The Body Psychology of Shooting Spree Shooters
The Thousand Oaks shooting spree on November 7, 2018 was close to home for me. The local bar and grill where college students gathered was just up the road from California State University, Channel Islands where I taught for ten years before deciding to leave university teaching to weigh in instead as a holistic health educator and somatic-emotional therapist focused on chronic illness prevention. Students from CSU Channel Islands, a campus I know like the back of my hand, were in that bar, along with students from Moorpark College and Pepperdine, when the shooter—this time a crazed marine vet with PTSD—opened fire with a Glock 21 .45 caliber handgun, killing 12 people, including a sheriff first-responder just a year away from retiring, and wounding 18 others. Horrific, tragic and mind boggling. Just like all the shooting sprees before it.
In the aftermath of the shooting, Ventura County Sheriff Geoff Dean made a statement to the press that went straight to the heart of the problem about spree shooters, and notably, it wasn’t about gun control in a state that has the strictest gun regulation laws in the country. He said, “It doesn’t matter how safe your community is, it doesn’t matter how low your crime rate is—there are people who just don’t think properly everywhere, I don’t care where you are, and they commit horrific acts like this.”
As a former university professor responsible for teaching critical thinking skills to undergraduate and graduate students, I want to talk in more depth about Sheriff Dean’s insight about the broken thinking of shooters, because it shines some light on information that can help identify potential shooters before they shoot, and prevent them from becoming shooters in the first place. This discussion is meant to bring some clarity to the confusion about shooting sprees, including understanding that the shooting spree crisis is a health care issue before it is a gun violence issue. For this reason, we cannot hope to heal the shooting spree crisis by focusing only on reasonable gun regulation like universal background checks. Universal background checks are a necessary first step. But we will need to intervene far earlier than point of purchase of a gun if we hope to prevent potential shooters from thinking about shooting and wanting to shoot in the first place. The same applies to active shooter drills on school campuses. We’ll need to be prepared to intervene long before shots are ringing out down the hall if we hope to respond intelligently to the challenge that spree shooters present to us as a collective.
Shooters are sick— not just mentally ill and emotionally ill, but also physically ill—because mind, body and emotions are not separate. Thinking that they are separate is part of how we got in this crisis in the first place. Let me explain my reasoning, starting with some background info about how I came to understand spree shooters and their body psychology from a holistic point of view.
THE SHOOTING SPREE CRISIS
The Thousand Oaks shooting was a coming full circle of the shooting spree crisis in my life as an educator. Happening on the 311th day of 2018, it marked the 307th shooting spree of the year. Shooting sprees had become an almost daily reality. Thousand Oaks followed on the heels of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting eleven days prior in Squirrel Hill—the neighborhood I used to live in when I taught at Carnegie Mellon University and Carlow University before relocating to California. Squirrel Hill was my old neighborhood, and the synagogue where the shooting spree took place—killing 11 and wounding 7—was a familiar landmark.
Just a week after the Pittsburgh shooting and with a wave of unease in my gut, I watched the yoga studio shooting in Tallahassee unfold in the media. Before that moment, going to my local yoga studio once or twice a week was probably the safest thing I thought I was doing. And the most sacred. Like going to temple or going to church, for me going to yoga was my sacred worship time. Inside the sacred space found at yoga studios around the country, and around the world, anyone is welcome to walk in and join. And so in Tallahassee, a shooter came in. But he did not join in the ancient rhythms of the yoga asanas or the philosophy of the yoga sutras. Nor did he get down on the floor in down dog and humble himself to the sun, to the weight of gravity on the spine, to the bones and flesh and blood of being human. Nor did he participate in the most important part of yoga: humbling oneself to spirit, and recognizing the divinity in yourself and in other people. Instead he came to shoot, shooting six people, killing two women, a college student and a professor at Florida State University, and then shooting himself.
The magnitude of the shooting spree crisis had already dawned on me back in 2007 with the VA Tech Shooting Spree. In the aftermath, what was almost as disturbing as the shooting itself was how many students around the nation, including one of my own, responded in a completely unexpected way. They identified with the shooter, and began making threats and taunts on social media. College professors like myself were baffled and alarmed by the lack of critical thinking, sound logic, emotional intelligence and moral reason in students’ behaviors. Everything we thought we were teaching seemed to have misfired. My student, a young woman whom I would describe as socially and academically challenged, posted on her Facebook page “Going on a school shooting spree! Watch out kiddies, better hide under that desk!’’ Word spread quickly on campus and soon students were terrified to come to class. Was I to go? What was my responsibility as their teacher?
I went, feeling that my role and life as a university professor had changed forever. By the time my afternoon class started, local sheriffs had arrested the student on campus for making a criminal threat, and taken her to the county jail. She was expelled from school, and I never saw her again. That experience may have triggered the first inklings of a career pivot in the back of my mind that indeed manifested a few years later in my holistic wellness platform The Healist. But it also sent me on a deep dive into critical theory to find answers to questions everyone was asking. What was happening? What was the feeling of what was happening? And why does it keep happening? How can we understand it, to prevent it? At the time I began my inquiry, I was co-authoring a chapter on somatic-emotional release for The Handbook of Body Psychotherapy and Somatic Psychology with my mentor, Ilana Rubenfeld. So of course my approach to understanding shooting spree shooters was holistic—combining both somatics and semantics.
In 2009, I published an article in the international journal Semiotica entitled “The Writing on the Screen: A Meditation on the VA Tech Shooting Spree.” In it, I combined somatic patterning and general semantics to analyze the breakdown in body and mind, in logic and behavior, that led the VA Tech shooter to indiscriminately kill 27 students and 5 teachers and wound 17 more in classrooms on his own campus, and then turn his Glock 19 handgun on himself. I titled the article "The Writing on the Screen,” a play on the ancient parable of the writing on the wall, as a warning that more shooters were coming if we didn’t take effective action to prevent them. The title was also a reference to the fact that the VA Tech shooter was an obsessive-compulsive video gamer who played first-person-shooter games and was therefore somatically trained to shoot. After his shooting spree, his parents confessed to a New York Times reporter that they had hoped their son would out-grow his obsession with video games when he went to college. He did not. His college roommate described him as a loner who sat for hours by himself with his gaming console in his dorm room.
