Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Biological Basis Of Crime

Criminal Behaviour

The Anatomy of Violence: Holmes of New Scientist writes: “From genes, Raine turns to brains. Back in the 1990s, he led the first study to image the brains of convicted murderers. Using PET scans, he found that their brains showed reduced activity in the prefrontal cortex, the region just behind the forehead that controls impulses and is responsible for planning. In other words, the murderers were less able than average to restrain themselves in stressful situations.”

Image Credit & Source: New Scientist

An article, by Bob Holmes, in New Scientist says that there is indeed a biological basis to criminality; studies show that identical twins raised apart show similar character and personality traits, and share similar findings in the prefrontal cortex of the brain. This forms part of a number of research efforts that use brain scans—and in particular of the prefrontal cortex, the seat of impulse control and decision-making—as a way to both predict and prevent criminal behavior.

Holmes writes:

In The Anatomy of Violence Raine, a criminologist at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, uses this and other evidence—much of it unearthed by himself over decades of research—to build a convincing case that violent criminals are biologically different from the rest of us. “The seeds of sin are brain-based,” he writes. Genetics, accidents of birth or events in early childhood have left criminals' brains and bodies with measurable flaws predisposing them to committing assault, murder and other antisocial acts.
That is good news, he argues, because what's broken can, in theory, be fixed. Indeed, tests have already proven that the right kind of intervention can reduce violent crime dramatically.
Back in the 1970s, when Raine began his career, sociologists believed that criminality was entirely the product of circumstance: factors that affect the less advantaged members of society, such as poverty, neglect and poor education.
Suggesting, as Raine did even then, that some people might have an innate predisposition to violence struck most as misguided or even racist. But the ground has shifted over the past few decades, and Raine spends the first few chapters of the book setting out why.
Identical twins, for example, are now known to be more likely than fraternal twins to share antisocial behaviours—which suggests this is an inherited trait. More detailed studies show that about half of the variability in antisocial behaviour between individuals has a genetic basis. Even identical twins brought up separately show a shared tendency towards criminal behaviour. Part of this can be explained by the few specific genes now known to influence violent behaviour, most notably the "warrior gene", MAOA. 
Much has to do with the size of the brain's grey matter, or as Holmes puts it, Raine found those diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder had prefrontal cortexes that had “11 per cent less grey matter than those of individuals who did not have the condition.”

Besides brain scans of the prefrontal cortex, there were other surprising similarities shared by persons who commit ed acts of criminality; they all had lower resting heart rates, lower in fact than the average individual, the article says: “His research shows that lower heart rates are a better indicator of criminal behaviour than smoking is of lung cancer.”

For Raine, however, the implications of such findings are not to put persons behind bars or re-educate them before they commit a crime., common to dystopian fiction, but to treat them early in life so they could eventually become full members of society. Thus, Raine looks at the use of such modern tools as more of a medical diagnosis than anything else. 
With good reason. Mothers who drink or smoke while pregnant can harm the brain's development. Yet, such can be repaired, so to speak. Often better diet, exercise and intellectual stimulation at a young age can alter the damage done to brains when being formed in the womb. Such might explain scientifically, at least, why it is important as a society to fund such social programs as school lunch programs, sports clubs and community centres, and public libraries—such cost substantially much less than prisons. 
Free access to these public institutions can reduce criminal behaviour. The science is there; now, if only governments would understand the implications.

You can read the rest of the article at [New Scientist]

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