Pyramids in the Collective Unconscious

“My thesis, then, is as follows: In addition to our immediate consciousness, which is of a thoroughly personal nature and which we believe to be the only empirical psyche (even if we tack on the personal unconscious as an appendix), there exists a second psychic system of a collective, universal, and impersonal nature which is identical in all individuals. This collective unconscious does not develop individually but is inherited. It consists of pre-existent forms, the archetypes, which can only become conscious secondarily and which give definitive form to certain psychic contents.”
Carl Jung, The Concept of the Collective Unconscious


This week we are going to begin our exploration of western religious ideas by examining Egyptology. I hope to show in these explorations that there is more going on with these mythologies than just dry and dusty ancient history. The esoteric subjects may seem irrelevant to our lives as they unfold in the modern world. I will argue, like Carl Jung in Psychology and Alchemy, that the modern mind continues to harbor a type of resonance with the symbol systems of the past.

Jung found in an analysis of the dreams of Wolfgang Pauli a plethora of alchemical symbols and motifs that were personally relevant to Pauli at the time and, as the series of dreams documented in Psychology and Alchemy shows, even helping him comprehend and assimilate important truths about that which is numinous and beyond ego limitations.

Most cultures have recognized that dreams can be messages or harbingers from that which is greater than us. Jung’s psychotherapy continued that tradition; respecting it enough to develop dream analysis into a practical therapeutic tool to guide both doctor and patient in the treatment of the pains and terrors of the mind. In the process of developing this tool Jungian studies made a unique contribution to the scientific study of dreams in their contention that some of them can be contextualized through their relationship with fairy tales, mythologies, and religious tales and symbolism systems. Of course the Native American shaman interpreting a ‘big dream’ contextualized it within the spiritual tradition he or she was familiar with as well; Jung’s insight is hardly unique.

However, his hypothesis about dream content went a step further, an important step that invites us to reassess what we think we know about how the human mind works. Jung believed that dreams reflected a detailed knowledge of intricate symbol systems and esoteric motifs far in excess of what is known by the conscious mind. Wolfgang Pauli, for example, while exposed to chemistry in his training as a world class physicist had not studied its alchemical roots in medieval manuscripts full of coffins, kings and queens, ravens and all the rest. Still, Pauli’s dream content included all these things.

I am inclined to assent to some form of this odd Jungian hypothesis. In the same way that our evolutionary development which Evo-Devo studies finds a kind of recapitulation of critical stages of life’s overall evolution in our physiology, our minds structure themselves using archetypal building blocks dimly recognizable as stories and symbol systems, motifs and plots of the great civilizations of the past. In some fashion the spirit of our ancestors lives on within us, a gift of their struggles and tears on which we build our own ever evolving understanding.

That there is an element of weirdness in the human experience of mind could be part of what peoples have tried to capture in the ideas of clairvoyance, soul travel, rebirth and reincarnation, or the gifts of the Holy Spirit. How are we to interpret the fact that people at times know things they cannot know, speak languages they cannot speak and display all kinds of similar uncanny goings on? The idiot savant and the epileptic possessed by seizures, to mention two of the more extreme examples, have always been a challenge for societies to explain. The mother that suddenly knows their child has died on the battlefield is another, less dramatic but perhaps more meaningful commonplace. Part of what we are learning as a species in our ongoing evolution of our understanding includes becoming more skillful around dealing with our mind’s, shall we call them, archaeological layers.