SHOOTERS ARE “INSANE” IN A PREDICTABLE WAY
Not surprisingly, the VA Tech shooter's logic was semantically crazy. His thinking was broken in fundamental ways. For example, he made symmetries of relations that were asymmetrical. He failed the simple test for asymmetrical relations given by semiotician Alfred Korzybski in Science and Sanity, one of the classic texts on general semantics. The test goes like this: if the leaf looks green to you, it doesn’t mean that you look green to the leaf. Right? Get it? No, the VA Tech shooter didn’t get it. If students and teachers in classrooms on a university campus looked like avatars in a shooting game to him, he thought he looked like an avatar named Ax Ismail to them, and armed himself to the nines as if he himself would be under heavy enemy fire. No one fired a single shot at him. No one had a chance to before he turned his handgun on himself. His imaginary enemy existed only in his mind. And in reality, his only enemy was himself.
The VA Tech shooter also reversed the natural sequence we humans use to develop cognitions about what we’re doing before we do it. The natural progression during childhood and adolescent development is from 3D sensory perceptions to 2D abstract cognitions. Sensory input and embodied memories are used to build higher-order cognitions that organize our sense of reality and self. The VA Tech shooter flipped that natural progression, violently imposing the abstraction of a shooter video game simulating an under-fire shootout onto the real bodies of students and teachers on a university campus who were teaching and learning in classrooms.
The VA Tech shooter’s thinking was broken in a way that looked like someone with brain damage. When his thinking should have been metaphorical, it was literal. His frightening logic went like this: "If I shoot as many avatars on screen as possible as fast as I can in a shooter video game—I’m a winner. If I shoot as many students and teachers as fast as I can on a school campus—I’m a winner.” Thinking literally when most people wouldn’t, the VA Tech shooter showed an inability to make metaphoric, connotative and situational associations that would have guided his thinking and actions toward meaningful shared values and behaviors. Without the emotional associations of metaphoric thinking, he could not evaluate his thoughts and behaviors properly—not cognitively, not emotionally and not morally. Toward the end, there was no edge to his playing field, no end to the game. He could no longer tell the difference between imaginary and real—Real in this case being defined as the dimension of reality in which, if you aim a gun at people and pull the trigger, people actually die. And when you shoot and they die, you become, not a hero, not a winner, but a mass murderer.
The VA Tech shooter's inability to feel what he was doing, to discriminate changing values of signs across different fields of meaning, to connect emotionally, and to evaluate his own thoughts and actions situationally, epitomized Sheriff Dean’s description of shooters as people who just don’t think properly. And worse, on top of his broken semantics, he had somatically trained himself to spree shoot—in other words to shoot fast and indiscriminately—by playing first-person shooter games. The combination was deadly. Thinking and acting like he was literally in a shooter game when he wasn’t, the VA Tech shooter became literally insane. The Thousand Oaks shooter, who was literally trained to shoot as a machine gunner in the Marines, went off the deep end in a similar way, thinking and acting like he was literally in a war zone when in actuality he was in a local bar where college students were socializing and enjoying line dancing lessons.
IDENTIFYING POTENTIAL SHOOTERS BEFORE THEY SHOOT
After a shooter shoots, it’s easy to see that he is desperately ill. But if you know what you’re looking for, you can see if before that happens. Communities of parents, teachers, school counselors, students and neighbors should be the first to see the writing on the wall. Not police responding to an active shooter call. Indeed, in retrospect, community members often do notice signs. Most all of the time, in fact. But several things typically happen that block an appropriate community response. We can define an appropriate response as the most adaptive response given the situation.
One blockage that prevents people from responding in an intelligent, adaptive way is that members of the shooter’s community have become so normalized to his habitual behaviors that obvious warning signs don’t pass their threshold of perception. And so no response is initiated. Or members in the community try to warn authorities or ask for help, sometimes repeatedly, but the warnings don’t pass the threshold of perception for the authorities. And so no adaptive response is initiated. Police were called on the Parkland shooter and the Thousand Oaks shooter multiple times. Security guards had been called on the VA Tech shooter who also had multiple run-ins with teachers and university administrators. All of those events could have triggered more adaptive responses within the community. Another blockage is when members of the community don’t recognize the potential shooter as a community member, and so the only response is shunning, which is not adaptive at all, because being shunned socially is one of the characteristics of shooters.
What did students at Pepperdine, Cal State Channel Islands and Moorpark College care about a struggling Marine vet with PTSD who had gotten traumatized in Afghanistan, the longest war in U.S. history, who was living with his mother in the town where they partied down and socialized on Wednesday nights and weekends? If college students thought a traumatized local marine vet was none of their business, or not their concern, or not part of their community before the shooting spree, it’s impossible to think that way after. Potential shooters must be included, not excluded, to heal our shooting spree crisis.
We all need to accept that it’s dangerous for communities to tolerate or ignore loners. Relational interconnection is as fundamental and necessary for humans as food and water. In other words, it part of our neurobiology to form social bonds and develop relationships of interconnectedness. If someone in your community, your neighborhood, your school, even your family remains an outsider, that person is unwell in a deep and profound way as a human being. Surrender to the fact that trying to alienate him or push him out absolutely makes the situation worse. Because healing has not started. And illness will continue, until something breaks, or someone cracks, or someone heals. And so students, parents and teachers may need to change their perception of who is part of their community in order to play a critical role in identifying potential shooters and preventing them from becoming spree shooters.
