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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

After a tragedy like the one in Newtown, people understandably want to know why someone would act with such extreme violence. Researchers have spent years trying to figure that out with mixed results.

Joining me now to talk about this case is NPR science correspondent Jon Hamilton. Jon, thanks for being here.

JON HAMIILTON, BYLINE: My pleasure.

MARTIN: We're just starting to hear details about Adam Lanza. But is there anything that we have heard about him that would have suggested why he might have done what he did, Jon?

HAMIILTON: Nothing obvious. I mean the police, of course, have offered no motive yet. In other mass killings, it often turns out that the motive involves revenge, it's somebody who has despair or anger at the world. But there's been no information like that, at least not yet in this case.

What we have heard about Lanza is that he was a loner. People who knew him described him as odd, socially awkward, a computer geek - all these terms. And some have suggested that he had a form of autism, often called Asperger's syndrome. That would certainly be consistent with the way people have described him.

MARTIN: If in fact, he had a form of autism, could that have been a factor?

HAMIILTON: Well, first off, we should say again that we don't know whether Adam Lanza had autism. And if he did, there really aren't scientific studies showing that people with autism are somehow more likely to commit mass murders, or any other kind of murders. But autism can be a factor in a person's view of the world. And it's a problem that can be associated with feelings of despair, of alienation, anger, and kids with autism are often treated quite cruelly by their peers.

There's a popular autism website called Wrong Planet. And, you know, that title kind of gives you a sense of how people with disorder can feel like they really just - they don't fit in, like they're strangers here on Earth. And in the past couple of days, there have been a whole lot of comments on Wrong Planet about the shootings. And, you know, those comments are expressing the same horror and outrage that everyone else is expressing about what happened.

And I should say they are also expressing a lot of fear that people with autism have, that somehow this will lead people to think that people with autism are somehow dangerous.

MARTIN: Sure. There's a tendency to think that someone who does something like this simply has to have some kind mental illness. Or has gone through a psychotic breakdown. I mean, doesn't someone who engages in this kind of violence have to be deeply disturbed in some way?

HAMIILTON: Disturbed, that's a slightly different description in the necessarily mentally ill. Now, in fact, when you look at people who have committed mass murders, many of them have some sort of history of mental illness. But if you look at it the other way, if you look at the large group of people who have some sort of mental illness, you know, it's not clear they're more likely to be violent. And certainly not clear that they're more likely to commit mass murder.

As for, you know, that people often bring up the question of the psychotic break. You know, that somebody snapped. You know, what that means is you have scattered thoughts. You may be hearing voices in your head. You have no sense of what's real and what's not. And that would make it pretty hard to carry out an organized plan to obtain weapons and ammunition, go to a specific place and methodically kill a lot of people.

MARTIN: So from a psychological point of view, what do we know about what prompts someone do to do something as horrific as this?

HAMIILTON: Well, people have been carrying out mass murderers for centuries. And researchers have been studying those people for almost as long, trying to come up with some kind of a profile of mass murderers; some way to identify somebody who is likely to commit this sort of crime.

And for the most part they failed. I mean, yes, mass murderers tend to be young and male and angry and troubled. But think about how many young people fit that description in this country.

MARTIN: NPR science correspondent Jon Hamilton. Jon, thanks so much.

HAMIILTON: You're welcome.

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