This collective unconscious can be understood as something as mundane as the sum total of all conscious and unconscious contents of all the minds of all sentient beings alive at this moment or something as un-mundane and remarkable as a phenomenon like the shared Aboriginal dream time. The term collective unconscious captures reasonably well a set of facts about the universally shared aspects of our minds, namely that they are rooted in our biological bodies with cognitive and emotional imperatives to survive and reproduce within a social environment in which cooperation, empathy and compassion can be found. Put bluntly: mind’s thinking seems to have form without a material basis yet as neuroscience makes clear is nonetheless in some fashion rooted in biology and biology is rooted in “matter” which in turn is rooted in quantum mechanics. This whole architecture provides numerous structural commonalities to individual human minds. These commonalities are organizing and guiding each mind’s unique expression of unique spirit, unique personalities which science understands as unique DNA expressions meeting environments, environments that simultaneously extend from the minuscule biochemical locks and keys (or vibrational harmonies) all the way through to behaviors we can recognize as the extended phenotype. It is as if we as individuals were dealing in the currency of DNA memories embodied in the evolutionary history of the biosphere as it is expressing itself here and now. Some of those memories present their information as particular cognitive and emotional contents of potentially conscious experience which carry an element of the numinous, that is, they carry an echo of the origins of being in deep time and deep space.

These may not be ideas we are familiar with from mainstream educations but they are not unreasonable nor are they inherently unscientific.

The contention I will be making for the next few essays is that there is still a mental environment of the dreaming, collective psyche reverberating with Egyptian symbols and sensitivities. This realm is touched by some alive today when they are affected by certain types of events that were first captured in a web of a meaningful story at the dawn of Western civilization.

Egypt is known for having built the largest mausoleums in history. The pyramids stand as a massive, mute testimony to our desire for immortality; they exist to provide their Pharaoh inhabitants with eternal life. Their images of an afterlife are not all that different than those that continue to play a role in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The afterlife for the Egyptians, as well as these “modern” faiths, were imagined as the holy city, and the divine garden. The pyramids were aligned with the starry sky just so and their ratios and dimensions were also just so to embody a god-like knowledge. Anywhere in our modern world where teachings about sacred geometry continue can find their roots right here. Oswald Spengler in Decline of the West points out Egyptian architecture is characterized by long, straight hallways and by an art which is fiercely two dimensional. The Western traditions still reverberate with the strength of the idea of the “straight and narrow.” While we might think this is just the way people think about spirituality, Spengler points out how different the ideas of the Taoists were. For the Taoists the image of the path or the way of spirituality was that of the meandering growths of nature. We also do not find among the Taoists the same resistance to death that characterized the great achievements of the Egyptian civilization.

Much could be made of the fact that the dawn of human history in the west reveals such an obsession with cheating death. The work of Ernest Becker as it has been developed in terror management theory is one example worth mentioning. In hundreds of psychological studies these researchers have found that being reminded of our mortality tends to influence our decision making and ethical interpretations of our experiences in a very particular way. Reminded subliminally of their mortality most people become more conservative, less empathetic towards strangers and more dogmatic about the rightness of one’s in-group and they proscribe harsher punishment for criminals. The theory is not without its critiques. On the Role of Death in Life by Solomon, Greenberg and Pyszczynski is a good source for the current state of the art concerning this theory by believers.

Another author worth mentioning in this context is Alan Harrington who wrote a most unusual book, The Immortalist. By examining the tales of myth and religion, poets and scientists his contention is that death has always been the real meaning behind our devils and hells and that the great hope our species has nurtured all these long millennia is that someday we might become immortals in fact. The book begins with one of the most radical proposals I have ever encountered: “Death is an imposition on the human race, and no longer acceptable.” The Singularity and cryogenics folks could relate. I mention it as one of those works that turns everything sideways. Such works are valuable aids in keeping cognitively agile.

As different as the works of Becker and Harrington are, they each share the idea that there is nothing more psychologically fundamental than our awareness of our own death. In this they are like the latest in a long line of thinkers which can trace their way all the way back to the society that built the pyramids and left an indelible impression on the religions and philosophies of the West ever since.

Of course there is more to ancient Egypt than these mausoleums. In 2,400 BCE the “holy family” consisted of Osiris, Isis, Horus, Set and Nephthys. This first family is said to be the offspring of Geb, the earth father and Nut, the mother of the starry sky. In the cultus that grew around the stories of this primal family numerous motifs were developed that remain important to Western religious traditions down to our own day. We will take a look at a few of those next week.

