Criminal mind no different from your own
A foreign national raped. A widow's throat slit. Is a twisted criminal mind different from ours? A neuroscientist explains
Veteran American neuroscientist James Fallon is in Mumbai the night a thief turns predator, robbing and raping a 27-year-old Spanish national in Bandra. That same night an elderly widow in Malad is found dead, her throat slit.
Fallon, who was in the city to attend a literary festival, says many of us have the potential to be violent, the same way the murderer and rapist did. "You are born with brain circuitry that makes you aggressive, impulsive, even psychopathic. What makes the difference is the interaction between your genes and your early life experiences. That is what determines whether you will falter. Morality (personal), you are born with. Ethics (social), you learn. Genetics loads the gun; environment pulls the trigger," he says in an interview to us.
Warrior gene to blame
Fallon has analysed the brains of psychopaths for 20 years, and it's the lack of a certain kind of empathy he says, that differentiates a serial killer's brain from an aggressive or impulsive Joe. "Primarily, they can't feel for people on a fundamental level," explains the professor of psychiatry and human behaviour at the University of California. His theory about what makes our brain go into a tizzy hinges on three factors: abnormal genetics, distorted brain function and early childhood abuse.
Of the 20-odd genes related to aggression and violence, Fallon found that the MAO-A gene, also called the Warrior Gene, was most commonly found among psychopaths. "People born with the high-risk version of this gene suffer from irregularities of the mood-regulating chemical, serotonin, in the brain. And so, their brain doesn't respond to serotonin's calming effects. In some cases, in the womb, the MAO-A gene can cause a flooding of serotonin in the brain, thereby desensitising the brain to its effects in later life," says Fallon. Since this gene is transmitted from mother to child through the X chromosome, it is always active in men — who have only one X chromosome — if they inherit it.
While Fallon labels those who inherit this gene, "born killers", he has cracked the rider on which the Warrior Gene operates. "If the child experiences something traumatic before his teens, or undergoes abuse, the worst side of this gene kicks in." That said, Fallon doesn't believe violence on TV or cinema can set off the alarm, although they are often referred to as 'triggers' for crimes. "Put them in a four-dimensional environment — the real world — and that's when it matters," he says.
Ethics in eye socket
The other distinguishing feature, Fallon found, was the orbital cortex, a region in the frontal lobes of the brain involved in the cognitive processing of decision-making. Resting in the area above the eye sockets, it's responsible for ethical behaviour, moral choices and impulse control. This wasn't functioning in psychopathic brains. But again, Fallon stresses, warped brain chemistry, which predispose you to aggressive behaviour can be offset by sound upbringing. What better example than Fallon himself who's family tree is racked with seven murderers?
In a strange research project, Fallon decided to study his own brain, and realised it resembled that of a psychopath. "Like a psychopath, I am charming and sociable, but lack empathy. I'm low on emotional engagement. I don't care too much about people. I might talk you into doing dangerous things, and will love to beat you at games. But I'm not a criminal," Fallon clarifies. His risk-taking behaviour, a constant throughout his life, was a sign. Fallon recalls the time he took his then-16-year-old son fishing in Kenya, close to a sign that read 'Beware of Lions', while the rest of the family stayed put in the car.
What's protected him from funky biology, he argues, is his solid upbringing. "My immediate environment was so controlled that I was never exposed to street violence, or challenged or abused. Earlier, I believed that genes and brain function decided everything about who we become. But I have realised that it's our childhood that makes all the difference." So what's the lesson in this? "Raise your children well," he says.
Source: Times of India