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Why Does A Person Commit Arson?

Patrick Skahill
Connecticut Public Radio
Burnt out buildings at Silver Sands state park in Milford in March. At least one fire at the site is being investigated as arson

Three teenagers were charged this week with first-degree arson in connection with the fire that destroyed the historic Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford. A lawyer representing one of the young men told Hearst Connecticut Media that the teens will likely be charged with at least four other recent fires in the area. 

Arson was also the cause of some of the wildfires that devastated California last year -- state insurance officials there say claims totalled $11.4 billion in November alone. Douglas Fields is a neuroscientist and author of the book Why We Snap, on the neuroscience of aggression. He’s also written about arson for Psychology Today. 

"What we need to distinguish - arson that’s committed as a weapon, a covert destructive act (a current example are the sad church burnings in Louisiana) from pyromania, which is committed by people with this overwhelming compulsion to light fires," said Fields.

He said pyromania is not a mental illness, but rather a related behavior that often first appears during adolescence, "when the brain is still developing. Particularly when systems evolved in the brain – prefrontal cortex primarily – that control impulses. These systems in the brain are not fully developed."

The criminal justice system has long wrestled with how best to deal with the crime of arson. Fields said some aspects of its causes may be treated effectively with cognitive behavioral therapy.

Diane Orson is a special correspondent with Connecticut Public. She is a longtime reporter and contributor to National Public Radio. Her stories have been heard on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, Here and Now; and The World from PRX. She spent seven years as CT Public Radio's local host for Morning Edition.

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