Das kriminelle Hirn.

From The Times, February 4, 2010

Arrested development

16 Mar 2007, Marlin, Texas, USA --- Inmates wait to enter their dormitory at The Marlin Orientation and Assessment Unit, a Texas Youth Commission facility.

The field of neurocriminology is reviving some controversial ideas. Can criminal urges really be blamed on the brain?

By Ian Leslie

We are used to hearing talk of “the criminal mind”. In future we can expect to hear more about “the criminal brain”. Recent scientific research suggests that criminality may be a trait tha t some people are born with or acquire very early in life. It’s an unsettling thought: examine the prefrontal cortex in the brain of a gurgling infant and you may see the signs of a potential future murderer.

Scholarly interest in the criminal cranium is by no means new. In 1871 the Italian physician and intellectual Cesare Lombroso was performing a post-mortem on the body of a notorious bandit named Giuseppe Villela when he became intrigued by the shape of the skull, which reminded him of those of “apes, rodents and birds”. Lombroso had a flash of insight. “I seemed to see all of a sudden, lighted up as a vast plain under a flaming sky, the problem of the nature of the criminal,” he later wrote. He concluded that criminals were bad because they were born bad; they were throwbacks to an earlier, more savage stage of our evolution.

Lombroso’s theories were soon discredited, and in the 20th century all attempts to link biology with behaviour were tainted by association with eugenics and fascism. So criminologists turned away from the study of individual biology and towards the social contexts of crime. The new discipline of criminology became a branch of sociology, which for the most part it remains. When politicians talk about “the causes of crime”, they usually mean factors such as poverty, unemployment and bad neighbourhoods.

In recent years, however, advances in neuroscience and genetics have returned us to the idea that our physical make-up exerts a profound influence on our behaviour. One result is the small but fast-growing field of neurocriminology — the application of neuroscience to understanding criminality. Its pioneer and leading light is Professor Adrian Raine, chair of the department of criminology at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

Raine is a softly spoken man who retains the accent of his native Darlington, Co Durham. A former prison psychologist, he has been investigating the subtle relationships between criminal behaviour, brains and environments for nearly 30 years. For much of that time it has been a lonely quest. Now, though, his hypothesis that “bad brains lead to bad behaviour” is gaining credibility and attention.

Raine himself went through what he terms a “rough spot” when, as a ten-year-old in Darlington, he joined a gang and took part in petty crimes. Some of his friends from that time graduated to more serious offences and spent time in prison. As an adult, Raine wondered why he had not followed the same path. Purely sociological explanations didn’t seem to fit. His scientific work led him to seek answers inside the skull.

Lombroso may have been a poor scientist, Raine says, but he was right in one important sense: the brains of criminals are often different from those of the rest of us. By studying brain scans of prisoners, Raine has discovered, for example, that murderers, especially those who kill in the heat of the moment, are more likely to have a poorly functioning prefrontal cortex. This is the reasoning, decision-making section of the brain that helps to regulate impulses, including feelings of aggression, rising up from the more “primitive” parts of the brain making up the limbic system. We are all subject to violent instincts, but our prefrontal cortex helps most of us to think better of them before we harm anyone. For a few, however, the neurological brakes are broken.

Other violent criminals may suffer from a deficit of emotional capacity. Raine and his collaborators carried out brain scans on people whom they determined to have psychopathic personalities. The subjects were given a decision-making task while in the scanner. The dilemma they were presented with is a diabolical scenario beloved of moral philosophers (it was also used in the final episode of M*A*S*H). It’s wartime. You are hiding in the basement of a house with fellow villagers. You can hear enemy soldiers outside, who you know have orders to kill anyone they find. You are holding your own baby. Your baby has a cold. You know that if she coughs or cries then the soldiers will find your hiding place, kill you, the baby, and all of your friends. Should you smother your own baby or let it cough?

