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

Raine was in part drawn to his discipline by his own background. In the course of scanning his murderers, Raine also examined his own PET profile and found, somewhat to his alarm, that the structure of his brain seemed to share more characteristics with the psychopathic murderers than with the control group.

He laughs quickly when I ask how that discovery felt.

“When you have a brain scan that looks like a serial killer’s it does give you pause,” he says.

And there were other factors: He has always had a markedly low heart rate (which his research has shown to be a truer indicator of a capacity for violence than, say, smoking is as a cause of lung cancer). He was plagued by cracked lips as a child, evidence of riboflavin deficiency (another marker); he was born at home; he was a blue baby — all factors in the kind of developmental difficulties that might set his own researcher’s alarm bells ringing.

“So,” he says, “I was on the spectrum. And in fact I did have some issues. I was taken to hospital aged five to have my stomach pumped because I had drunk a lot of alcohol. From age nine to 11 I was pretty antisocial, in a gang, smoking, letting car tires down, setting fire to mailboxes and fighting a lot, even though I was quite small. At that age I burnt out of that somehow. At 11, I changed schools, got more interested in studying and really became a different sort of kid. Still, when I was graduating and thinking ‘what shall I research,’ I looked back on the essays I had written and one of the best was on the biology of psychopaths; I was fascinated by that, partly, I think, because I had always wondered about that early behavior in myself.”

As Raine began to explore the subject more, he began to look at the reasons he became a researcher of violent criminality, rather than a violent criminal. (Recent studies suggest his biology might equally have propelled him towards other careers — bomb disposal expert, corporate executive or journalist — that tend to attract individuals with those “psychopathic” traits.)

Despite his unusual brain structure, he did not have the low IQ that is often apparent in killers, or any cognitive dysfunction. Still, as he worked for four years interviewing people in prison, a lot of the time he was thinking: What stopped me being on their side of the bars?

Raine’s biography, then, was a good corrective to the seductive idea that our biology is our fate and that a brain scan can tell us who we are. Even as he piles up evidence to show that people are not the free-thinking, rational agents they like to imagine themselves to be, he never forgets that lesson. However, the question remains that if these “biomarkers” do exist and exert an influence — and you begin to see the evidence as incontrovertible — then what should we do about them?

Perhaps we should do nothing, simply ignore them, assume, when it comes to crime, that every individual has much the same brain, the same capacity to make moral choices, as we tend to do now.

As Raine suggests: “The sociologist would say if we concentrate on these biological things, or even acknowledge them, we are immediately taking our eyes off other causes of criminal behavior — poverty, bad neighborhoods, poor nutrition, lack of education and so on. All things that need to change. And that concern is correct. It is why social scientists have fought this science for so long.”

This story has been viewed 1865 times.
TOP top