JULY 7, 2013
MASS KILLINGS are now frighteningly commonplace and on the increase, currently averaging over one mass shooting in the US every month. It’s all the more disturbing when these events seem unprovoked. Adam Lanza had no criminal record and no known violent tendencies. James Holmes, who staged a massive attack at a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises, was a PhD student in neuroscience. “He seemed so normal,” neighbors say when someone they know is arrested for murder. This strikes to the heart of the fear surrounding senseless mass killings — the killer could be anyone. Could some people, like Adam Lanza, just be genetically wired to react violently like a time bomb waiting to explode? Are there monsters in our midst?
Adrian Raine’s new book, The Anatomy of Violence, which was published in the spring of this year and went to press shortly after Newtown, intervenes in the political discussion with arguments based on comprehensive studies of the human brain, using the latest technology. Raine, a criminology professor at the University of Pennsylvania who has studied criminal minds for three decades, provides a neurological perspective on why some people are more predisposed to be violent than others. The answer, he argues, is that their brains are biologically different, and that many of these differences are probably genetic in origin.
From the outset, Raine admits both that the causes of violence resist simplistic explanations and that any theory of biological difference necessarily requires readers to set aside any qualms based on the fact that his studies superficially resemble the discredited eugenics movement. (For example, Cesare Lombroso, a 19th-century criminologist, thought that criminals had certain physical characteristics, like a sloped forehead, because they were evolutionary throwbacks.) Determined to win over skeptics, Raine describes biological indicators that pinpoint individuals likely to have antisocial tendencies — a low resting heart rate, for one. At the same time, he admits the difficulty in his diagnosis: both decorated snipers and Dan Rather have a low resting heart rate, something correlated with fearlessness.
This conundrum explains why contributing social factors cannot be ignored and depicts the central tension of the book: how to sort out nature versus nurture. Raine seems most interested in why some people, seemingly without cause, have antisocial and psychopathic tendencies. Despite tantalizing tidbits and his penchant for glib commentary, Raine’s broader question is disturbing — are some individuals just more violent because of their brain structure? While it may be easier to be sympathetic towards the mentally ill and consequently excuse them from culpability, it can be harder to understand how someone is more violent in the same way some people are more athletic, have brown hair, or are predisposed to high cholesterol. Yet, Raine asks the readers to make that leap based on scientific innovations.
Raine’s book details the parts of the brain involved in predisposing someone towards violence. According to neuroimaging, most murderers have decreased functioning in the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that inhibits volatile emotions, like rage and frustration. This makes sense when you consider that many violent individuals kill out of an uncontrolled impulse, the same impulse that may make it hard to hold down a job, succeed in school, or avoid drugs. Then comes a contradiction: Raine reveals that some serial killers have excellent prefrontal cortex functioning. In fact, in the case of serial killers who evade capture during their lifetimes, their prefrontal cortex is in overdrive. Raine even points out that he, himself, has high prefrontal cortex functioning similar to that of a serial killer. He recounts his studies of psychopathic individuals — those who commit crimes and lie with no remorse (he finds them at temporary staffing agencies, just in case you were wondering). These studies found that psychopaths have a reduced amygdala, the part of the brain that assists in moral decisions and emotions. In other words, psychopaths may be physically incapable of feeling the emotions that would prevent them from committing future crimes. Therefore, Raine argues, the root of the problem is fundamentally biological.
As Raine explains, early social factors have an impact on the brain development of infants. Shaken baby syndrome, for example, tends to injure the prefrontal cortex more than other parts of the brain because of its location close to the skull. It’s no surprise, then, that those abused in infancy are more likely to be violent offenders, bad parental influences aside. Raine describes the early life of Donta Page, currently serving life imprisonment for the rape and murder of Peyton Tuthill, a crime for which Page faced the death penalty. His life is sadly typical of many of those facing the death penalty — a childhood marked by extreme and repeated abuse and neglect as well as negative biological influences from before birth, including drug abuse, head trauma, maternal pregnancy complications, malnutrition, and lead exposure.
Because the environment can alter the brain, Raine makes a compelling argument for early intervention that focuses not just on education and social integration, but nutrition as well. His studies show that omega-3, for example, is critical to neural development, particularly the parts of the brain that prevent violence. In his early intervention study, children who were provided better nutrition, including increased fish consumption, in conjunction with other programs, had a much greater reduction of future conduct disorder than those without it. This result seems to imply that the diet of most Americans — rich in simple carbs — may contribute to increased violence. It’s hard not to think of the infamous “Twinkie Defense.” Yes, Raine asserts, if there is a dietary link, it’s reasonable to think sugar is the culprit.