So what are we all looking for when we look for early warning signs? Look for young men struggling neurologically to maintain possession of their minds, their faculties, their consciousness of Self and Other, their grip on reality. Look for those who are stressed to adapt to new situations, who repeat the same somatic pattern over and over without regard for situational changes. Look for young men who are susceptible to aggressive and delusional episodes tied to blood sugar highs and lows. Look for teens who think literally when most are thinking metaphorically. Look for guys trained to be tactical shooters—either actually in military service or virtually in shooter video games. Look for a history of trauma, humiliation, rejection and rage. Look for young men who lack emotional connection, who have angry meltdowns, who have trouble bonding socially and are isolated and socially alienated, and rejected sexually. Shooters don’t pair up, and they don’t bond with peers, teachers, neighbors, or even family members.
We also need to learn to look for those who are televisually illiterate, reading visual metaphors literally, and mistaking televisual representations for reality. Educators need to teach televisual literacy, and assess for it. Keep an eye out for young men who over-identify with something they see on television or social media (including other spree shooters who got a ton of media coverage), or with avatars in video games. Likewise, look for people who post selfie videos to social media threatening to do something terrible that looks like a trailer to a video game.
Finally, look for boys and young men who use language in a way that is alarming—alarming because it lacks discrimination, emotional intelligence and moral reason, but alarming also because it’s full of criminal threats of violence, and repetitive thoughts of suicide and homicide.
TACTICAL SHOOTER TRAINING
There’s another telltale sign of shooters that we have to talk about—most have tactical training to be shooters. People who train as tactical shooters need to be properly assessed and screened, whether they are trained formally in military or police tactical shooter training programs, or virtually with tactical shooter video games. It seriously has to be done.
Screening and assessment of people trained as tactical shooters is routine for military and police. But it’s often forgotten by parents of boys and teens who get addicted to shooter gaming consoles. Yet it must be done. It really must. And if self-assessment by adult consumers of mass-marketed violent shooter games seems virtually impossible, then every game designer should ask himself—where is my own moral reason and feeling in regard to what I’m doing? Give yourself the Korzybski test: If boys, teens and young men look to you like fair game for violent shooter video games designed with addictive feedback loops and rewards based on fast shooting, do you look like fair game to them as tactical mass shooters? You and yours—your children, your parents, even your grandparents. Your neighbors. Your yoga studio, your church or temple, your local bar, your school. If the test makes you feel uncomfortable, do something about it.
As much as video game producers and game designers don’t want to have this conversation—we need to have it. The VA Tech shooter was insane. The Columbine shooters, the same. Sandy Hook shooter, the same. The Parkland shooter, the same. And yes, they were all obsessive video gamers. And the games they played addictively were violent and trained them in the role of the shooter. Thankfully, not every gamer becomes a spree shooter in real life, because not everyone is going off the deep end. But the truth is, many are. And they are everywhere. And that is a reality we can no longer ignore without dire consequences. Vets who have served in Afghanistan who are sent home broken with PTSD need better resources. It’s obvious. What has been less obvious is that the same may be true of addicted FPS video gamers. Some are becoming traumatized in an endless virtual playing field of 2D warfare, and are falling off the deep end, just like stressed military drone pilots who suffer nervous breakdowns.
If we turn around and look the truth in the face, it’s easy enough to see it for what it is. For some susceptible people who are struggling, the somatic patterning of rapid fire shooting is developmentally inappropriate, emotionally inappropriate and psychologically inappropriate because they are losing their minds. They need help, and the help they need is not another pharmaceutical pill that will toxify their liver even more than it already is, and increases the risk of suicide and violence.
The two Columbine shooters were losing it when they hacked a version of the violent video game Doom to have two shooters, made a video of one of their shooting sessions, and submitted it to a class for a grade. If the mothers of those teens didn’t notice something going awry, it’s because they had normalized their sons’ obsession with shooter gaming. Same for their teacher who received their video recording of their first-person shooter gaming session for an assignment. Wasn’t that a big red flag? The Sandy Hook shooter once baffled participants in an online gaming forum where people were discussing playing a shooter game by repeatedly redirecting the conversation back to real mass murderers. The other gamers on the discussion board could have taken action. Police records showed the mother of the Parkland shooter once called 911 on her son because he attacked her and held a gun to her head when she tried to take away his X-box. His mother did not press charges against her own son. But if she had, he would not have passed a universal background check when he purchased more guns, and police would have had the authority to seize the guns he had. If you see any behaviors like these, pay attention. Take action. The somatic patterning to shoot, taught not only in military service but also in tactical training FPS shooter games, is a recurring characteristic of shooters that can be discounted by all of us only at great cost.
But don’t over simplify and think every gamer and every vet is a potential shooter. It’s one factor of many. The Thousand Oaks shooter was an ex-marine with PTSD who served in Afghanistan, who was trained to be a machine gunner. But any vet will tell you, he was never trained by the Marines to go home and indiscriminately kill innocent civilians in his own community, driving his mother’s car to the scene of the crime. A strict code of ethics, not to mention common sense and moral feeling, would normally prevent any vet from doing that. Even if he was told to do that, or allowed to do that, or witnessed someone else do that in Afghanistan. Obviously, the Thousand Oaks shooter was a broken Marine with a broken mind and heart.
And like the other shooters, he was demented.
SHOOTERS ARE THE NEW DEMENTIA
If you look up the word “demented,” you will see it means crazy, insane, mad, driven to behave irrationally due to anger or distress. Synonyms include deranged, psychotic, out of one’s mind, lunatic, unbalanced, unhinged, disturbed, and going off the deep end. However, the word “demented” also means a person suffering from dementia. It’s critical to connect those two meanings of the word in order to demystify shooters. In order to understand the symptoms they present. The way to see what’s happening holistically is to simply add somatics back into the equation. Just add the body back into our understanding of mental illness where it belonged all along, and don’t privilege the mind over the body when you integrate them. You'll get a clear picture. Suddenly, you can read the writing on the screen. You can recognize the warning signs spewed on online forums and social networks. You can see red flags in people’s eyes. See warning signs in their somatic patterns and the way they use language. Even in the way they use video, or relate to televisual representations, especially violent gaming.