With Heart

“We don’t have religious tests for our compassion.”
President Barak Obama

“‘Every day seeing death and destruction… through horrific high definition images fed directly to their smartphones and social media feeds.
This is unlike any other generation, being exposed to so many traumatic uncensored images.
This has a really quite profound effect on them. When young people have no-one to talk to – and express their ideas to – it’s deeply unsettling for them.
For some kids it might manifest into [joining] a gang or binge drinking or anti-social behaviour or self-harm.
It just so happens that for young Muslims it manifests itself into extremism, for some of those kids.
It’s the counter culture they gravitate towards.’ …
Many Islamic State recruits believe they are taking part in an ‘important episode of human history’.
IS thinks what is happening in Syria marks the start of the apocalypse.
They believe in Muslim prophecies that an epic battle between Christianity and Islam will lead to the appearance of the anti-Christ and eventually the day of judgement.”
BBC Why People Want to Join the Islamic State, quoting the imam Alyas Karmani


The other form of the Dark Youth Lashing Out At The World phenomenon raised its ugly head in Paris this week. The lives of a school shooter and a fundamentalist bomber are worlds apart; they share no motives in common, the results of their actions could not be more different politically and yet both are choosing to make their statement by murdering innocent people, both tend to be of the same age ranges and gender. Both are obviously products of the modern world’s environment of neoliberal globalization and Eco-Crisis. Perhaps both share some of the same biological and physiological markers we have been discussing as indicators of a propensity to psychopathology. These are interesting speculations, particularly if they prove to be a tentative diagnosis of a new global phenomenon of youth killing youth on unprecedented scales.

I prefer the term fundamentalist bomber to terrorist bomber because it identifies what I think is the single most critical ingredient; the conviction that brooks no doubts that in killing you, I am doing some god’s work. No religion has an exclusive market on fundamentalists and bombs dropped from drones are not all that different than bombs strapped to vests for their victims. A starker example of the importance of intention would be hard to find because there is in fact a world of difference between acts of violence carried out in an apocalyptic fever and those executed for the protection of the dignity and well-being of a threatened community after rationally exploring diplomatic alternatives.

Sometimes you have to kill the monster but in doing so great care is needed else you become a monster yourself. As one religious tradition with a strong apocalyptic element faces off with another religion with equally strong apocalyptic features we as individuals would do well remembering this.

Regular readers will have noted the mention of the graphic images of violence in the imam’s words quoted above. When working on the front lines with our youth this concern about the radicalization of images is not an ivory tower subject. As contemplatives who understand some of what the true power of images can be, we need to stand for their skillful use and against their abuse. In a culture suffering a hypnotic fascination from its saturation in violence and torture “entertainments” it might seem a hopeless task to ever reestablish an aesthetic worthy of our human dignity, but we can speak the idea. The self serving gerrymanders against censorship should not be allowed to continue to shut out any and all real public conversations about the types of public images we want. The culture you save could be your own.

I wonder if the Eco-Crisis darkening our children’s futures is not acting as a psycho-physiological pressure with symptoms we are starting to see. The school shootings and fundamentalist bombings are like traumas of a species being squeezed. If the cycles historians like Arnold Toynbee and Oswald Spengler claimed to have discovered are real, the symptoms will not end here; Caesars, war bands and other Dark Youth lead developments can be expected as our fossil fueled industrial civilization continues its long descent.

Previous civilizations have degraded ecosystems and environments as part of their fall but the way in which our situation is global and our powers are on the scale of Homo Colossus adds an unprecedented risk to the rise and fall of civilizations as they have played out over the long centuries of recorded human history. We can play business as usual and pretend normal still exists but it looks like our children are not being fooled. Life reacts to the environment it finds itself in and if these ecological critiques are accurate, that environment now contains signals about numerous tipping points having already been crossed. Already baked in the cake is a devil’s brew of crop failures, immigrations, costal destruction. And how might we react to these things? With resource wars and lots of talk about curbing carbon as it continues to increase year after year. Oh and those resource wars, they are very likely to disrupt the flow of oil one day and then everything would suddenly get a whole lot more interesting, quickly.

