Adrian Raine and the biological sources of evil

Adrian's bookAdrian Raine, a British psychologist who teaches in the U.S., wrote a book about the interaction of biological and environmental causes of criminal behavior. You might think that there is not much to say on the topic. You might not even think it was all that controversial but..

In 1982, I had to take a chapter on biosocial influences out of my thesis at the insistence of the external examiner in order to obtain my PhD…

Professor Raine did a study that showed that a combination of birth complications interacted with early maternal rejection in predisposing babies to be violent offenders eighteen years later. This does not seem all that terrible a conclusion – in fact he was saying that not everything is due to genes, a nasty mother does affect your future. Freud would be happy! But when he presented his research findings at the annual meeting in San Francisco of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Science magazine reported that it was subjected to “a unified and outspoken assault” by other scientists at the meeting, who characterized his findings as “racist and ideologically motivated.” Adrian points out that “My sample was all white, so targeting minorities was not the issue.”

That was 1994, and now this type of research causes less angst. Obviously we don’t want to lock up some people based on their brain scans (though based on a few people’s brain scans, and taking into account some biographical info, you can confidently predict they are walking time-bombs.)
But not wanting to take certain actions shouldn’t shut out a whole field of valid research.
I will just mention some findings that struck me from the book. These are not the central findings, they just struck me as really interesting.
First of all, we think of psychopathic killers as emotionless. But Adrian says:

If I could perform brain scans on a significant group of serial killers, I might expect a brain profile similar to our proactively aggressive killers—a hotbed of seething limbic activation bubbling under the good prefrontal functioning that allows them to carefully plan their actions..

Since the limbic system is the seat of emotions, that would seem that they are feeling something, but as Adrian says, they don’t think like us. He says:

Let’s now compare this hit list of brain areas in antisocials to the hit list activated when normal people contemplate a moral dilemma. What are the areas most commonly activated across studies in moral tasks? They are none other than the polar/medial prefrontal cortex, the ventral prefrontal cortex, the angular gyrus, the posterior cingulate, and the amygdala.There is an undeniable degree of overlap…Some parts of offenders’ brains critical for thinking morally just don’t seem to be functioning very well.

That raises a point that Doctor Stanton Samenow, who interviews many offenders has also noticed –  that “they think incorrectly. “

It is also important to note that what is wrong with some of these people is not always a particular diminished brain area.  Parts of their brain may be larger:

My graduate student Angela Scarpa showed that our young psychopaths… were hooked on rewards, confirming previous studies showing the same in adult psychopaths… We found that our psychopathic individuals showed a 10 percent increase in the volume of the striatum[bloggers note: reward-related] compared with controls. Rewards are important to offenders, and to them money doesn’t just talk—it swears. It’s very salient to them. A full 45 percent of psychopaths are motivated by money in the crimes they perpetrate. Studies also show that it takes less money to push psychopaths into violating moral principles than non-psychopaths.’ But more troublingly, aggressive, conduct-disordered kids show increased activity of the striatum when they view images of other people in pain.’ ….However we interpret structural deficits of the amygdala, hippo-campus, corpus callosum, and striatum in psychopathic and antisocial offenders, one thing stands out. These structural abnormalities are likely not the result of some discrete disease process or obvious trauma. Such causes would if anything result in overall volume reductions to these structures. Our findings are much more complex than that. The right hippocampus is larger than the left in psychopaths. The striatum is larger. The corpus callosum also has a bigger volume.

One thing that is missing from some criminals is fear.  This is true even at the innocent age of three years old:

“The normal control group showed significant fear conditioning. Their sweat response to the low-pitched CS+) tone was much bigger than their response to the high-pitched CS–) tone. Yet the criminals-to-be, back at age three, showed no sign of conditioning at all. They were flat-liners—as a group they did not show any fear conditioning. This finding by Yu Gao demonstrated for the first time that an early impairment in autonomic fear conditioning acts as a predisposition to criminality in adulthood.”

It is amazing that there are aspects of a baby’s behavior that can predict that he is likely to become a criminal.

Raine writes on a trait I’ve noticed:

The fact that both ventral and middle frontal brain regions contribute to some of the same functional risk factors for antisocial behavior—poor fear conditioning, lack of insight, disinhibition—…

Myself, I’ve run into people with very poor self-insight. They hate people for supposed flaws that they themselves show in abundance.

A mother who drinks or smokes a great deal during pregnancy is going to give her child a bad start in life. These habits affect the fetal brain, and the damage is permanent.