Don’t worry, there isn’t a right or wrong answer. In fact, the researchers weren’t interested in the subjects’ choices so much as what was happening in their brains while they considered the problem. Non-psychopathic individuals given this test display plenty of activity in parts of the brain governing emotions. If you spent just a moment thinking about that horrible dilemma you probably felt uneasy. The brain scans showed that the more psychopathic the individual, the less activation the task produced in the amygdala and other emotion-regulating regions. In other words, these subjects seemed to lack an emotional component to their moral decision-making process. It’s often said that psychopaths are people who don’t know right from wrong. But that’s not true — they could probably pass a test of moral reasoning as well as you or I. Their problem is that they can’t feel right from wrong.

Raine doesn’t just want to understand the biological causes of violent crime: his aim is to find more humane and effective ways to prevent it. Some of his work focuses on the facilitation of better brain functioning in offenders. This might be simpler than it sounds. In an experiment conducted in 2002 by Bernard Gesch, of the University of Oxford, prisoners convicted of violent offences were fed fish-oil pills, a source of omega-3 fatty acids critical for brain functioning. Among those who took it, the rate of offending in prison showed a significant decline.

But Raine’s real mission is to find ways of preventing children from growing up to be criminals. His research suggests something that’s shocking, depressing and hopeful all at the same time: you can look at the brain of very young children and, taking their upbringing into account, make a pretty good guess as to how likely they are to become criminal adults. One of his studies involved 1,800 three-year-old children from Mauritius. Raine wanted to test for another form of emergency brake — fear. The children were played a neutral tone followed by a shocking, unpleasant-sounding one. This was repeated until each child knew that as soon as they heard the neutral tone, the nasty one would follow. For most, the first tone was enough to raise their pulse rate and start a slight sweat. But a few showed little or no “anticipatory fear”. Raine and his colleagues checked in with the same children 20 years later. The ones who lacked fear were significantly more likely to have a criminal record.

Of course, not all children with poorly functioning fear responses will grow up to be criminals. Much depends on what happens to them as they grow up. The infant brain is highly malleable and is shaped by the immediate environment: home life, parenting and nutrition. The mature brain is the result of these interactions; nature and nurture are intertwined. Research suggests that the causes of anti-social behaviour are roughly 50 per cent genetic and 50 per cent down to the environment, the latter including conditions in the womb and the child’s earliest experiences.

More than one study has found that the offspring of mothers who smoke or use alcohol heavily during pregnancy are more likely, even after adjusting for social and economic factors, to become violent criminals. Raine and colleagues looked at more than 4,000 Copenhagen males who suffered from birth complications — forceps delivery, breech birth, lack of oxygen. The researchers also established which of them had been rejected by their mothers in their first year, and then, 18 years later, they looked up these men on Denmark’s criminal records database. Neither birth complications nor maternal rejection alone had raised the odds of a subject becoming a violent offender. But among individuals unlucky enough to suffer both misfortunes, the proportion of violent criminals was more than double that among the rest of the subjects.

“It’s not biology versus environment,” says Raine. “It’s biology plus environment.” In his view, unless criminologists take account of the contribution of biological and genetic processes to the causes of crime, they’re missing a crucial chapter of the story. Lombroso was only half-right; so are conventional criminologists.

Fear protects us from our own worst impulses, as does our capacity to reflect on our behaviour, as do strong social networks. On occasion, those lacking these shields can benefit professionally, as a jockey with no fear of the fences might win more races. But Raine believes that the absence of these checks normally indicates a problem. He aims to help to identify children who, for a combination of genetic, neurological, environmental and social reasons, lack such protections, and who are therefore at a great risk of growing into a life of crime. “Once we know earlier in life who the kids are who really need intervention, that’s when we’ll do a better job of stopping future generations of crime,” he says.