As a result of his studies, Raine is critical of a justice system that focuses on free will as a determining factor. If violent and antisocial tendencies are at least partially biological in nature, should criminal law be adjusted accordingly? It’s true that our criminal system, with an emphasis on Judeo-Christian values of good and evil, emphasizes individual responsibility — a criminal defendant is either guilty or not guilty.
At the same time, common law has long recognized mental illness as a release from culpability. To be guilty of a criminal act, there must be both the criminal act and the mens rea — the criminal mental state. A defendant can plead “not guilty by reason of insanity,” meaning that the defendant lacked the mens rea to commit the act and was unable to distinguish good and evil. A defendant can also claim “diminished capacity,” which reduces his act to a lesser crimes, murder to manslaughter, for example. Both of these claims are affirmative defenses that the defendant must establish as a factual matter through the use of medical experts, like Raine. On the other hand, the legal definition of mens rea, literally “guilty mind,” contains built-in notions of morality and a kind of pop psychology that may no longer resonate with scientific discoveries about the human mind.
Raine makes a strong argument that repeat violent offending fits the DSM definition of a clinical disorder (one he has written about previously, in his 1993 The Psychopathology of Crime: Criminal Behavior as a Clinical Disorder). The implications of this conclusion, if true, are far-reaching. If repeat violent offending came to be recognized as a mental illness under the current legal system, criminal defendants could offer evidence of their “disorder” as a defense. Further, as treatments for repeat violent offenders became more commonplace, public opinion as a whole might begin to shift away from viewing these individuals as “bad” to seeing them as those in need of treatment, much the same way schizophrenics are now viewed. It wasn’t too long ago, after all, that the mentally ill were locked away in inhumane institutions, prevented from seeing family and having intimate relationships — that is, treated like criminals.
But, any definition of “repeat violent offending” as a clinical syndrome runs the danger of being either too broad or too narrow, even acknowledging the weight of scientific proof. As the debate over the DSM-V shows, doctors don’t agree about what fits the definition of a clinical disorder, and the definitions, when established, can be vague. A series of diagnostic criteria may not be specific enough to determine which individuals qualify; further, if someone has only committed one violent act — say Adam Lanza — should he be eliminated from the diagnosis? Some mass shootings come as if out of nowhere. In the case where the person is young, no one anticipates that kind of explosive violence, and no repeat offending diagnosis is possible.
Raine maintains a fairly agnostic stance on whether legal reform is necessary; he simply argues that under current criminal law, an individual is culpable if he has the mental capacity to know that the act was morally wrong, regardless of whether the individual was capable of controlling the impulse to act. Stephen Morse, a legal expert at University of Pennsylvania (the same school where Raine is a professor), argues that extreme psychopaths, who are neurologically incapable of making moral judgments, may not be criminally liable because they cannot distinguish good and evil. Any reasonable devil’s advocate would wonder, though, whether this puts us on a dangerously slippery slope. If, for example, Bernie Madoff were found to have a brain profile similar to a psychopath (not entirely impossible), should he be held criminally liable? Neurological evidence, at least for now, does not negate the entire concept of individual responsibility, but it does call into question what it means to have the requisite mental state, the mens rea currently defined under US law.
Raine’s argument has appeal at this particular moment because the overcrowded prison system is rife with human rights abuses: physical abuse, rape, solitary confinement, inadequate medical care. The harshest penalties, like the death penalty and lifetime prison sentences (the fate of most repeat violent offenders) primarily serve to punish serial offenders and thus prevent purportedly dangerous individuals from re-entering mainstream society. In essence, Raine’s research suggests at least a reconsideration of the justifications for these extreme punishments.
In the case of repeat violent offenders, who are either physically or mentally incapable of making better decisions or of feeling remorse, prison can have, under this theory, no deterrent effect. Raine doesn’t consider deterrence to be an option for most of these individuals; he instead emphasizes the retributive notion of punishment. To him, the desire for retributive justice makes genetic sense based on ideas related to evolutionary biology. This point of view gave me some pause. If retribution were truly the reason for the death penalty, why not just execute offenders in the public square, rather than undergo a lengthy appeals process? Why insist on humane methods?