Smoking is not good for your health. But it can do wonders for your violence potential, especially if your mother smoked like a chimney while she was pregnant with you. We now know that if a mother smokes during pregnancy it not only has negative consequences on brain development, but it also leads to increased rates of conduct disorder and aggression in her offspring. A spate of studies has established beyond a reasonable doubt a significant link between smoking during pregnancy and both later conduct disorder in children and violent offending…

When I read about what alcohol and smoking do to unborn babies, I am upset with  the voters of Colorado, who just voted to legalize recreational marijuana, a drug that does permanently alter the brain of the smoker, and no doubt of the baby that the smoker carries.

I remember reading that after the Nazi period, a clergyman who had witnessed the era said that he had come to one conclusion, that “evil breeds evil.” This is most definitely true of parents who abuse their children. There are truly horrible stories of the childhood of several criminals in this book. But it is also true that an adopted child whose biological parents were criminals, even if raised with loving adoptive parents, is more likely to become a criminal.

My thought: a brain is assembled by migrating neurons that follow paths directed by a few simple rules and in response to chemical secretions by other cells. (I assume the rules are simple, because we simply don’t have enough genes to specify where everything goes, and much of the brain structure is repetitive).   If bad genes or external forces, like an alcoholic deluge crossing the placenta from the mother, for instance, mess up this process, then we can expect trouble. But its amazing that developmental problems that affect the brain can subtly affect also the appearance of the individual, such as where your ears end up on your head. We can laugh at the so-called science of phrenology, which was the idea that the shape of your head had anything to do with its contents, but in a weird way, its coming back in a different re-incarnation.

Brain damage can convert a good man into a bad man.  It can also convert him to  a disgusting man.  An example of the latter was a Mr. Oft who developed a brain tumor and became a molester of a young girl.
“Mr. Oft knew what he was doing. Yet, at another level—at the affective, emotional level—there was something amiss in Oft. As his wife Anne, comments when she discusses how she confronted Mr. Oft on what he did: “It seemed as though he got that what he was doing was wrong, but he just didn’t seem to get it. He just sort of had this look of `What?’ ”  Mr. Oft was cured when his tumor was mostly removed, then it grew back, and his behavior went off-limits again until the tumor was again removed.

Yes, Mr. Oft knew at a cognitive level that what he was doing was wrong, but did he have the feeling that it was wrong?

It may be that feelings, even if not very salient to the conscious mind, are as important in leading you to do the right thing, as knowing objectively that something is wrong.

Adrian discusses the provocative idea of “parental licensing.” In May 2012, Prime Minister David Cameron, leader of the Conservative-Liberal coalition party in the United Kingdom, committed over $5 million for a state Web site to advise parents on how to raise their children. Cameron argued:

It’s ludicrous that we should expect people to train for hours to drive a car or use a computer but, when it comes to looking after a baby, we tell people to just get on with it. . .  We’ve all been there in the middle of the night, your child won’t stop crying, and you don’t know what to do.

Adrian asks: “How long will it be before the state tells us what to do by initiating compulsory parenting classes in school, arguing that some parents don’t know that shaking their crying baby at night causes brain damage now and violence later, and that it is “ludicrous” to allow an unlicensed adult to be a responsible parent? We may not be there yet, but today’s daydream can easily become tomorrow’s nightmare…”

But then he says:

Do you really wish to deny to Donta Page, Henry Lucas, Carlton Gary, and many other killers who suffered horribly at the hands of their abhorrent parents the right to an upbringing that is not a total affront to human dignity? Even if you could have just ensured that these killers had been treated slightly worse than your average pet dog when they were growing up, you would very likely have prevented many homicides. Is that too much to ask for the care of an innocent young baby—as these killers once were?

I myself would say that it is hard to trust any government with this kind of power to intrude. Just recently we found out that the U.S. government was using the tax system to hurt people of an opposite ideological point of view (the “Tea Party” groups, pro-Israel groups, etc.) and if you give ideologues who don’t like you the power to judge whether you are treating your child correctly, that power could be abused as well.

Presumably, much evil in the world is done by people whose brain-scans look normal.  I believe human beings are very imperfect, and some are more imperfect than others – they don’t see the world the way it is, they think they are victimized when they are not, they have irrational hatreds that they don’t examine honestly, they hate the wrong people, they love the wrong people, they will follow psychopathic leaders etc..  If you believe with Francis Crick  (a discoverer of DNA) the “astonishing hypothesis” that all we are – our thoughts, our temperament, our beliefs – come from the interaction of many nerve cells, then we are our brain, but a nerve-cell by nerve-cell approach is not necessarily the best way to understand many things that we do.  Not that Adrian Raine is claiming that it is:   I think his main point is that we can do more to prevent crime, based on the biological  knowledge we are obtaining, and will obtain in the future.  The biological also interacts with the social factors, and that statement is not just an effort to mollify social workers, its actually shown by the research.

The Anatomy of Violence: The Biological Roots of Crime  by Adrian Raine (2013)


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