There are echoes of crusades and inquisitions between the headlines these days. It is hard to miss. When a public figure suggests the only Syrian refugees the U.S. should accept are Christians, bells should go off.

If I am not mistaken there are going to be plenty of apocalypses to go around. As the wheel of history turns, the play could well be ‘I’ll see your apocalypse and raise you one better,’ as it were. Right now the focus is on the provocation of the Islamic State and its ideology, which, as the quote above illustrates, includes a very explicit threat to Christians as Christians. We can be sure a number of preachers are setting their pulpits on fire throughout our country in response.

At such a juncture it might prove profitable to examine our own western ideals and ideas a bit, clarify for ourselves what our Christian roots have bequeathed to our institutions but more importantly, our intuitions. How we each come to think about world events when they go pear-shaped is an important ingredient in the witches brew of causes and conditions from which the future will unfold.

As the western calendar turns towards the Christmas season and in light of Pope Francis’ recent ecological encyclical and finally because I sense there is a tantalizing link between apocalyptic symbolism and the phenomenon of the dark youth I want to try and tease out, we are going to explore a bit of the esoteric within western traditions.

Ultimately the Eco-Crisis has been created, or at least unprecedentedly exasperated by, the unique dynamism of western cultural institutions and history. These, arguably, have gained their initial justifications from their roots in Christianity. In 1905 Max Weber famously sketched The Protestant Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism as a classic in the genre. In it he proposed that the secular pursuit of wealth and private gain was a result of the Protestant work ethic applied to the task of proving one is blessed by god and predestined for salvation among the elect. However it is Oswald Spengler’s 1926 characterization in Decline of the West of ours as a Faustian culture which will be more important to our analysis. This however, is getting far ahead of our story.

Last week the subject of the heart was raised. A quick review of what lead us to here might be useful. As we cast about for whatever allows us to make some sense of the world in the age of limits we positioned ourselves ecologically, then in evolution’s deep time. Next we examined our biological development eventually getting to the role of the nervous system and finally the human brain. The next important aspect of neuroscience we examined was the role of emotion in the act of reasoning. Following this clue lead us to dive into the under-appreciated role of cooperation and empathy in the overall story of life. Focusing on the care of the young displayed by mammals lead us to the subject of compassion. Compassion wants to relieve suffering so we looked at the heart of darkness; the suffering involved when human beings kill one another. Which lead us to the heart of the matter, or is that the heart of matter?

Guided by our hearts to listen again to the living heart of the world, a mindful ecology is one in which the biophilia within a grateful heart bestows a heart of gladness on its practitioners. All the animals are singing the song of the love and intelligence that drapes out planet in wonder, only among some of us two-legged will you find unbelievers in this most fundamental sense.

From that heart lifted up in gladness we will approach a few of the so-called western mysteries. In Egypt Maat weighed the heart against a feather, the Jewish mysticism of the Kabalah features the heart as the bond between heaven and earth, in Christianity there is the sacred heart royally crowned and the sacred heart crowned with thorns, indeed the world over people speak of the heavy heart, the broken heart and the previously mentioned, heart of darkness. The heart will be our Ariadne’s thread as we try to find our way through a labyrinth of religious ideas and symbols in which it is very easy to become confused and lost.

Faustian peoples are willing to use the earth to the point of killing it and to use other peoples, the poor and seemingly powerless, the same way year after year. We should not be surprised to learn they are also willing to use God, to make idols out of infinity and eternity in an attempt to force it to do the bidding of their unrestricted pride. Humility is not the Faustian culture’s strong point, which is sad as it is the only reasonable attitude to the mystery that surrounds each of us both outside our skins and within it. Lucky for us the heart cannot be held captive for those willing to listen to it with humility.