As soon as we understand in very pragmatic ways how it is today that so many people—not just elders but also young people, teens, even children—can physically and mentally lose possession of their minds, shooters stop being such a mystery after all and start looking familiar. Shooters show signs of damage to their neurobiology, stress to the brain including the heart brain (yes, we have neurons all around our heart) and the enteric nervous system in the gut. We can recognize the same somatic-emotional-thought patterns—the same bodymindset—in the memory-impaired elderly living with dementia, some of whom get aggressive with family members and caretakers whom they can no longer recognize. Sometimes they can no longer recognize themselves in the mirror. They see a person looking at them, but it’s not them. The difference is that elders with dementia are typically enfeebled and usually with 24-hour care, whereas younger people with dementia can drive, get their hands on a gun, and walk into any public space on their own volition. But think logically? Feel empathetically? Reason morally? Self-reflect? No. That kind of thinking they can no longer do.
Only our broken Enlightenment reason enabled any of us—parents, educators, psychologists, doctors, dentists, vaccine makers, game designers and military personnel—to ever think that body, mind and emotions were separate. They’re not, and nothing proves that faster than a shooting spree shooter. It’s safer, healthier, wiser, more sane and more adaptive to to recognize that shooters have suffered neurobiological damage affecting their ability to reason, feel and behave intelligently.
Ari Mahler, the Jewish nurse who treated the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter with compassion in the emergency room after his shooting spree, gave this telling impression of him to the press: "To be honest, I didn’t see evil when I looked into Robert Bowers’ eyes. All I saw was a clear lack of depth, intelligence, and palpable amounts of confusion. Robert Bowers probably had no friends, was easily influenced by propaganda, and wanted attention on a sociopathic level.”
Tellingly, Mahler’s description of the Pittsburgh shooter is not that different from a friend lamenting what he sees in the eyes of his mother who has Alzheimer’s when he visits her in her memory-impaired facility—a loss of intelligence. He says he’s witnessing her consciousness literally fading from her eyes.
Writing shooters off as “crazy” doesn’t help us heal our shooting spree crisis. We can’t afford to think of mental illness as separate from physical ill health any longer. Our skyrocketing mental illness rate, our heartbreaking dementia rate, our astounding suicide rate, and our terrifying homicidal shooting spree crisis are all symptoms of an intractable and stubborn denial about the chronic illness epidemic we’ve created. The U.S. has more mental illness than any other nation on the planet for a reason. And the reason is because we have recklessly dumped, sprayed and even injected neurotoxic chemicals and heavy metals everywhere. The fallout is pushing the most frail, damaged and vulnerable of all ages off the deep end, and threatening our delicate neurobiology—the very technology of our thinking and feeling self. Spree shooters are just one of many expressions of the New Dementia we’ve engineered.
Our exploding rise in degenerative neurological disorders—ranging from autism to ADD/ADHD to multiple sclerosis to Alzheimer’s to Parkinson’s—correspond directly to the amount of pervasive neurotoxins we’ve released into the environment in the form of pesticides, herbicides, dioxin, PCBs, arsenic, mercury, aluminum and fluoride. At great risk, we have continued to treat symptoms without taking prevention seriously—because treatments generate perpetual profits, and prevention doesn't. But the body tells the truth, and the body doesn’t care about profits. It is either balanced and well, or out of balance and unwell, or outright ill and downward spiraling off the deep end.
Sadly, as if poisoning ourselves neurologically were not enough, we have made the situation worse by medicating people who are challenged neurologically—including young people struggling with Asperger’s syndrome, autism, ADD/ADHD, chronic depression, chronic anxiety, bipolar mania and schizophrenia. The problem is that overmedication with prescription drugs is another known cause of dementia.
Worse still, a shocking number of prescription psychotropic drugs list suicide as a side-effect. Some, like Effexor, even list homicidal ideation as a side-effect. Homicidal ideation means murderous thoughts. You can imagine Wyeth didn’t list that particular symptom in its list of side-effects for its most popular antidepressant until it was forced to. But tellingly, the drug remained popular even with homicidal ideation listed as a serious side-effect, bringing in $3 billion in annual profits until 2010, when a generic version was released. But generic or branded, homicidal thoughts are still murderous, and the drug was never taken off the market. One would think that the Food and Drug Administration would not approve any drug with suicide or homicide listed as a serious side-effect (read the small print at the end of the patient information guides). But sadly, safety has not proven to be the FDA’s priority. Lobbying has gamed the system of checks and balances to the point of psychosis—when thoughts and emotions are so impaired that contact is lost with external reality. British psychiatrist Dr. David Healy, a founder of RxISK.org, a pharmaceutical watchdog organization, estimates that a whopping 90% of school spree shooters were medicated on psychotropic pharmaceutical drugs.
Why do parents, educators, counselors and doctors comply with the crazy practice of drugging people—not only elders but also vulnerable children, teens and young adults—when they exhibit symptoms of neurological degeneration? Especially when the correlation between psych meds and mass shooters has been documented.
To answer that question honestly, we need to come out of denial. The somatic-emotional posture of denial sets us up to be blindsided by the truth, to say, “I didn’t see it coming…” when we could have, should have, and would have, had we only turned around and looked the truth in the face. The VA Tech shooter was medicated on the antidepressant Prozac. The Sandy Hook shooter was prescribed Fanapt, a controversial anti-psychotic medicine. One of the Columbine shooters, Eric Harris, was on Luvox before killing 12 students and a teacher, wounding 24 others and turning his gun on himself. Luvox should never have been approved by the FDA because during the drug’s short-term controlled clinical trials, Solvav Pharmaceuticals reported that 4% of children and youth taking Luvox (one in 25) developed mania, a dangerous and violence-prone state of mental derangement characterized by extreme excitement and delusion. The Parkland shooter was on Xanax, a powerful benzodiazepine drug marketed to reduce anxiety. In a meta-analysis of people using benzodiazepines on a long-term basis, cognitive impairments included problems with sensory processing, verbal memory, working memory, verbal speed, and motor performance, as well as depression. It’s important to understand that users can get addicted to Xanax even when using the drug as prescribed by their doctor. Xanax, like Prozac, also causes loss of sexual function. And mixing Xanax with alcohol is extremely dangerous, as it amplifies the side-effects.
