Fire has fascinated people and humans since the beginning of time. In ancient times, it was often associated with magic and primal power, especially when nature decided to make itself known through lightning, forest fires, and even volcanoes. However, in our modern world, fire is demoted to a chemical reaction; when a material goes so hot, it goes through a transformation from solid or gas through a release of energy. So why then is fire still so fascinating to some, to the point that they want to see it burn destructively? What’s a Pyromaniac?
Defining the Pyromaniac
The basic definition of a pyromaniac is someone who starts fires and can’t control his or her behavior to do so. Folks generally associate this definition with an arsonist, but not every arsonist is a pyromaniac. For example, some seasonal firefighters have been convicted of being arsonists, but their motivation was to simply create more work so they could get hired and stay busy more often during the year. That intent had nothing to do with an uncontrolled urge to start fires; they simply wanted to create the environment where they would see a paycheck more often and used fire simply to generate the demand illegally.
The Urge to Let It Burn
On the other hand, there are many pyromaniacs who did go on to becoming fully bona fide arsonists, excited and drawn to creating fire and watching it destroy in significant events. These ones are motivated by an internal urge to see fire burn. The bigger the fire gets, the more excitement it generates in the person.
The American Psychiatric Association experts define pyromania as a mental disorder in the APA’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, otherwise known as the DSM-IV. In that technical psychological definition, a pyromania condition is one in which:
- The individual purposefully and intentionally starts fires versus creating them by accident and does so on more than once instance.
- The individual gets visually excited and changes outward behavior before the fire is ignited by his or her actions.
- The individual has a genuine interest in how fires ignite and how they occur in all types of settings.
- The individual gains pleasure and stress relief from the ignition of a fire and then watching it burn.
- There are no other pre-existing reasons or conditions why the individual is fixated with fire ignition.
This definition is key in distinguishing other motives from a condition of pyromania. For example, multiple motives can be the reasons why people start fires, like the seasonal firefighter example above. There can be a desire to trigger a financial gain such as an insurance claim from a property destroyed. The destruction may realize or forward a political or social gain. People burning another country’s flag during a protest march give them a sense that they have fought back against that country’s interests, but it doesn’t make the burner a pyromaniac. People can also be motivated by negative emotion towards others such as a desire for revenge. Anger can also be a big motive for causing damage. Most commonly, fire is used to wipe out criminal evidence, because it can seemingly destroy everything it touches. This is why firefighters often investigate “accidental fires” and frequently find signs of intentional causes or proof of something partially destroyed, like a corpse.
Other Reasons for Setting Things on Fire Apart From Pyromania
Burning has also been used for agricultural purposes for centuries without the instigators being considered pyromaniacs. Fire is a very fast way to clear plant material and break it down to particles that are easy to till into the soil. Doing so can create new land for farming. The Amazon is currently suffering major encroachment of Brazilian farmers who burn the jungle to clear space and farmland. This process is a common way of improving living conditions in developing countries.
Finally, there are reasons that are caused by mental conditions that do not necessarily relate to pyromania. Mental conditions can include reaction to hallucinations or delusion. Folks who suffer from limited judgment may also start fires too, such as those on drugs, drunk, or who have mental retardation limitations.
When all the above is taking into consideration, pyromaniacs are not as common as people think. They definitely don’t all become arsonists as if it’s a title one earns after going to pyromania school. There is no such thing.
Instead, medical experts use a process of elimination to narrow down a diagnosis of pyromania.
How common or frequent is a diagnosis of pyromania? How can one tell whether his or her teen is a candidate for pyromaniac tendencies? There is no easy answer. Pyromania has existed as a mental urge for centuries and has only been carefully studied over the past century. Prior to that point, fire bugs existed, but they were simply ignored until the person who caused damage was caught in the act, in which case moral punishment could be pretty severe..
However, with the modern prison system, arsonists are far easier to study psychologically because they are 1) identified by their criminal conviction and 2) restricted and easy to locate (i.e. jailed). They become a captive population to study, survey and research to get a better idea of their motivates. Again, arsonists do not reflect all pyromaniacs, but some of them clearly show similar motives.
In one Finnish study, researchers looked at the records of known arsonists over a time period of 20 years. The data found that a high majority of arsonists did have verifiable mental disorders, as well as mental retardation in some cases. Additionally, two-thirds of the individuals were under the influence of alcohol when they were starting fires. Yet when the clinical DSM-IV definition was compared to the inmates studies, only 12 out of 600 individuals fully met the clinical criteria of a pyromaniac, not a common frequency rate at all.
After all the filtering and further comparative work to confirm findings, the researchers concluded that only 2 percent of known arsonists were truly suffering from a condition of pyromania, which is likely an even smaller population point in a regular community of all types of people. So, one can conclude from this data that pyromania is definitely not an everyday occurrence, even among rambunctious and rebellious teens out to make a statement against society.
Is My Teen a Pyromaniac?
To understand if a teen is a pyromaniac, one has to determine if the causes are present as well. The condition is known as an impulse control disorder. Their behavioral patterns are proven in case after case as well as from the personal stories of patients. This is a condition similar to addictions such as gambling, drinking, drug abuse or even stealing. The patient gains excitement and pleasure from the activity, so the urge to repeat the activity increases to maintain the pleasure level or repeat it. Ergo, one of the causes for pyromania tends to be internal excitement and addictive pleasure.
At the chemical level, normal addictions are associated with a release of serotonin in the brain, which creates the feeling of pleasure. This is assumed to be the case in pyromania, so the condition is often addressed with a behavioral treatment to break the pattern of seeking pleasure again and again. In a few cases, researches have assumed that blood loss to some parts of the brain may create pyromania impulses as well. So treatment was performed to reverse this condition with drugs and therapy; the results were positive but not conclusive. Yet in some individual cases, the patient no longer wanted to start fires at all. But one patient doesn’t create a theory or rule of treatment.