“In the anatomy of violence, the heart is a central organ orchestrating the tendency to antisocial and violent behavior.”
Adrian Raine, The Anatomy of Violence: The Biological Roots of Crime


Let’s start with studies of aggressive behavior in animals.

In Physiology & Behavior 52, 33-36 is a paper titled Long-term heart rate responses to social stress in wild European rabbits: predominate effect of rank position. In Folia Primatologica 20, 265-73 we find Heart rate (radiotelemetric registration) in macaques and baboons according to dominate-submissive rank in group. The Journal of Autonomic Nervous System also gets in the act in Suppl., 657-70 with Vegetative and somatic compounds of tree shrews’ behavior. What are all these papers finding? As Adrian Raine, who collected all those references put it, “Rabbits who are aggressive and dominant indeed have lower resting heart rates than subordinate, non-aggressive rabbits.” Lower resting heart rate, it turns out, is the second strongest indicator of “someone becoming antisocial and violent.”

Adrian participated in a meta-analysis of forty publications dealing with the heart rate-antisocial relationship in child and adolescent samples. They involved a total of 5,868 children. The correlation that antisocial kids have lower heart rate was .22 or about five percent of the differences. This is a big deal in medical science where for comparison the correlation between smoking and lung cancer is .08 or taking aspirin to reduce the chance of heart attack is .02.


If you or I were brought into a police interrogation and accused of a serious crime and answered all their probing questions with lies, our hearts would race and we would sweat profusely. Yet this is just the response that is lacking in many of those we call hardened criminals. These physiological reactions are controlled by the autonomic nervous system which consists of both the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems. In a previous post we looked at these systems, in particular how little modern culture values the parasympathetic system which allows us to feel relaxed, secure and at ease with well-being. This tiny percentage of individuals we are considering here seem to be at ease, yet in circumstances in which such a response strikes us as alien.

Heart rate variability in connection with our breathing is controlled by the vagus nerve which has been found to also play a central role in how we relate to one another. It “links directly to nerves that tune our ears to human speech, coordinate eye contact and regulate emotional expressions.” It seems almost too simple to be true but “Studies have found that higher vagal tone is associated with greater closeness to others and more altruistic behavior.” The vagal tone is measured by higher variability in heart rates. Well-toned it lowers risk of heart disease. The nerve also seems to be related to glucose production, our immune system, and even to the production of oxytocin. Please read more in the Time’s ‘The Biology of Kindness: How it Makes Us Happier and Healthier.

Regardless of how insane specific actions in these violent crimes might be, we cannot deny that the perpetrators are driven by human needs not wholly foreign to ourselves. As much as we might want to cast such people into the role of wholly other, they are members of our species. They are not monsters from some supernatural plane – though it is quite possible their biology, and their experience of consciousness that arises from it, are very different than what you or I experience. (The poverty of our language and conceptual frameworks for discussing altered states of consciousness does not do us any favors here.)

One of those biological differences concerns the heart as mentioned. When we are confronted with the details of these crimes the perpetrators seem heartless to us, as if they lacked a basic element of empathy. Studies have shown that this intuitive response is not that far from the mark. It turns out that there are two predictive indicators that a person might grow up to become a psychopath. The first was mentioned last week; they come from childhoods spent institutionalized or in broken and abusive homes. The second is that they have a slower heart rate.

That there is this correlation with a slower heart rate has been known to researchers for quite a while. In spite of this data there is still no general agreement on why this particular detail is involved. Contemplatives who have spent time working with the heart center of the body as it is experienced in meditation will not be surprised. It is a difficult work, an illustration of which will close this week’s essay. First it might be profitable to review the scientific speculations on why a slower heart rate might be so strongly correlated to psychopathology.

