Friday, September 16, 2011

Another Awful Tragedy - The Shocking Cause

My days are awfully busy, and I usually get in at least 6 hours of writing each day. And so yes, here I am in my mid-60s and I've logged way more than the required 10,000 hours of writing practice.

But before I start my day, I like to scan the paper while sipping on my first cup of coffee. Most of what I read is bad news, of course, which I interpret as the teeny-tiny tip of the iceberg of what's actually going on out there.

This morning I read that a stepmother in North Carolina was sentenced to 18 years in prison after admitting that she murdered her 10-year-old stepdaughter. Why? Apparently, the child was a nuisance because she was disabled - a hearing aid and prosthetic leg. A plea deal to get a minimum sentence?

As horrific as that report is, it wasn't nearly as awful as the one that inspired me to write this post. For that I credit a 25-year-old unwed Tennessee mom who murdered her newborn twin babies. She worked at a pediatric dentist's office, lived at home, and got pregnant. She told the police that because she was overweight, she managed to hide the pregnancy from her coworkers and her parents for nine months. When labor pains started, she went into the bathroom and dropped the babies into the toilet one at a time. When their first cries started, she covered their faces with her hand until they stopped struggling. She put the bodies in a laundry basket. The report doesn't say how the authorities found out about all this.

The pastor at their church said he wondered why she hid the pregnancy. Good question. And I would add, why wouldn't she seek help for her situation? And why didn't she foresee the birth and how to handle it? And why didn't she consider other alternatives to killing the infants? Why didn't she think about the consequences of her actions?

Because clearly, none of these rational considerations entered her mind. Try, if you can, to imagine how her emotions dominated her thinking all those months and in that final horrific scene.

Right. No logic working there.

But why not? Aren't adults capable of logic? Apparently, she wasn't crazy. The real answer isn't widely known. The authorities, the pastor, the family - these people wouldn't have known about the real reason.

The real reason she didn't exercise reason is because she didn't have much capacity for it. Her brain was ingrained to let her amygdala (the emotion center of the brain) do the decision-making, not the prefrontal cortex.

Located behind the forehead, the prefrontal cortex relates perceptions and facts to create meaning. It links cause and effect, so you can foresee future consequences. It’s the seat of both creative and logical judgment, as well as both intuitive and rational problem solving. It analyzes, decides, plans, and manages, so a person isn’t driven by emotional impulses. Important stuff!

The window for development of this “smart part of the brain” opens at puberty and closes ten to twelve years later. Because it’s “under construction” during adolescence, it’s hard for teens to use it, which accounts for their sometimes impulsive, emotional and risk-taking behavior. But they need to try hard to use it, because it will keep them out of trouble. Even more important, only the connections that are used repeatedly will remain at the end of adolescence. The foundation for intellectual capacity will be fixed for the rest of adult life.

For Lindsey Lowe of Hendersonville, Tennessee, the window of development of her prefrontal cortex had already opened and closed. The foundation for critical thinking had already been established. And what a minimal foundation that must have been. From age 12 to age 22, she must not have been coached to do much critical thinking at all. And at age 25, we see the result.

Sadly, her situation isn't all that unusual. Some kids get lots of stimulation to think logically by parents, teachers, coaches and other adult mentors. But way too many other kids don't. Lindsey's childhood probably wasn't all that different from that of countless other kids. I personally know several adults who have severe mental limitations because of the home life situation they grew up in.

But no one gets a free pass. Actions have consequences in the real world. The consequences of Lindsey's upbringing are the young woman she eventually became, her inability to think straight in adverse situations, and of course what's going to happen to her next in the criminal justice system.

Sadly, I read stories like this in the morning paper all the time.

What adults can do...

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., Copyright 2011. Building Personal Strength . (Permission to use image purchased from


Anonymous said...

Sadly, this is quite common in Indonesia. I had no idea that it's the effect of very bad education. I was educated abroad, so I find it quite strange how kids at public schools are taught to memorize and memorize. In maths, they memorize formulas without understanding what the formulas are used for. In history class, they memorize names of places and people and dates. - even find the same method of teaching used at universities. It's sad.. But moreover it's a crime.. How can the government just let the education system run the way it is when there's more at stake?

Sarcastic Bastard said...

I think your point about the young lady is very valid. What a sad situation, all the way around.

shareandi said...

I'm reading this for a second time and hoping adolescents lay their hands on it.

Or parents do and use it to help their adolescents for the danger ahead if their prefrontal cortex is not put to action, so that actions are well thought out not spur-of-the-moment spilled out as is common today among a couple adults.

How can we get more and more persons to follow you, Dr Coates and, of course, be interested in reading and applying the read material?

Thanks very much, Dr. Coates!