How Neurobiology Influences Gun Violence

Image of a brain with blue wash
AP Photo, WBEZ
Image of a brain with blue wash
AP Photo, WBEZ

How Neurobiology Influences Gun Violence

WBEZ brings you fact-based news and information. Sign up for our newsletters to stay up to date on the stories that matter.

This summer, WBEZ’s Rob Wildeboer spoke with a man who described shooting rival gang members as “like a drug.” The man, given the pseudonym Reed, added that he spent decades chasing the “adrenaline rush” he felt the first time he shot a gun.

Those words intrigued University of Chicago professor of neurobiology Peggy Mason and comedian Aaron Freeman, co-hosts of the “Brain Buddies Podcast,” a show with a humorous take on neuroscience in everyday life.

“All of Reed’s actions are attributable to his brain. … And that should help us to figure out ways that we can stop that from happening in the future,” Mason said.

As part of WBEZ’s ongoing coverage of Chicago’s gun violence, Morning Shift host Tony Sarabia spoke with Mason and Freeman about what happens in the brain of a gunman, what it means to call shooting an “addiction,” and why understanding neurobiology can help us begin to address Chicago’s gun violence.

Below are highlights from that conversation.

On how neurobiology shifts the conversation on gun violence

Aaron Freeman: Neuroscience provides empirically-based excuses to forgive behavior you don’t like. If you think someone is responding to an overactive amygdala, there’s no moral judgment to be made, and it’s a lot harder to get mad at them or think that they’re a bad person because they’re just a biological entity acting like a biological entity.

On how social factors create ‘cravings’

Peggy Mason: What I hear [from Reed] is that he enjoyed the camaraderie. He enjoyed the acceptance. He [shot at someone], and then everyone loved him. And he likes that feeling because he wants to be loved … The bottom line of addiction — the bottom line of drug abuse — is that they make you crave. Craving is where the addiction’s at. “I want more.” Not, “That feels good” — because eventually, it doesn’t feel so good. He wants it again. A drug is just … something that hooks up into the part of the brain where we want more.

Freeman: There are specific hormones, like oxytocin, that have to do with this feeling of filiative desire, which is what you’re talking about. Oxytocin’s this hormone that kind of diminishes the sense of boundary between you and another person [and may inspire cravings].  

On stopping the violence habit loop

Mason: You give the brain other things to crave. That’s why the environment is so key. We are not slaves to our genes. We are hugely influenced by our environment.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the “play” button to listen to the entire conversation.