One explanation points to a lack of fear in such individuals. Transfer our example of the police interrogation to a bomb disposal context, and the soldier with the steady hand controlled by a steady heart beat has just the fearlessness you need. Another explanation points out the importance of another finding, that children with lower heart rates are less empathetic. It is easier to punch a human face if you don’t really feel within yourself what it is like to be hit. Another school of thought suggests the low arousal state of lowered heart rate is very unpleasant so people react by seeking high arousal stimulation. One detail from this set of studies is particularly interesting in light of the previous comments about the effect of media violence on children. Lower heart rate kids tend to choose to watch more violent material, that which is showing more intense anger, than those with higher resting heart rates.

It stands to reason that the less self-satisfied we are, the less content and complete within ourselves, the more we will cling desperately to items and events in this world, needing them to be just the way we want them to be. Our happiness project is serious, important and vital – eee gad, our very existence is at stake. On the other hand, if we are fundamentally ok with our simple innate goodness and the innate goodness of the cosmic container in which we exist, all that is undone. There is no possibility of any particular set of causes and conditions ever really being an identity-threatening reality in any ultimate sense. Living this colorful life with a light touch is possible, if we are not slave to a sense that our very existence is at stake with every sling and arrow of outrageous fortune. We have never really had the type of existence we are afraid to lose, as if our very being was dependent on ourselves alone.

There are two thoughts that keep reoccurring to me when I contemplate the people that do the types of dark deeds we have been discussing these last few weeks. Each provides a bridge, however shaky, from self-righteous rage towards a more productive attitude that seeks to relieve suffering. The first is that their lives are not that unlike my own 99.9% of the time. The other is that they are cut from the same biological cloth as I am; they come from the same warp and woof of deep time processes unfolding in the here and now.

Have you ever done something you regret? When the lives of perpetrators of violent crimes are examined somewhere close to 99.9% of them are filled with actions not all that dissimilar to those that fill your days. They cooperate on roads while driving like everyone else and wait in lines just like the rest of us shoppers and all the rest of it. This is why so many neighbors comment that the killer was just a “nice boy next door.” It is just a few fateful moments that separate their paths so irreversibly from our own. That they might pay with years in prison for actions of a few moments should cause us all to take humble inventory of our capacities.

The psychological truth is that when we are able to face the darkness and sit with it, accepting that suffering is in fact painful, we simultaneously acknowledge the dignity of the people who are going through these ordeals. It matures our character to spend some time stewing in the facts of life. Sharing the pain of others for a moment, however little or much we might, we become more “real.” We moderns, isolated as we are from encounters with actual death and blood, have a tendency to make light of suffering, pretending it is the proper subject for spoof and entertainment. All that fake bravado is just so much whistling past the graveyard. We need all the courage we have to sit honestly with our own fear of being hurt in order to pray that the suffering of others might be lessened.

The Anatomy of Violence

“It don’t take anyone too smart to look at three generations of outlaws and see there is a link of some kind, there is a pattern… I don’t think there can be any doubt in anyone’s mind that he [Jeffrey Landrigan] was fulfilling his destiny… I believe that when he was conceived, what I was, he became…  The last time I saw him he was a baby in a bed, and underneath his mattress I had two .38 pistols and Demerol; that’s what he was sleeping on.”
Darrel Hill while on death row discussing his son Jeffrey Landrigan who was also on death row, and his father who had been shot dead by police. From 60 Minutes: Murder Gene: Man on Death Row Bases Appeal on the Belief That His Criminal Tendencies Are Inherited (2001)


It’s time to take stock of where we have been and why we are dwelling on these dark subjects at all. I have no blindingly new insight into violence to share. I am just a student hoping that by sharing my thoughts and reactions your own path might be enriched. This contemplative lifestyle swims so hard against the mainstream in Walmart-land I think we need to offer one another as much support as we can muster.

It is important not to lose sight of the power these contemplative paths include. Meditation is not a ticket to more health, wealth and status but to something much more raw and immediate. Our commitment to befriending our mind is effective when it is total and when it is total there is nothing about the mind we fear to face. Even monsters.

The subject of why school shootings have become a common feature of American life is being investigated so that the compassion we bring to the subject might be informed. Compassion is strengthened when our understanding of an aspect of suffering grows within us. Our reactions naturally become more caring and compassionate the more we understand, for in the end all sentient beings are just Iike us – waking to find themselves in an existence not of their choosing and destined to die.

