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July 11, 2013

Probing the Biological Roots of Violence

anatomy of violence book coverIn his new book, The Anatomy of Violence, Adrian Raine introduces us to neurocriminology, a new field within the neurosciences that focuses on the biological origins of violent behavior.  He explains that, “The dominant model for understanding criminal behavior has been, for most of the twentieth century, one built almost exclusively on social and sociological models.  My main argument is that sole reliance on these social perspectives is fundamentally flawed.  Biology is also critically important in understanding violence, and probing through its anatomical underpinnings will be vital for treating the epidemic of violence and crime afflicting our societies.”

adrian raine - authorRaine writes about his 35 years of research to uncover and validate the connection between a range of violent behaviors and areas of the brain known to control feelings of fear and guilt, as well as the process of making “good” decisions.  The theory that the brain could drive antisocial behavior was soundly rejected, along with the work of scientists like Raine, by the field of Criminology during most of those years, but now, in the 21st Century, great strides in molecular and behavioral genetics coupled with “…revolutionary advances in brain imaging…” provide the platform for accepting and understanding the biology of violence.

The link between violence and anatomy  – CNN

This book is written for a general audience, and perhaps for the first time, many readers will actually understand what is shown on a brain scan. The author uses examples of antisocial behavior from various criminal cases—some highly publicized—including serial murder to domestic violence, to demonstrate his work on identifying the commonality of both biological and social impairments among perpetrators.  On the biological side, brain injuries occurring in utero and at birth as well as low heart rates emerge as important in Raine’s studies.  On the social side, maternal rejection in the first year of life appears to be a key factor in understanding violence. This biosocial model, then, embraces both biological and social risk factors as causes for antisocial behaviors.

Raine takes us from a personal perspective as a victim of criminal violence himself to considering violence as a matter of Public Health worldwide. The World Health Organization (WHO) calls violence “a global public health problem.”  Some experts estimate that, in the U.S. alone, the total cost of dealing with violence is half a trillion dollars a year. This adds urgency to the work that Raine and his colleagues are doing. With a new understanding of violence grounded in science, and guided by neuroethics, biological and social interventions for prevention and treatment can turn the tide of unchecked violence worldwide.