The Ft. Hood Attack, the “Offline PFC,” and the Ancient Brain

A few days ago, Ivan Lopez, a soldier in Ft. Hood, TX went on a murderous rampage before shooting himself. A day or two later, a military spokesman, indicated that an “escalating argument” precipitated the assault. According to another spokesman for the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command, the military had not yet determined a “concrete motive.”

Sadly, this is not surprising; incidents like this are increasingly commonplace these days. For those who have followed this blog, you know that the Pre-Frontal Cortex (PFC)–the “newer” part of our brains that evolved to govern the complexities of thought, emotion, and higher “executive” functions–can be bypassed entirely if the “ancient brain” (encompassing the limbic system, and specifically the amygdala) is triggered to prepare one for survival:  fight, flight, or freeze. It is my contention that what’s happening in people like Lopez involves a complete bypass of the PFC and a “handing over of controls” to the ancient, “animal” parts of the brain.


The Bypass of Reason

This abdication of “ruling authority” to the ancient animal within doesn’t just happen to unhinged “shooters” like the increasingly common murderers, such as the Ft. Hood shooter the other day, but it happens in everyday events, when people have arguments at work, with a spouse, a friend, or expressing outrage to someone who cut them off on the road–any number of aggravating circumstances.

The difference is one of degree: people who have common, garden-variety arguments tend to resolve them without incident. But people who are overtaken by the fight or flight response can experience a psychotic break from reason and the control of their modern brains–out of control feelings, emotions, and actions can escalate to violence if left unchecked.

When one feels threatened during, say, an argument over something, the amygdala triggers the release of adrenalin; blood pressure increases and muscles tighten–the Pre-Frontal Cortex can be “knocked offline” temporarily. These are all normal responses, and typically, the PFC comes “back online” without incident, tensions de-escalate, and the conflict is resolved (if only temporarily). But when arguments tap into larger problems, or real or imagined threats, or somehow trigger underlying issues (simmering trauma from war or childhood abuse or other incident, genetic predisposition, dysfunction, or anxieties, anger, or resentments, including unresolved arguments, alcohol, drugs) things can become dangerous. The ancient parts of our brains were great at helping ensure the survival of genes by preparing us to fight or flee. But in today’s modern world, these same mechanisms can wind up leading to a “psychotic break.” 

What’s a Psychotic Break? Zombies. They’ve been en vogue in our culture for a while now, but when you’re stuck in the fight or flight negative feedback loop, it ain’t a TV show, it’s a living hell. That’s what I feels like–the living dead; someone who is disconnected from the “real world” and is essentially living in a waking dream (nightmare) state. When I was fully within its grip, I’m certain that my amygdala was perpetually activated; adrenalin was being released at extremely high rates, and my PFC was by and large “offline.” I had so much energy coursing through my body in preparation for a threat that didn’t actually exist, that I was able to do 200 pushups in a matter of a few minutes, even though I hadn’t exercised in months. Everything felt surreal; like it was a cartoon version of reality. I’m pretty sure that what I experienced was a series of “mini-psychotic breaks.” It was a strange, episodic on-again, off-again experience that was terrifying and left me dissociated, confused, unable to sleep, and contemplating suicide. There was no single trigger for this, it was a combination of years of pent up health neuroses, obsessiveness, and stress triggers at work that led me to experience these symptoms. I had an undiagnosed anxiety disorder–a fear of illness. The smallest things were threats–a headache? –Cancer. Tingling in my toes? –MS. Dizziness? –Well, you get the idea. This description sums up what its like:

A psychotic break occurs when an individual experiences symptoms of psychosis, either for the first time or after a long period without symptoms. This can be precipitated by drug use, a major life change such as the death of a close family member or friend, or a previously diagnosed or undiagnosed mental illness, which frequently has genetic or biological factors as well. A psychotic break does not always appear the same in each person experiencing them, but it is characterized by an inability to distinguish reality. Individuals frequently suffer from delusions or hallucinations, which can potentially lead to violence. Others will experience major depressive episodes.

The symptoms of a psychotic break can vary. Some people might become aggressive and violent, while others will become extremely withdrawn or even suicidal, as in a major depressive episode. [source]

Reliving the Past–with Renewed, Violent Vigor

The first paragraph above relates closely to the Ft. Hood shooter. Lopez’s mother had died just a few months ago. At the time, Lopez was given only 24 hours of “leave” to attend her funeral (eventually extended by two days)–a resentment that he may have harbored in the months since and leading up to his own psychotic break. How so? Lopez reportedly got into an argument involving the cancellation of his leave the other. Could this have triggered emotions associated with the limited leave he was granted when his mother died back in November? Could these feelings of anger and resentment could have rushed back, disengaging his PFC’s “executive decision making” functions, thereby relinquishing control to his animal brain?

PFCs are Going “Offline” Every Day–with Horrific Consequences. This doesn’t happen for everyone, of course, but it does appear to be happening every day of the year here in the US–our murder and violence rate is extremely high, especially compared to other modern, industrialized countries. Ironically, our culture tends to disconnect what happens with a mass shooting from the multiple “single” murders that happen every day in our country. Are not the same actions occurring, just to varying degrees? 