Compassion seeks to relive suffering so it encourages us to look clear eyed at the darker aspects of life that are the sources of suffering. Idiot compassion does no one any good. We are looking for precision in our knowledge so we might be as effective as possible when handling this all important subject of dark children. Perhaps one day you will be called on to comfort someone grieving their loss from such a tragedy, or perhaps you will be drawn into conversations with others about these things. Maybe the nuances we are exploring will aid in those moments.

Though these are ways we become directly involved with the tragic events of school shootings it is not the only way people participate in the ripples such violent acts create throughout our societies. How you think and feel when considering the subject will also influence the environment around you. How you think about this dark subject will contribute to the attitudes you bring towards numerous aspects of modern life, influencing things, shall we say, semi-consciously? The power of awareness is such that we cannot help but contribute to how the society we are in experiences such things.

In an earlier post mention was made of the role of the molecule oxytocin in the formation of the mother and child bond and how some people react to such knowledge very negatively. That there are chemical triggers involved in this form of love reduces us to no more than automatons in their view, puppets of the evolutionary selection pressures that formed us right down to our most intimate subjectivity. I don’t think this view is necessarily wrong so much as it is incomplete, basically a really strange way to look at things. If love were not to have any embodiment in our biochemical makeup, if it were completely transcendent, an ethereal Platonic thought involving no neurotransmitters – that would somehow make that love more real? “As if because love is as real as chemicals it is somehow less real in fact.”

We need to look carefully at this Cartesian inheritance towards our biochemical makeup if we are ever going to make heads or tails out of the ecstasies and degradations of the human being. This fear of a pervasive nihilism hiding in our bright sided consumer society is one we will pick up by and by. The puppets and the cosmic horror are not only for Halloween. But that is for another time, the point now is best stated bluntly: love is not the only emotion carrying chemical signatures, violent aggression does as well.

Fear of overly simplistic interpretations of a gene for criminality being used by society’s law courts cautions us to be careful with discussions of the biological basis of crime. An ugly history of racism and eugenics equally urge caution when discussing the physiological markers that indicate a predisposition for committing violent crimes. That there are such markers is accepted by most researchers involved with The Anatomy of Violence: The Biological Roots of Crime as the title of Adrian Raine’s book on the subject so aptly states. Still, the science the book covers is controversial.

Just mentioning the subject seems to harken back to a more superstitious age when bumps on the skull were considered sure indicators of criminal proclivities. Needless to say the findings of modern biochemistry and fMRI brain scans studies are considerably better founded on evidence than phrenology. The very existence of somatic markers also calls into question to what extent people can be justly held accountable for their actions. The concepts of choice and freewill on which our justice systems are philosophically composed become much more nuanced if we admit various diseases and malfunctions of the brain are at times involved with violent criminal acts.

All of which leaves us unsure as a society just how we might need to integrate the findings of neuroscience into the criminal justice system, not to mention social services, education, and many of the other institutions dealing with at risk children and offending adults.

Evolutionary development – Evo Devo – studies how the expressions of genes are orchestrated by environmental queues. It has found that some genes are surprisingly conserved across many different species and that the variation between species at the level of genes themselves is much less than we had initially anticipated. What does vary enormously is the way in which genes are expressed: which ones come into play when. This regulation of gene expression in turn is regulated by, at least in part, the environment in which development is occurring. Recall that, particularly among mammals, brain development continues for years after the child is born. Throughout this time the environment remains capable of influencing these genetic expressions. For this reason it should come as no surprise to learn that one of the strongest shared characteristics of psychopaths is that they come from childhoods spent institutionalized or from broken and abusive homes. Lacking a stable, loving, parent-like relationship causes human brain development to go haywire just as it does among the primates Harlow studied.

