Extract: How To Spot a Murderer’s Brain

Written by Tim Adams, the extract below is quoted from an article, entitled ‘How to spot a murderer’s brain‘, that appeared in The Guardian on Sunday 12th May, 2013. Having read some of Adrian Raine’s neurocriminology research in the past, I think he is perhaps one of the most important figures in our society today, although he has yet to receive the widespread recognition that he fully deserves, investigating a scientific field that could question the very foundations of our current justice system. One day, though, he will receive such recognition but, before he does, our attitudes towards criminals must continue to be challenged.

“In 1987, Adrian Raine, who describes himself as a neurocriminologist, moved from Britain to the US. His emigration was prompted by two things. The first was a sense of banging his head against a wall. Raine, who grew up in Darlington and is now a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, was a researcher of the biological basis for criminal behaviour, which, with its echoes of Nazi eugenics, was perhaps the most taboo of all academic disciplines.

“As Raine began to explore the subject more, he began to look at the reasons he became a researcher of violent criminality, rather than a violent criminal. (Recent studies suggest his biology might equally have propelled him towards other careers – bomb disposal expert, corporate executive or journalist – that tend to attract individuals with those “psychopathic” traits.) Despite his unusual brain structure, he didn’t have the low IQ that is often apparent in killers, or any cognitive dysfunction. Still, as he worked for four years interviewing people in prison, a lot of the time he was thinking: what stopped me being on their side of the bars?

“Raine’s biography, then, was a good corrective to the seductive idea that our biology is our fate and that a brain scan can tell us who we are. Even as he piles up evidence to show that people are not the free-thinking, rational agents they like to imagine themselves to be – entirely liberated from the limitations set by our inherited genes and our particular neuroanatomy – he never forgets that lesson. The question remains, however, that if these “biomarkers” do exist and exert an influence – and you begin to see the evidence as incontrovertible – then what should we do about them?

“Perhaps we should do nothing, simply ignore them, assume, when it comes to crime, that every individual has much the same brain, the same capacity to make moral choices, as we tend to do now. As Raine suggests: “The sociologist would say if we concentrate on these biological things, or even acknowledge them, we are immediately taking our eyes off other causes of criminal behaviour – poverty, bad neighbourhoods, poor nutrition, lack of education and so on. All things that need to change. And that concern is correct. It is why social scientists have fought this science for so long.”

“The implication of neurocriminology, though – where it differs from the crude labelling of phrenology, say – is that the choice it presents is not an either/or between nurture and nature, but a more complex understanding of how our biology reacts with its environment. Reading Raine’s account of the most recent research into these reactions, it still seems to me quite new and surprising that environmental factors change the physical structure of the brain. We tend to talk about a child’s development in terms of more esoteric ideas of mind rather than material brain structures, but the more you look at the data the clearer the evidence that abuse or neglect or poor nutrition or prenatal smoking and drinking have a real effect on whether or not those healthy neural connections – which lead to behaviour associated with maturity, self-control and empathy – are made. The science of this is called epigenetics, the way our environment regulates the expression of our innate genetic code.

“One result of epigenetics might be, Raine suggests, that “social scientists can actually win from this. I mean, if a child experiences a murder in his or her neighbourhood, we have found that their test scores on a range of measures go down. There is something happening in the brain as a result of that experience of violence to affect cognition. So social scientists can have their cake and eat it. They can say look, we can prove that these environmental social factors are causing brain impairment, which leads to some real, measurable problems.”

“One difficulty of embracing this “epigenetical” idea of crime is the degree to which such factors should be taken into account in courts of law. There have been several landmark cases in recent years in which particular neurological disorders caused by blows to the skull or undetected tumours have resulted in arguable changes in character and behaviour – and the violent or sexual crime is blamed on the disorder, not the individual. In most of these cases, it has been argued by the prosecution that brain imaging is prejudicial, that the brightly coloured pictures are too compelling to a jury and more emotional than scientific. But if neural scanning becomes more routine, and neuroscience more precise, will there not come a point where most violent behaviour – that of the Boston bombers, say, or the Newtown killer – is argued away in court as an illness, rather than a crime?

“Raine believes that there might well be. He even likens such a shift to our change in perception of cancer, until fairly recently often deemed the “fault” of the sufferer because of some repressive character trait. “If we buy into the argument that for some people factors beyond their control, factors in their biology, greatly raise the risk of them becoming offenders, can we justly turn a blind eye to that?” Raine asks. “Is it really the fault of the innocent baby whose mother smoked heavily in pregnancy that he went on to commit crimes? Or if he was battered from pillar to post, or even if he was born with a, abnormally low resting heart rate, how harshly should we punish him? How much should we say he is responsible? There is, and increasingly will be, an argument that he is not fully responsible and therefore, when we come to think of punishment, should we be thinking of more benign institutions than prison?”