Institutional resistance to the idea that neuroscience can inform the study of criminality has declined. Lawrence Sherman, Wolfson Professor at the University of Cambridge Institute of Criminology, says there has been a “sea change” within his field over the last 15 years. The principle that our understanding of (anti-)social behaviour can be advanced by studying the brain has become more widely accepted, in part because of Raine’s work. But at present, says Sherman, neurocriminology is limited by what it can measure. We may not be able to differentiate between a mugger and a murderer using a brain scan, and while technology can give us a snapshot of the differences between brains, it’s less good at tracking changes in brain chemistry during real-life situations — when a young man gets involved in a fight, or picks up a gun. It may be decades before such things can be accurately gauged. “Neuroscience is allowing us to lift the bonnet and look at the engine,” Sherman says, “but if you don’t understand the principles of internal combustion, it’s hard to know how the car gets from A to B.”

If neurocriminology has become less controversial, the arguments over its implications have barely begun. The idea that we derive criminal inclinations from our parents and early childhood raises a host of knotty ethical, legal and social questions. Raine was recently asked to examine the brain of a prisoner in Denver, Colorado, who had been convicted of the horrific rape and murder of a young woman. He discovered that the killer had a dysfunctional prefrontal cortex. This, in combination with the fact that the man had been brought up in poverty and abused and raped as a child, persuaded Raine that the murderer was “a walking time bomb waiting to explode”. Raine’s testimony helped to persuade a panel of judges to sentence the man to life imprisonment rather than death. While he doesn’t underplay the heinousness of such offences, Raine thinks that the nature of a criminal’s brain ought to be taken into account in sentencing.

“Free will is not as free as we think,” he says. For some people, “the dice are loaded”


From The Times, February 4, 2010

My brain made me do it!

If substantiated, links between the brain and crime may end up helping the accused

By Theodore Dalrymple

The ideas behind neurocriminology are not entirely new. Johann Lavater (1741-1801), a Swiss pastor, thought that you could tell criminality from a man’s face; Franz Joseph Gall (1758-1828), a German anatomist, from the bumps in his skull. Cesare Lombroso (1835-1909), an Italian doctor and criminologist, thought the same of a variety of physical stigmata; Karl Pearson (1857-1936), a British mathematician and militant socialist, thought that it was all in the genes, as did H. J. Eysenck (1916-1997), the British psychologist.

But let us leave aside the unlikelihood of neurocriminology shedding much light on why the rate of indictable crime in Britain rose nearly 4,000 per cent between 1900 and 1997, or why the homicidal attack rate should have increased by at least 1,000 per cent since 1960: what are the practical conclusions that are likely to be drawn from neurocriminology?

Some of them are very nasty indeed. They include sterilisation (once carried out by eugenicists); other surgical operations against people’s will; and an indefinite extension of state interference in people’s lives in the name of crime prevention.

Nor does neurocriminology, in logic, suggest merciful treatment of murderers who kill because of defective frontal lobes. Until such time as the defect can be repaired (which is likely to be never), it suggests extermination rather than mercy as the logical response.

The association between a condition of the brain and crime is never likely to be more than statistical at best. Indeed, a more definite relationship is virtually impossible. This means that there can be no one-to-one correspondence between the state of a person’s brain and his social or antisocial conduct. And this in turn means that there is a severe problem with false positives and false negatives.

Murder, even now, is a rare event, such that if a person with a certain kind of brain condition were a hundred times more likely than someone without it to commit a murder, he is still unlikely ever to kill. Thus, under neurocriminology’s direction, large numbers of people would be subjected to onerous and intrusive interventions without benefit to themselves or to society — only to the people administering the intervention. And, of course, many people who go on to commit murder would be missed by it in any case.

When one considers the difficulties in the comparatively straightforward task of screening for breast cancer, which has caused many women to undergo procedures that have done them no good, the scale of the problem for neurocriminology becomes obvious.

Of course, this would not deter incipient totalitarians, such as our politicians. Indeed, neurocriminology will be music to their ears.

It will also be music to the ears of criminals, actual and potential, whose sense of personal responsibility it will further erode. “It wasn’t me,” will be the cry, “it was my brain.” Such understanding will not be extended to the police, the jury or the sentencing judge.

Paradoxically, then, neurocriminology will serve to increase the very criminal mindset that it aims and claims to detect and prevent.


~ von Panther Ray - Februar 5, 2010.

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