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Here’s a fascinating article discussing the findings of experimental psychologist Adrian Raine, who has spent his career researching physical characteristics of the brain that seem to correlate with a future history of violence and psychopathy.

My hackles bristled when I saw the article, and I was tempted to dismiss it as yet another materialist, determinist neuroscientist crowing about having isolated the criminal type, brain size, gene, toothpaste, or whatever. But Raine’s findings merit a more serious examination.

His findings indicate that certain developments or under-developments in the brain can lead to an inability to recognize the normal signals that an action is a bad idea:

There is a theory behind this, and it’s about being insensitive to fear. Normally, a startling noise races the heart and sends the body into a high state of alert, which is what the skin electrodes pick up. But research indicates that children who are not alarmed don’t react to the threat of punishment when they misbehave. Nor do they react to the distress shown by other people. They don’t learn that their bad actions, like causing others pain, have bad consequences for those people. The pattern builds on itself until—maybe—it creates a person who wraps a telephone cord around his mother’s throat.

To Raine’s credit, he and some other researchers on the subject are clear that while changes to the brain’s  normal structure may produce dispositions more common to violent criminals, they are not determinative: “The changes are themselves changeable.” Nature is a real factor in violent dispositions, but nurture may be able to affect the outcome:

Raine himself is a big believer in protective factors. “You can’t make a lesion to the prefrontal cortex and, hey presto, you get a criminal. It’s not like that,” he says. “Of course social factors are critically important.” In his current study of Philadelphia children with the slow physical reactivity that has been linked to trouble, some are getting a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids and calcium to see if those protect brain cells, some are getting cognitive-behavioral therapy, and some are getting both to see if trouble can be staved off.

The idea that someone’s biology can dispose him to a vice is nothing new. Aristotle and St. Thomas both acknowledge that an individual’s unique physical characteristics will likely dispose him to be more susceptible to some vices than others, and will make some virtues easier to achieve than others. Those who constitutionally tend more to violence, lust, or anger must work harder to build the contrary virtues than others, and their educators and family should adapt for that when they are young.

Obviously there’s an enormous danger in mapping that Thomistic notion too literally onto a specific piece of biological or neurological evidence. Raine seems to recognize that, but he concludes that the correlation of factors that he’s discovered reveals a strong pre-disposition, albeit subject to change, that can be detected even in the womb.

Raine’s argument is that being able to detect the potential for psychopathy at the earliest stages in human development would help parents raise them properly without labeling them murderers-in-potentia throughout their lives.

But I’m just not sure how possible that is, practically speaking. If a couple were told that their baby showed biological signs of a tendency to violence, how many would choose to abort rather than risk the consequences? Perhaps some middle- to upper-class parents would be encouraged to feed their children diets rich in omega-3 and give them additional love, but for the most part I have to imagine that children earmarked as being potentially psychopathic, however much the doctor qualified that statement, would more often end up going the way of Down’s syndrome children: vanishing before they see the light of day.

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