The truth is, all psychotropic drugs chase symptoms without addressing causes—and de facto, none of them helped potential spree shooters to not shoot. In fact the opposite is true, since suicide is a side-effects of many of these drugs, and suicide by self-inflicted gun shot or by police fire (cop suicide) is one of the characteristics almost all shooters share. The Parkland shooter, currently awaiting trial in prison in Florida, is a rare exception, although the first thing the Parkland shooter said in the police interrogation room after killing 17 people and wounding two dozen others at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School was “I don’t understand. I just want to die now,” as if he had expected cop suicide. Indeed, a scandal ensued after his shooting spree over the failure of sheriff, police and security first-responders to engage him at the scene during the long six minutes that he was an active shooter.
The point is, mental illness is more physical than most Americans have recognized. A person doesn’t become “mentally" ill without physical changes in their external environment and within their internal bioterrain. To give another example of just how physical mental illness is, consider leaky gut and mood disorders, also known as the gutbrain connection between intestinal health and neurological health. The connection lies in the fact that most of the neurotransmitters used in the brain are made in the gut, not to mention that part of your brain is your gut. It’s called the enteric nervous system, and it controls more of your thoughts, moods and impulses than you may think. Let’s do the math. Americans today, including young people, are suffering an epidemic of gut disorders that include not only leaky gut but also GERD, indigestion, malabsorption, irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease, Crohn’s, ulcerative colitis, celiac, and intestinal and colon cancer. Now to connect the dots, let’s ask a simple question. How many of those people who suffer chronic gut illnesses also suffer periods of neurological inflammation that affect their capacity to think, feel and act well? The answer to that question is frightening.
Let’s add diabetes to gut disorders to begin to calculate the cumulative consequences for mental illness rates. Diabetes is a disease of the pancreas, the gland that with the help of your liver, regulates your blood sugar, including blood sugar in the brain. Our brain biochemistry can’t tolerate wild fluctuations of blood sugar. As a consequence, diabetes can cause aggressive delusional episodes whenever a diabetic’s blood sugar drops too low (hypoglycemic) or spikes too high (hyperglycemic). Past a certain threshold, blood sugar fluctuations trigger brain inflammation that—if it goes on too long—can shut down the neocortical brain and trigger the “primitive” brainstem to take over. Very quickly, you can find yourself behaving like a wounded animal fighting for its life in a surge of adrenaline because your hindbrain thinks you’re bleeding to death, or behaving like a very belligerent drunken person who has lost all sense of direction and cognitive control of his behavior. Let’s do the math again. By 2015, the CDC reported over 100 million Americans have diabetes or pre-diabetes. That’s one quarter of the entire American population. And there’s a tidal wave headed our way in those stats: 30 million already have diabetes, 84 million have pre-diabetes, most of whom are predicted to have full-blown diabetes within 5 years. How many of these millions of people in varying stages of pancreatic decline commonly called metabolic syndrome, pre-diabetes and diabetes are going to experience neurological stress, or in severe cases, even brain damage, while trying to manage their bodies’ inability to regulate their own blood sugar levels in their brains? What are the odds that some spree shooters going off the deep end have blood sugar dysregulation, and the neurological challenges that go along with it?
If we can get our thinking out of the black box we’ve been operating in, we can begin to understand that shooters lack the functioning neurobiology that allows us humans to feel and act compassionately toward others, to bond, to be able to cognize intelligently and to behave in a rational way, and to experience moral feeling and reason in the first place. Our neurobiology is our human technology, and in shooters, that technology is malfunctioning. When shooters could have felt empathy, they felt nothing. When they could have thought twice, they didn’t. When they should have felt moral constraint, they had none. When they could have recognized kind and place, they saw enemies and a war game. They seemed to have lost the map associating thoughts and emotions with memory of place and self. They were delusional. They were spiteful. Most had a history of emotional outbursts and rage. And with just a handful of exceptions, shooters were suicidal. Worst of all, most spree shooters were somatically trained to shoot in the worst way possible—premeditated, indiscriminate, and fast.
WHAT’S CAUSING THE NEW DEMENTIA?
Structural linguists know people with brain damage from stroke or injury can suffer different forms of aphasia—can lose their ability to reason properly, to use language properly, to recognize or use metaphor, to recall connotative associations, to recognize people’s faces, or to remember who they are in relation to other people. Brain damage can change a person’s personality. Connect the dots, and as a society, we have arrived at a necessary question regarding public health. In what ways may we have caused pervasive neurological damage to ourselves as a species, to our human technology, harming the internal structural hardware for the conscious intelligence by which we think of ourselves as human?
To look the answer to that question in the face, we are going to need a lot more emotional honesty than we’ve had in the past. Because the truth is downright frightening. With careless disregard, even recklessness, we’ve tolerated, denied and minimized pervasive environmental neurotoxins that are poisoning the nervous system of people young and old, causing pervasive dementia across the population, and contributing to a range of chronic illnesses from autism to Alzheimer’s to mental illness. And yes, these pervasive environmental neurotoxins are poisoning the birds and the bees and the fish and everything else too, all the way up the food chain to us.
Three of the worst pervasive chemical neurotoxins are the organochlorine compounds—pesticides, PCBs and dioxin. They are pervasive toxins in the environment because they are not water soluble, meaning they stay in top soil for decades, and in subsoil for centuries. For example, the pesticides paraquat and rotenone, already banned in the E.U. but not in the U.S., are known to directly cause Parkinson’s disease, which in its final stages includes Parkinsonian dementia. Terrifying nightmares, as well as tremors, are symptoms of Parkinson’s. DDT and its metabolite DDE, with a half life in aquatic environments of 150 years, have been directly linked not only to cancer, but also to Alzheimer’s dementia. Dioxin, a common industrial waste product from bleaching wood and manufacturing pesticides, made infamous in Agent Orange, is known to cause amyloidosis. Amyloid plaque is found in the brains of people who die of Alzheimer's, and we know both amyloid plaque and bacterial biofilms trigger an inflammatory immune response that can cause brain inflammation.
