See then how wide is the difference between material civilization and divine. With force and punishments, material civilization seeketh to restrain the people from mischief, from inflicting harm on society and committing crimes. But in a divine civilization, the individual is so conditioned that with no fear of punishment, he shunneth the perpetration of crimes, seeth the crime itself as the severest of torments, and with alacrity and joy, setteth himself to acquiring the virtues of humankind, to furthering human progress, and to spreading light across the world.
As time goes on my idea of what I think is happening in consciousness moves gradually more within the reach of speech. In my view, as modern humans in thrall to a materialistic ideology, we believe we live in a bubble largely mediated by the brain and to a considerable extent that is true. I’ve tried to model this idea in the diagram above: it’s not meant to replace the threshold model I’ve discussed elsewhere but rather to complement it. The threshold model represents an idea which was once more widely accepted in the West and needs to be again. The two ways of describing the situation are not incompatible. The threshold model allows for the fact that if you damage the brain as a receiver of transcendent wavelengths you end up locked into a very narrow range of signals, in some cases exclusively from the basest part of the spectrum.
Most brains most of the time for most of us have reasonably accurate access to our social and material environment. Transcendent reality is a no-brainer most of the time these days in the West, and I don’t mean that in the usual sense of the term.
Where’s the harm in that?
If my understanding of people and things keeps me safe and does no harm to anyone else, what’s the problem?
Well, for a start, it’s very rare for anyone’s brain to work that well all the time. Our brains are far from perfect. The messages our brains convey to our minds are mucked up one way or another far too often for our comfort. Many of the ways this happens are relatively harmless and are dealt with in books such as those by Chris Frith - Making Up the Mind - and Kahneman - Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow - I have touched on the latter in an earlier post.
Sometimes though, as a result of these distortions, we harm ourselves and others all too frequently.
A good place to start examining some of the ways the brain can be shaped to warp our understanding in dangerous ways is Adrian Raine‘s overview of the roots of crime in his book The Anatomy of Violence. He’s no believer in transcendence: he dismisses Descartes, for example, saying with confident incredulity, that he thought the brain ‘was an antenna for the spirit to communicate with the body’ (page 65). He’s also radically sceptical about the idea of free will, and regards it as an illusion (page 315): ‘You did not choose to read this book. Your brain made you do it.’
Nonetheless, you’d have to go a long way to find a better analysis of the ways that the physical and the social can interact to create a dangerous brain. And he bravely goes out a long way onto a tapering branch in a thoroughly justified effort to bring the taboo topic of biology back into the frame of reference for any discussion of the origins of crime and violence.
It will be impossible for me to do full justice to his position in such a short space as this, so I do not propose to dwell on what are for me some of the weaker sections of the book but they have to be mentioned. The book has the structure of a sandwich.
The first part advocates an unqualified evolutionary perspective on the reasons why men are the main perpetrators of violence in our society. The data he uses certainly support this gender bias unequivocally. Evolution has clearly played its part. Most of what he adduces by way of a supposedly complete explanation is a plausible myth for which, by definition, there can be little if any evidence.
The last part explores, depending on your perspective, either a utopian or a dystopian view of our future ability to reduce crime, for example, by only allowing those with a licence to have children and by placing in secure but reasonably pleasant environments those whom our much improved testing methods have defined as almost certain to commit serious harm in the future. It’s a brave presentation of possibilities, but not to everyone’s taste perhaps – we’re in the land of the Minority Report almost.
There is more to his thesis than that though. There is the wholesome protein of well-supported analysis between these two slices of white bread.
My interest in this aspect of the mind-brain relationship has always been there, hence for example my post on Baron-Cohen’s book – Zero Degrees of Empathy. This interest was recently reactivated by the above-average crime drama on BBC - The Fall. There we see the activities of a serial killer whose identity we know right from the start. The story line was based on the murders of Dennis Rader so it was well-grounded in the real world and a fascinating depiction of how a man can execute a series of murders while at the same time appearing to be an ordinary family man.
This motivated me to get past the off-putting opening section of Raine’s book and reach the fascinating core of his analysis. Raine acknowledges from the outset that social and biological influences interact (page 9):
I want to stress that social factors are critical both in interacting with biological forces in causing crime, and in directly producing the biological changes that predispose a person to violence.
His Core Position
To summarise his strongest thesis brutally, he illustrates in compelling detail how impairments in various parts of the brain, which would usually result either from genetic imperfections and/or from pre-, peri- or post-natal insult or deprivation, though later injuries play a definite part, are compounded when attachment problems occur in infancy and early childhood. The damage that can occur to the developing brain is often preventable as in the case of the harm which is caused by alcohol, tobacco and drug usage. Sometimes, tragically, it is not preventable even though it should be, as in the case of post-war starvation conditions during pregnancy. It’s effects can be passed down the generations by means of the epigenetic effects – ie when our environment works to switch genes on or off.
