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 for those of us carrying on traditions that include numerous adepts meditating in cremation grounds. 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.

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