Adrian Raine makes the point, “From the genetic makeup of the brain it is only a brief step to the chemistry of violence.” Genes code for the brain’s neurotransmitters, the chemical currency of our cognition, emotions and behaviors. Low levels of Serotonin, for example, have the effect of weakening the role of the frontal cortex, an area of the brain important in regulating aggression. The limbic system and the amygdala in particular are where the fear and aggression circuits are sourced. In contrast the frontal cortex areas are related to cognitive thought. Though the triune brain theory is overly simple it does provide a workable first approximation to the dynamics here being described.

Scans-of-a-normal-brain-l-009On the left is the normal brain. Note the red area towards the top which indicates the activity of the prefrontal cortex. The brain on the right is from convicted murderer Antonio Bustamante. A jury presented with these brain scans chose not to seek the death penalty in this case.

Adrian asks, “Why should poor prefrontal functioning predispose one to violence?” He provides five reasons.

  • Emotional level – without strong prefrontal cortex signals there is a loss of control over the more primitive parts of the brain.
  • Behavioral level – damage to the prefrontal cortex results in “risk-taking, irresponsibility and rule-breaking”, behavioral changes conductive to violence.
  • Personality level – damage to the prefrontal cortex results in “impulsivity, loss of self-control, and an inability to modify and inhibit behavior appropriately.”
  • Social level – damage results in “immaturity, lack of tact, and poor social judgement” all of which leads to “poorer ability to formulate nonaggressive solutions to fractious social encounters.”
  • Cognitive level – damage results in a “loss of intellectual flexibility and poorer problem solving skills” which can “later result in school failure” and a criminal way of life.

This illustrates that the complex casual pathway from gene expression of neurotransmitter production influencing prefrontal cortex functioning has numerous avenues by which an individual might become predisposed towards acts of violence. Even this quick sketch of the variables involved should be sufficient to put paid to any idea that we will ever find a simple ’cause of violence.’ For every risk factor research has identified there are numerous counterfactuals, numerous individuals with lower Serotonin levels, to stay with our current example, which never have the rest of the causes and conditions come together that are necessary for an act of violence to occur.

That said, should we assume fMRI scans showing lowered prefrontal cortex activity is a technological net in which we might catch all these killers? No, as it turns out, even at this level of detail the story is more complex. In violence research a distinction is made between proactive and reactive aggression, what we might recognize as the difference between cold-blooded and hot-blooded crimes. The reactive aggression comes from individuals with the weakened prefrontal cortex functioning we have been examining. In reacting to provocations these people can lose their cool and their bubbling limbic system boils over. “When presented with aggressive stimuli their brains over respond at an emotional level and under respond at a cognitive control level” as Adrian puts it when discussing spouse-abusers.

The proactive killers in contrast use violence as a strategy to get what they want in life. They carefully plan their actions, a difference we recognize legally as premeditated murder as opposed to manslaughter. Occasionally these people are so meticulous they avoid capture for long periods of time, as some of our most notorious serial killers have. These individuals do not show lower levels of prefrontal cortex activity when scanned.

Interestingly, tentative research indicates that the level of stimulation in the limbic system of both proactive and reactive aggression prone individuals’ show elevated activity compared to the brain scans of ‘normal’ individuals who are acting as the experimental controls. It is as if the bubbling caldron of fear and fight circuits are amped up in people with aggression problems. Such problems may be more pervasive than they seem even in our violence saturated culture. We should remind ourselves that aggression can also be turned inward and that we will never know how many “accidents” include some element of the suicidal.

The next time you have the chance to have a meaningful conversation with another human being take a moment to notice the depth of mind behind the eyes. Appreciate the complexity of the mystery that makes that moment possible. Not one person remains unscathed by these inner battles, and while perhaps only a few suffer the biological imbalances that make such states habitual, we all share the same deep-time roots of our genetic inheritances.

Compassion is easier as understanding grows.

I mentioned that one of the main developmental factors predictive of psychopathology was a childhood institutionalized or spent in broken and abusive homes. We will take up the surprising and unexpected second factor next week.