Once the damage is done it is hard if not impossible to remedy when the person whose brain is impaired is unwilling to invest any effort in the process. Willingness to invest effort suggests that there are ways of repairing the brain even of a possible psychopath. I think the will to do so comes from the mind which is independent of the brain but requires an intact brain to operate: Raine, of course, would feel the drive to mend your brain comes from the brain itself.
To simplify somewhat, the focus of much of what he writes concerns defects in conscience, emotional conditioning and the organisation of one’s behaviour.
In terms of conscience and conditioning the limbic system plays a key role (page 90):
Josh Greene, an amazing philosopher and neuroscientist at Harvard, published the first study to describe what happens at a neural level during personal moral dilemmas. . . . Compared to more “impersonal” moral dilemmas that do not bring you face-to-face with someone else, your brain shows increased activation in a circuit that comprises the medial prefrontal cortex, the angular gyrus, the posterior cingulate, and the amygdala. . . . . This is where that amygdala and other limbic activation comes in, contributing to the emotional “conscience” component of moral decision-making alongside some subregions of the prefrontal cortex.
It appears to account for the lack of conscience in a psychopath (page 115):
We can think of a conscience as essentially a set of classically conditioned emotional responses. . . . Because of this lack of fear conditioning, psychopaths lack a fully developed conscience. And it is that lack of conscience—a sense of what is right and what is wrong—that makes them who they are.
Two Types of Psychopath
The kind of thing that makes this book such an invaluable read is that Raine does not stop there. He looks at evidence that draws a distinction between two types of psychopath (page 124):
The unsuccessful psychopaths also show what we would expect based on prior research with institutionalized psychopaths, a blunted autonomic stress response—only small increases in sweat rate and heart rate from the resting baseline. The successful psychopaths, in sharp contrast to their unsuccessful counterparts, show significant increases in heart rate and skin conductance relative to their resting state. Essentially there is no difference between the successful psychopaths and the normal controls.
He is all too aware that this then raises another crucial question (page 128):
And as you would expect from such a thorough study, he has an answer (page 128):
The successful [psychopaths' pulse rate is] six beats per minute slower than the control group, and slightly below the level of the unsuccessful psychopaths. So, successful psychopaths have the low resting cardiovascular arousal that we argued earlier may result in stimulation-seeking, a cardinal feature of the psychopath.
As if that was not complicated enough, he throws another ingredient into the mix (ibid.):
. . . . .the successful psychopaths evidenced a psychosocial impairment not shown by the other two groups—being raised by people other than their natural parents or being brought up in a foster home or other institution. Parental absence and a lack of bonding may have helped shape the lack of close social connectedness and the superficiality that typifies psychopathic relationships.
Clearly then, brain abnormalities interact with environmental influences so we are not looking at a simplistically biological model here.
Learning from Mistakes
A different area of the brain comes into play when we look at impulse control and the organisation of behaviour (page 138):
Those with a diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder—lifelong persistent antisocial behavior—had an 11 percent reduction in the volume of gray matter in the prefrontal cortex. . .
He goes on to explain why this matters (page 141):
The ventral prefrontal cortex . . . . connects to the limbic system and other brain areas to generate appropriate emotional responses within a social context, measured here by a sweat response. . . . Second, at a cognitive level, such neurological patients make bad decisions.
What is even more interesting is that such deficits impair the linkage with emotional learning in such a way that people do not get warning bells ringing in their heads when they enter situations which past experience has demonstrated to them are potentially dangerous. They never made the connection so they repeat the mistake. In a card choice experiment which required the participants to learn to discriminate between a high-reward high-risk deck with low longterm returns from a low-risk low-reward deck with high longterm returns, guess what? There were no alarm bells ringing in the lesion patients’ heads (page 142) ‘so they continue to pick cards from the bad decks.’
Only Simulations to go on
This is a very small sample of evidence from a book which is 453 pages long. While the incidence of extreme consequences such as murder and rape as a result of brain impairment is relatively low, the prevalence of distorted perceptions of personal and practical reality as a result of milder deficits in the brain are far more widespread. What is even more unsettling is that even the normal brain cannot be relied on to deliver completely accurate estimates of what is really going on outside our heads. I’ve explored that elsewhere so I won’t bang on about it again here. I simply wanted to do a bit more to dispel the complacency with which we all assume we know what’s real and what’s not, what’s good and what’s bad.
Unfortunately, all we have is a relatively useful approximation of reality to go on, and we have to be prepared for it to sometimes let us down quite badly.
So, is there anything we can rely on more securely? Is there anyway our consciousness can reliably access a trustworthy simulation of a more viable reality? That’s something I hope to return to in due course when I might be able to speak to the possibility, even probability, of a model more like the one below.