Why Kids Pull the Trigger

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The latest school shooting has renewed calls for gun control laws and security measures. But the age of the boy who killed a teacher before he shot himself -- 12 -- also raises questions about the brain’s development: How could a young boy portray such seeming lack of empathy?

Recent research helps explain what seems so unimaginable. Psychologists talk about two types of empathy, cognitive and affective. Simply put, cognitive empathy is the intellectual ability to understand others’ points of view, whereas affective empathy is the emotional capacity to respond to the mental states of others.

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Although girls seem to develop more cognitive empathy at age 13, most boys don’t show signs of it until age 15. Boys also experience a dip in affective empathy between the ages of 13 and 16, according to a six-year study published recently in Developmental Psychology.

In her lab at the University of Oregon, assistant professor of psychology Jennifer Pfeifer has noted something else related to empathy: a link between experiencing a rejection and subsequently taking more risks than usual. She watches the activity of teens’ brains as they play a computerized game of catch. At some point, the computer-generated images stop throwing the ball to the subject and continue playing catch on their own. The neural indices of distress appear when the subjects realize they have been excluded. Next, the rejected teens play a game, believing the “people” they were rejected by are watching them. The teens who were rejected take more risks than those who weren’t.

The neural basis for empathy may be a system of mirror neurons. These nerve cells are activated both during an action and observing someone else performing the action.

“It’s hotly debated, but there’s some evidence suggesting that the mirror system functions atypically in autism,” Pfeifer said.

Researchers are just beginning to explore methods of repairing the system when it appears to be dysfunctioning.

“There’s also pretty good evidence that there are wide individual differences in how much systems are engaged in response to seeing someone else in distress,” Pfeifer said.