By Natalie Wolchover
Researchers have discovered that the seemingly erratic behavior of the "Rostov Ripper," a prolific serial killer active in the 1980s, conformed to the same mathematical pattern obeyed by earthquakes, avalanches, stock market crashes and many other sporadic events. The finding suggests an explanation for why serial killers kill.
Mikhail Simkin and Vwani Roychowdhury, electrical engineers at the University of California, Los Angeles, modeled the behavior of Andrei Chikatilo, a gruesome murderer who took the lives of 53 people in Rostov, Russia between 1978 and 1990. Though Chikatilo sometimes went nearly three years without committing murder, on other occasions, he went just three days. The researchers found that the seemingly random spacing of his murders followed a mathematical distribution known as a power law.
When the number of days between Chikatilo's murders is plotted against the number of times he waited that number of days, the relationship forms a near-straight line on a type of graph called a log-log plot. It's the same result scientists get when they plot the magnitude of earthquakes against the number of times each magnitude has occurred — and the same goes for a variety of natural phenomena. The power law outcome suggests that there was an underlying natural process driving the serial killer's behavior.
Simkin and Roychowdhury hypothesize that it's the same type of effect that has also been found to cause epileptics to have seizures. The psychotic effects that lead a serial killer to commit murder "arise from simultaneous firing of large number of neurons in the brain," they wrote. The paper, a preprint of which is available on the arXiv, has been submitted to Biology Letters.
In the brain, the firing of a single neuron can potentially trigger the firing of thousands of others, each of which can in turn trigger thousands more. In this way, neuronal activity cascades through the brain. Most of the time, the cascade is small and quickly dies down, but occasionally — after time intervals determined by the power law — the neuronal activity surpasses a threshold.
In epileptics, a threshold-crossing cascade of neurons induces a seizure. And if the Simkin and Roychowdhury's theory is right, a similar buildup of excited neurons is what flooded the Rostov Ripper with an overwhelming desire to commit murder. Sometimes he went years without his neurons crossing the threshold, other times, just days.
When Simkin and Roychowdhury factored a delay into their model to account for the time it took for Chikatilo to plan his next attack, and when they treated his murders as having had a sedative effect on him by damping down the activity of his neurons, their model fit strongly with his murder pattern.
The study authors say they suspect many common human behaviors that stem from urges or addictions may also follow a power law distribution. For example, "shopping or getting drunk may follow similar pattern for some people," Simkin wrote in an email. Like some murders, these behaviors might be even less governed by free will than previously believed.
Read more @ http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/46045497...ience-science/