The book does maintain the possibility of rehabilitation, although the methods, like biofeedback and meditation, seem more likely to work in cases where the individual hasn’t yet committed murder. What about perpetrators who’ve claimed to be reformed either through religion or good works? For example, Paula Cooper, a woman just released from death row in Indiana, was only 15 when she killed an elderly woman. She’s expressed remorse, gotten a college degree, and participates in volunteer work. Furthermore, if the brain is as plastic and subject to environment as the research implies, then young offenders should probably be given more chances towards rehabilitation, and we certainly shouldn’t be sentencing juveniles to life in prison. On the other hand, if the point of prison is to keep dangerous people off the streets, then all first-time violent offenders who fit a certain biosocial profile should be locked up indefinitely.
This logical conclusion leads to the final chapter to The Anatomy of Violence. If some people are just born to be bad, should they be sorted out and separated from mainstream society? Raine provides hypothetical examples of state-based control over the outcome of potentially violent individuals based on a public health model: early identification of at-risk individuals and aggressive prevention, likely to be more controversial than better food for kids. He presents scenarios where individuals are screened and monitored if they rank high on a series of biological indicators. It’s basically Clockwork Orange in real life — people are rated on a scale of their potential to commit violent crimes and treated accordingly, some in residential rehabilitation facilities and some through medication or chemical castration. Raine suggests this might start with adult males (women are excluded by virtue of their significantly lower risk of violent tendencies) and eventually trickle down to youth, who would be voluntarily committed by their parents.
In light of the Supreme Court’s latest holdings granting the police the right to obtain DNA and recent revelations of increased government surveillance, this idea seems more like reality than science fiction. Civil libertarians may shudder at the thought of surveillance of people who haven’t yet committed crimes, but Raine wonders whether such a system would be more humane than the current one. The idea of precommitment isn’t unprecedented. An individual fitting certain psychiatric criteria can be involuntarily committed for an indefinite period of time. Connecticut just passed a new law requiring psychiatric hospitals to report any voluntary admissions so the state can revoke gun licenses. And of course there’s Guantanamo Bay, which holds those who haven’t committed any crimes yet, but might according to the government. I wondered to what extent we might be willing to reconsider self-determination as a cornerstone of being human. And Raine hints at a few uncomfortable ideas without considering their implications: men are more likely than women to commit violent crimes, so women are excluded from his scheme. What’s to prevent racial profiling? I could understand acknowledging that Donta Page was probably subject to forces beyond his control, but I’m not sure that means we should be willing to throw all our civil liberties away.
Raine makes other suggestions that fly in the face of individual autonomy, possibly just to arouse public debate. For instance, he suggests mandatory parental education and licensing for those who want to reproduce. If this sounds like eugenics-lite, that’s because it is; but Raine argues that lifetime prison sentences (without conjugal visits) already implement passive eugenics. And yet Raine doesn’t consider unwanted pregnancies. Perhaps it makes more sense policy-wise to begin with free family planning for everyone on top of non-abstinence based sex education in public schools. On the other hand, as science and genetic engineering advance, will parents or the state be able to identify whether a fetus carries a violent gene? It’s one thing to identify and treat antisocial tendencies, but quite another to implement wide-scale social engineering. No law, for example, prevents the mentally ill or those with low IQs (both correlated with a higher tendency to be violent, according to Raine) from reproducing. And, if social and biological factors are as intertwined as Raine claims they are, predicting the outcome of genetic variants seems a tenuous, at best, basis for making policy decisions.
Raine is most persuasive when he asks us to consider violent offenders with some compassion, not for the acts they commit, but for the fact that they may have been at the mercy of their own biology. Public opinion is generally unsupportive of any claims for diminished capacity, viewing them as ways for defendants to shirk responsibility. Ideas of individual responsibility, tied to sacred notions of autonomy and privacy, form the bedrock of most policy debates, from gun control to birth control. But harsh punishments for individuals who lacked the capacity to act differently won’t stop future violence.
Adam Lanza may not have had a criminal record, nor was his behavior obviously odd outside of the home, but his short life suggests antisocial tendencies: trouble making friends, difficulty in school, social isolation. Adding guns to the mix seemed likely to result in disaster. Without erasing the horrible crime Lanza committed — slaughtering innocent children and teachers, irrevocably damaging families, and scarring the memories of many more children, teachers, and families — can we think of those like him as other than just evil? Acknowledging Adam Lanza’s complicated humanity may be the first step to using neuroscience to prevent the next killer.