The two most prevalent heavy metal neurotoxins are mercury and aluminum, and both are used as adjuvants in vaccines that we routinely inject directly into the bloodstream of infants, children and teens. Symptoms of aluminum poisoning include confusion, speech problems, autism, seizures and an increased risk of dementia. We know the assumption that it was safe to use aluminum adjuvants in vaccines was false because researchers have found aluminum in the form found in vaccines in the brains of autistic children. Symptoms of mercury poisoning include emotional changes, mood swings, excessive shyness, irritability, nervousness, insomnia, changes in nerve responses, neuromuscular weakness, twitching, and poor performance on tests of mental function. The slang for mercury poisoning is mad as a hatter—a reference to the 19th century practice of using mercury to shape felt hats that made hat makers crazy. In spite of mercury’s known neurotoxicity, it also continues to be used in the U.S. in amalgam dental fillings, in spite of mercury filling bans in the EU, Japan and even Russia. An estimated 100 million Americans have mercury amalgam dental fillings in their mouths, and are at risk of daily exposure to mercury vapor every time they chew, drink hot drinks or even brush their teeth.
In addition to heavy metal adjuvants in vaccines that contribute to neurological damage, some vaccines have been correlated to diabetes because they damage insulin producing cells in the pancreas, leaving a person without the ability to properly regulate their own blood sugar, including blood sugar to the brain, and leaving them at higher risk of dementia because of the chronic brain inflammation and brain damage that can result from chronic blood sugar dysregulation. As early as the 1960's, 70's and 80's, researchers observed that viral infections resulting from the live-virus MMR vaccine could be a co-factor in causing type-1 diabetes, also known as juvenile diabetes. In this way, vaccines could compromise brain health.
Environmental endocrine disruptors add another class of neurotoxins. We have learned atrazine, the most commonly used herbicide in the world sprayed on agricultural crops (already banned in the E.U. but not in the U.S.), is an endocrine disruptor. The way we found out was because male frogs downstream of agricultural farms that spray atrazine become feminized and chemically castrated. Some of the frogs become so feminized, they actually lay eggs. That is extreme endocrine disruption, and in humans it affects emotional intelligence, the feeling Self, connectedness, empathy, bonding and love—all of which are embodied in our endocrine system through the dynamic harmony hormones create within us. Hormones are messengers with keys to doors throughout the bodymind. Hormones are the physical substrate of our emotional intelligence. So much so that some hormones, like norepinephrine, are released by sympathetic nerve endings as neurotransmitters. Endocrine disruptors jam their chemical keys in these locks within the endocrine system, and get stuck. If someone is not connecting with other people, or is lost without a sense of Self, there’s a hormonal reason as well as a mental reason, because they’re connected.
Finally, overmedication with prescription drugs is another common source of neurotoxic poisoning associated with dementia and increased risk of suicide. Drugs used to treat mental illnesses like depression, anxiety and ADD/ADHD also cause chronic constipation and liver and kidney toxicity—all of which affect neurology. Sadly, in our society, we have a history of drugging the mentally ill most of all—a questionable practice we need to look critically at. Currently, psychotropic meds can be prescribed for people without first testing for heavy metal toxicity, or pesticide toxicity, or even looking to see if they have mercury amalgam fillings in their mouths. The artificial separation of both psychiatry and dentistry from general medicine has slowed down progress, keeping us from seeing the writing on the wall. Only a systemic, holistic approach to health and wellbeing connects the dots to allow us to see what we have done to ourselves. Systemic psychiatrists, doctors and dentists need to speak up louder and with more urgency about the need to take a holistic approach to people’s health.
All these neurotoxins poison the nervous system, poison the liver and kidneys, and poison the brain. Most bioaccumulate in the body over time. Add to the fire refined sugar, alcohol, allergenic foods, plus widespread overuse of antibiotics causing gut dysbiosis affecting gutbrain health—and we’ve created a firestorm. When we mix all these environmental insults together, they wreak absolute havoc on our delicate neurobiology, and create the new dementia.
DENIAL BLOCKS US FROM PREVENTING SHOOTING SPREES
Change starts with being emotionally honest about what we’ve done, about what we’ve created, including the shooting spree crisis, but also the diabetes crisis, the pervasive developmental disorders crisis, the dementia crisis, the mental illness crisis, the depression crisis, the suicide crisis, the PTSD vet crisis. If we can be more emotionally intelligent today, we can allow ourselves to take adaptive action to heal what really ails us. We can and must to do better than ignore, deny and minimize all the risks we’ve taken with our neurological health, and then turn around and aggressively market violent shooter games originally designed as tactical shooter training programs for military and police to young men, teens and even boys that are age-inappropriate and situationally inappropriate—and for some who are struggling to be sane and functional, even emotionally and psychologically dangerous. We have to do be more intelligent than use violent shooter video games as a way to recruit young men into military service, including as drone pilots, by militarizing all boys, teens and young men. Let’s call a spade a spade, and look the problem in the face. Mainstreaming tactical shooter video games might be good for military recruitment, but bad for the health of the culture that our troops are here to support. If you’re a game designer, imagine a player taking the game you design literally. Imagine what it’s like to socialize with him after playing for hours. Think about that when you design reward-based addictive feedback loops into your games. Ask yourself, what am I doing? Take somatics seriously. Give players who lack the human technology to make moral decisions or to feel empathy for other people something more intelligent to do than practice spree shooting.
