Wed, May 15, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Mapping a killer’s brain

The idea that our genes, rather than our morals or upbringing, are mainly to blame for whether we become criminals or not is one of science’s biggest taboos. However, if we could identify would-be offenders at an early age and perhaps prevent a massacre, should we do so?

By Tim Adams  /  The Observer

Illustration: Mountain People

In 1987, Adrian Raine, who describes himself as a neurocriminologist, moved from Britain to the US. His emigration was prompted by two things. The first was a sense of banging his head against a wall. Raine, who grew up in Darlington, England, and is now a professor at the University of Philadelphia, was a researcher of the biological basis for criminal behavior, which, with its echoes of Nazi eugenics, was perhaps the most taboo of all academic disciplines.

In Britain, the causes of crime were allowed to be exclusively social and environmental, the result of disturbed or impoverished nurture, rather than fated and genetic nature. To suggest otherwise, as Raine felt compelled to, having studied under Richard Dawkins and been persuaded of the “all-embracing influence of evolution on behavior,” was to doom yourself to an absence of funding. In the US, there seemed more open-mindedness on the question and, as a result, more money to explore it. There was also another good reason why Raine headed initially to California: There were more murderers to study than there were at home.

When Raine started doing brain scans of murderers in US prisons, he was among the first researchers to apply the evolving science of brain imaging to violent criminality. His most comprehensive study, in 1994, was still, necessarily, a small sample. He conducted positron emission tomography (PET) scans of 41 convicted killers and paired them with a “normal” control group of 41 people of similar age and profile. However limited the control, the color images, which showed metabolic activity in different parts of the brain, appeared striking in comparison. In particular, the murderers’ brains showed what appeared to be a significant reduction in the development of the prefrontal cortex, “the executive function” of the brain, compared with the control group.

The advancing understanding of neuroscience suggested that such a deficiency would result in an increased likelihood of a number of behaviors: Less control over the limbic system that generates primal emotions such as anger and rage; a greater addiction to risk; a reduction in self-control; and poor problem-solving skills — all traits that might predispose a person to violence.

However, even two decades ago, these were difficult findings to publish. When Raine presented a far less controversial paper in 1994 to a peer group, one that showed that a combination of birth complications and early maternal rejection in babies had significant correlation with individuals becoming violent offenders 18 years later, it was denounced as “racist and ideologically motivated” and, according to Nature magazine, was simply further strong evidence that “the uproar surrounding attempts to find biological causes for social problems will continue.”

Similarly, when, 15 years ago, at the urging of his friend Jonathan Kellerman, the child psychologist and crime writer, Raine put together a proposal for a book on some of his scientific findings, no publisher would touch it. That book, The Anatomy of Violence, a clear-headed, evidence-based and carefully provocative account of Raine’s 35 years of study, has only now appeared.

The reason for this delay seems mired in ideological enmities. For all Raine’s rigor, his discipline of “neurocriminology” still remains tarnished, for some, by association with 19th-century phrenology: the belief that criminal behavior stemmed from defective brain organization as evidenced in the shape of the skull. The idea was first proposed by the infamous Franz Joseph Gall, who claimed to have identified over- or underdeveloped brain “organs” that gave rise to specific character: the organ of destructiveness, of covetousness and so on, which were recognizable to the phrenologist by bumps on the head. Phrenology was widely influential in criminal law in both the US and Europe in the middle of the 1800s, and often used to support crude racial and class-based stereotypes of criminal behavior.

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