This conclusion is a simple extrapolation to the logical extreme of a post I authored a couple of days ago, wherein Tara Brach postulates that the PFCs in people engaged in an argument are bypassed, and “go offline,” while the fight/flight response kicks in. It was posited in the news that the Ft. Hood shooter actually had an argument with someone not long before he went on his rampage. This, sadly, fits the model of the “offline PFC.”

 Dr. Tara Brach has stated that being empathetic during conflict…“is only possible if we’re not caught up in feeling like the threatened victim or the aggressor. If our identity has narrowed and we’re caught up in fight/flight, that takes predominance. and it’s almost as if those parts of our front cortex necessary. for empathy and attunement, are deactivated.”

When Conflict Escalates to Violence. Here’s the thing: the Ft. Hood episode appears to have been precipitated by an argument. The argument then triggered the animal/ancient fight or flight (in this case, clearly “fight”) response, and the rest is incredibly sad history. As is often the case with these kinds of scenarios, those closest to the shooter can scarcely believe it: “My son could not have been in his right mind,” Lopez (the father of the shooter) said. “He was not like that.” No, by all indications he was “not like that.” When he went on his rampage, he was, instead, being controlled, in essence, by his animal mind. The summary by officials provides clues, but no real analysis:

“Lopez, an Army truck driver, did a short stint in Iraq in 2011 and told medical personnel he had suffered a traumatic brain injury. The 34-year-old was undergoing treatment for depression and anxiety while being evaluated for post-traumatic stress disorder, base officials said.

But officials said Lopez did not see any combat in Iraq and had not previously demonstrated a risk of violence. He seemed to have a clean record that showed no ties to potential terrorists. Lopez had arrived at Fort Hood in February Fort Bliss, another Texas base near the Mexico border.”

— other data not associated with the explanation —

 [Lopez] sought help for depression and anxiety and was being evaluated for post-traumatic stress disorder, military officials said. But Army Secretary John McHugh said Thursday that a psychiatrist last month found no violent or suicidal tendencies. The soldier was prescribed Ambien for a sleeping problem.

“Lopez’s mother died of a heart attack in November….Lopez was close to her and was apparently upset that he was granted only a short leave — 24 hours, later extended to two days — to go to her funeral, which was delayed for nearly a week so he could make it, the family spokesman said.”

The Warning Signs of a Fight or Flight Negative Feedback Loop 

Inability to sleep, depression, anxiety–these are all symptoms associated with trauma and fight or flight feelings, or what I call the “fight or flight negative feedback loop.” Why would an argument escalate into a bloodbath? Lopez believed he had brain trauma (no details on that yet) and complained of an inability to sleep, and he was being diagnosed to determined if he was suffering from PTSD. He was clearly upset over a previous episode wherein he was initially granted leave of only 24 hours when his mother died. What I’m finding is that everyone has some sort of trauma, some of it post-traumatic, some of it currently traumatic, but it’s a much wider, shared condition than people realize. But the real trigger very probably was “more than one thing,” in this case, he may have harbored feelings of deep resentment about attending his mother’s funeral, and he was triggered into reliving the anger he felt when he was allowed a limited amount of leave (he was, apparently, very close to his mother). In any case, the “argument” was clearly  a trigger for trauma-induced dissociation:

In psychology, the term dissociation describes a wide array of experiences from mild detachment from immediate surroundings to more severe detachment from physical and emotional experience. The major characteristic of all dissociative phenomena involves a detachment from reality…Although some dissociative disruptions involve amnesia, other dissociative events do not. Dissociative disorders are typically experienced as startling, autonomous intrusions into the person’s usual ways of responding or functioning. Due to their unexpected and largely inexplicable nature, they tend to be quite unsettling. [source]

argument about leave NYT

People who have arguments don’t tend to go on murderous rampages, unless there’s something deeper, and much darker, going on inside them. The fact that Lopez was undergoing treatment and complained of brain trauma, well, that merits some investigation. The military is great at sending people into war situations, but not so great when it comes to handling the trauma, stress, and strain that they face when they return home. The suicide rate of vets in this country attests to that basic truth. As the Guardian explains:

The oft-quoted statistic is that, going back to at least 2008 and in other years since, more American soldiers have committed suicide than have been killed in combat. Last year the US department of veterans affairs issued the startling figure that 22 veterans killed themselves every day.

There is no consensus on why. Many intensive and costly studies have reached different conclusions or have even avoided an explanation when presented with glaring contradictions.

Connecting the Dots. I cannot say, with 100% certainty, that what happened at Ft. Hood (or the many dozens of other acts of insanity that lead to the thousands of murders that happen in this country every year) was the result of  the fight or flight response. Or why, on average, vets are killing themselves more than they were being killed by enemy fire. Everyone is different. But one thing seems to be a common trait: a psychic break wherein the more “evolved, executive functions” of the brain appear to be completely disconnected, and the more ancient, violent, survival instincts of the brain take over. Memories play a strong role in trauma, and just because Lopez didn’t see combat, doesn’t mean that he wasn’t traumatized over his mother’s death, his limited leave request, and the following leave recently, which apparently was denied (see below). Will people investigating this rampage put these pieces together?

negative feedback loop

 Yours in Mental Hygiene,

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The Ancient Brain and Modern Mindfulness

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