By the same logic, we have to be more intelligent than spray agricultural crops with neurotoxic pesticides and herbicides, and then feed the food to school children, teens and college students while their brains are developing. Then mandate that they take an outrageous 74 doses of vaccines (53 injections by age 17) just to get into school, whether the vaccines have neurotoxic aluminum and mercury or not. At the same time, we turn around and complain about the epidemic of learning disorders, pervasive developmental delays, ADD/ADHD and autism spectrum disorders, as well as hypoglycemic and hyperglycemic aggressive bullying episodes, and now shooting sprees, overwhelming teachers in classrooms and making teaching more and more challenging. Meanwhile we have systematically cut funding for education. You want to arm teachers? Fund them. Fund them for the changes they have to make, from the bottom up, to create a post-Cartesian paradigm in education that nurtures and cares for the emotional bodyminds of students. Feminist philosophers and educators have been calling for decades for an Ethics of Care to be taught in schools—including Care of the Self. Isn’t it time?
BAN NEUROTOXINS, NOT GUNS
Banning common neurotoxins already banned in the EU is sane, and should have been done decades ago. Banning pesticides, herbicides, dioxins, PCBs, mercury fillings, and mercury and aluminum adjuvants in vaccines can actually help us heal the mental illness epidemic that is feeding our shooting spree crisis. Trying to ban guns, on the other hand, won’t accomplish anything—first because it’s addressing a symptom and not the cause, and second, because the argument leads quickly to a Constitutional dead end.
The faulty logic goes like this. Some of the shooters used AR-15 rifles. Ban AR-15's then. But wait, many shooters used a variety of handguns. Ban handguns too, then. The Columbine shooters used a 9mm carbine and two shotguns. Well, hold on, we’re a stone’s throw away from banning all guns, aren’t we? And that violates the Constitutional right to bear arms. And anyway, how do you enforce any gun ban? Will you confiscate the guns? How do you confiscate guns? Do you go into people’s homes and take them? Now are we suddenly talking about police coming into my home against my will when I’ve done nothing wrong without my permission to seize my property? Including a gun I bought myself or my wife to protect us from crazy shooters? All of these ill-conceived actions would be in clear violation of rights guaranteed in the United States Constitution—not only the right to bear arms, but also the right to be free of warrantless searches of your person or home, as well as the right to life, liberty and property. Those very rights are the ones that most gun rights enthusiasts argue is why we need the right to bear arms in the first place—to protect those other rights. So forget banning guns. It’s a dead end. It’s a response to the shooting crisis that is as illogical, ineffective, and logistically impossible as arming teachers. And it won’t solve the shooting spree crisis staring us in the face.
EXPAND DATABASE FOR BACKGROUND CHECKS BY ADDING RED FLAGS
While banning guns is not logical, requiring security background checks before sales of guns and ammo definitely is. We already do background checks for employment, why not for buying guns in the middle of a shooting spree crisis? While the Pittsburgh shooter owned his guns for many, many years before he used them, most shooters acquire their guns in the months or even weeks before their shooting spree. To make a reasonable effort to keep guns and ammo out of the hands of potential spree shooters, it would help if the database referenced for mandatory security background checks could include not only police records of formal charges and arrests, but also red flag calls to security or police even if the incidents did not lead to formal charges. When these incidents start adding up in a database, you can see the writing on the screen.
The VA Tech shooter had several such incidents leading up to his shooting spree, as did the Parkland shooter. Police or security guards were called repeatedly, teachers and school administrators talked about them repeatedly before they went off the deep end. The Thousand Oaks shooter had multiple run-ins with local sheriffs before he went on his demented shooting spree. In one incident, a neighbor called sheriffs who found him acting irrationally enough that they called out a crisis interaction team with mental health specialists. The specialists cleared him. However, both the call for police and the call for a crisis interaction team would have been helpful info at point of sale, when the Thousand Oaks shooter purchased his handgun legally in spite of clear red-flag encounters. In the cases of all shooters, multiple red flags were always there in retrospect, because shooters struggle to keep a grip as they slide into delusion, aggression and often suicide.
It would also help if the database used in background security checks for purchase of guns and ammo could allow reports of speech acts that fit the definition of criminal threats, made online in public forums or on social networks or in person. Legally, criminally threatening speech acts are recognized as exceptions to freedom of speech for a reason. A person does not have the right to threaten to harm or kill anyone he wants without legal repercussions that may restrict his liberty. And so the database used for security checks should make it easy for parents, students, teachers, neighbors, friends, security guards, etc. to report criminal threats of violence. We need to make it easier to document these red-flag behaviors than calling 911 to get the police to come to make a formal charge. Many people are hesitant to do that. The public needs a user-friendly, public-facing portal to report such information into a database where police and gun sellers can see it. Reasonable safety measures like these can help, because most spree shooters talk about the violence they are about to do, before they do it. When you go back and look at their social media, you can read the writing on the screen.
What do we do when potential shooters get guns from unlicensed sellers at gun shows, or friends, avoiding a background check? Robyn Anderson, a friend of Klebold and Harris, bought the two shotguns and the Hi-Point 9mm Carbine they used at Columbine High School from unlicensed sellers at a local gun show four months before their shooting spree on April 20, 1999. Another friend and former Columbine student, Mark Manes, sold the two spree shooters a TEC DC-9 handgun around that same time, one that he had purchased at a local gun show. Because Anderson and Manes purchased the guns and ammo for someone else, the transactions constituted illegal "straw purchases." That they sold them to minors was legal in Colorado at that time. I should hope that law has been changed since then. While it’s virtually impossible to shut down every gun show in the country, legislators do have the power to legislate stiff penalties for illegal straw purchases and sales of guns used in shooting sprees. Help sellers and buyers of guns think twice, and use more caution. Harris and Klebold contacted Manes on April 19, the night before the shooting, and asked him to get ammunition for the TEC DC-9 handgun. Manes went out that night and bought 100 rounds of 9 mm shells at a Kmart. What was he thinking? And why didn’t his high school education help him think and feel better than that? At the least, he should have been terrified that if he provided the ammo, and his friends went on a shooting spree, that he himself would be charged with abetting a mass murder. Let’s make everyone responsible when a spree shooting that could have been prevented wasn’t.
