathy networks – his damaged intersubjectivity system – could achieve.

He would go the casinos and play video Poker all night long – a deeply lonely life of minimal psychological existence.

He was married twice and divorced twice.  Failed relationships.  Failed intimacy.  He had a girlfriend, a former cocktail hostess (perhaps attracted to his financial support for her).  From his perspective, their relationship was unlikely to be what we would generally consider to be a psychologically loving and intimate relationship, because if there had been love and psychological intimacy with his girlfriend this would have prevented his actions.  When he sent her to the Philippines to be with her family as he enacted his brutality, she thought he was breaking up with her.  She was insecure in their relationship.  She was likely little more to him than the video Poker machine, a means of warding off his deep psychological loneliness and alienation.

For years he maintained the appearance of normalcy.  He could mimic normalcy by engaging reasonably in social actions, but he could not engage in the “mutual interpenetration of minds” that the rest of us all know as the normal ground of our psychological experience – a broad social nesting in the human community.  We belong.  He didn’t.  His social actions were a pretense, an empty facade.  His neighbors in the retirement community described him as socially surly and reclusive, having put privacy barriers on the windows of his home.

Deep in the core of his psychological being he yearned for social connection, he yearned to belong to the human community, but this belonging was forever denied him because of the damage to the empathy system (intersubjective system) of the brain.  He yearned for us, and he simultaneously hated us because we were bonded in a shared social community that he could never join.  He was forever the small child standing alone outside on the icy cold winter’s sidewalk, peering through the window into the warm social gathering of friends and social bonding of the festive holiday party.  Forever denied to him.  Yearning to belong, but an impossibility.  Jealous of our bonding.

There is an adage in clinical psychology, a general rule-of-thumb that can sometimes be useful in understanding the inner experience of others, “People make us feel the way they feel.”  It is the most primitive form of achieving empathy:

“Now you know what I feel, because I’ve made you feel it too.”

The frightened person adopts a threatening stance of powerful intimidation to transfer this person’s own fear into us.  We now understand their fear because we feel it – we are afraid.  The person who is deeply sad and hurt will say and do things to make us sad and to hurt us.  Now we know how they feel.  We feel their pain, not as the more advanced shared experience of empathy, but in its primal raw form.  We feel sad and hurt, just like they do.

By killing us, the shooter communicated to us how profoundly and deeply hurt and alone he was.  We were objects because he was, existentially, an object.  Like the video Poker machine of his psychological intimacy.  He lashed out at humanity, random and impersonal, causing immense pain and suffering, taking away our loved ones, leaving us as alone as he was, suffering.  Now we know how he feels – his act was a primitive cry for empathic joining to a human community from which he was forever excluded because of his deeply damaged brain networks for empathy and intersubjectivity.

His victims and the suffering of their families were objects.  Welcome to his world as an object, excluded by his absence of empathy from belonging to the human community.  His only intimacy was with a video Poker machine.  Two objects in a shared psychological state of emptiness.

This is the first door.

Craig Childress, Psy.D.
Clinical Psychologist, PSY 18857

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