HEALING THE NEW DEMENTIA
Humans are hardwired to resonate with each other emotionally. Emotional growth and neurological growth are intricately intertwined developmentally. Brain structure, neurochemistry and hormonal responses to changes in the environment shape psychological development in every way. And so when we lose neuroplasticity, and lose mirror neuron function, we can lose the ability to be relational and to resonate with others in a greater collective. When that happens, in a fundamental way, we become less than human. And that’s why spree shooters are so frightening. They are less than human because they don’t feel empathy and don’t connect with people, their thinking and behaviors are demented, and under stress, they are trained somatically to shoot in a culture where guns are easy to access.
Relational therapist Judith Jordan, author of Relational-Cultural Therapy (2018), points out in her introduction that while we present the self as a natural fact, the self is actually a construct based on a spatial metaphor. In the West, the self is most often imagined as a physical space characterized by a center and containing a surrounding wall. Relational therapists like Jordan want us all to remember that this idea of self is a cultural myth, and a very patriarchal one at that. It is easily militarized, and can become paranoid, schizoid and narcissistic. In reality, interconnectedness and interdependence are at the center of our development as humans. Not separation and independence. It’s time for the electronic gaming industry to admit that it may be doing a disservice to humanity by promoting violent games that train hands to pull the trigger, and that isolate boys, teens and young men from both natural and social environments where bonding, empathy, sociality and morality are learned and practiced. Instead, electronic games have boys, teens and young men spending precious developmental time alone, lacking the touch, connection and empathy they need to be well, and missing opportunities to develop emotional and social skills while their brains are still growing. Likewise, the military may be doing a disservice to the collective they are meant to protect by militarizing all boys and teens in order to recruit future drone pilots and gunners.
If we are brave enough to connect the dots to see the shooting spree crisis for what it is, if we are emotionally honest enough to own that we have created the problem ourselves, and have enough faith to surrender denial, then we can heal our families, communities and country of the shooting spree crisis. But we will need to be in full possession of our minds, hearts and guts to do it. Shooting sprees are part of the new dementia, and they are a symptom of our ill health as a relational culture. Like an inside-out bee hive, a shooting spree violates the laws of nature. And the shooting spree culture we have created tells us in a violent way that we have compromised the very neurobiology that allows us to consciously connect, to relate empathetically and engage cooperatively, to remember who we are in relation to others, and to think and act in an intelligent way. A way that is intelligent because it’s the most adaptive given the current situation, and because it creates and maintains a sustainable harmony with other people and with our environment.
There was a time before shooting sprees. Can we get there again? Can we find our way home to a relational culture that functions in a healthy way and that is sustainable? Can we come back to balance? Can we heal our dementia?
One woman did it. A nurse and devoted wife, she helped her husband heal completely from stage 4 Alzheimer’s dementia. We can learn from her story. When her husband’s healing journey started, he had lost neurological function to the point where he was no longer able to write a check. When his healing journey was over, he published a book documenting his experience, entitled Beating Alzheimer’s. The healing began with the wife’s intelligent realization that neurotoxins were causing her husband’s neurological decline. Her response was to eliminate any further exposures to neurological toxins, detox her husband to get any toxins already in his body out, and restore his core health with nutrition, including gutbrain health. What did that look like? It looked like a lot of love. Really epic love and compassion. It looked like consciousness. It looked intelligent. It looked like discipline. She was extremely logical about what she was doing, and she was also very emotionally connected to what she was doing. And that made her very motivated. Her intention was to save her husband. And that intention moved her to take immediate actions that were highly adaptive given her husband’s situation. She changed everything.
She took him away from the city where they lived and moved him to a seaside cottage in a small community that had plenty of fresh air and endless barefoot walks on the beach. She designed the new home for her husband to recuperate his health, making the master bedroom a clean room where he could retreat when he didn’t feel well. And she greened the entire home. Carpets became bamboo flooring. An organic latex mattress replaced one with flame retardants. Furniture was hardwood rather than pressed wood with formaldehyde glue. Walls were painted with non-VOC paint that doesn’t off-gas. Cleaning products including laundry detergent were stored outside in a shed. And a new dentist was found, one who was holistic and systemic, and mercury-free. Her poor husband had so many cracked and leaching mercury amalgam dental fillings from decades of poor dentistry, she had all his remaining teeth removed, and even had the oral surgeon find and remove pockets of mercury that showed up on x-rays, left behind by previous dentists in tooth sockets deep in his jawbone. Then this good wife set about detoxing her ill husband in an effort to lower his toxic bio-burden, support liver and kidney function, reduce inflammatory stress on his brain, and reduce amyloid plaque deposits. Clean water and fresh vegetable juices were his medicine, and pesticide-free and herbicide-free organic foods that nourish the nervous system—including healthy fats.
That was the life this nurse and devoted wife created for her ill husband, and within this life, within this healing environment, he came back from dementia and wrote his story, Beating Alzheimer's. His story tells us dementia can be healed. But it takes great effort. It takes enormous changes at the last minute. And clearly, it would be easier, more efficacious and more cost-effective, not to mention more ethical and more sane, to prevent the insults to neurobiological health that causes dementia in the first place. Parents and teachers take notice because you are first in line to heal potential shooters before they become actual shooters. Expanded background checks for gun and ammo purchases is a stop-gap measure. It doesn’t address the healing that needs to take place to set our house in order again.
The healing we need can't be done by one stakeholder without the cooperation of others. It takes a village. It also takes courage and discipline, even faith, to break entrained patterns. Yet we know we must, because the same broken thinking that created our dementia problem, our mental illness problem, our suicide problem, and our shooting spree crisis, can’t be the solution we are now looking for. What we’re looking for is what we need, and what we need is mindbody healing. We know that because the body tells the truth.