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Published: Wednesday April 16, 2014 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Thursday April 17, 2014 MYT 8:54:29 PM

A history of violence

Adrian Raine thinks that there will come a time when we view repeated criminal offending as a brain-based disorder.

Adrian Raine thinks that there will come a time when we view repeated criminal offending as a brain-based disorder.

Adrian Raine's horrific encounter with an intruder led him to study the psyche of the human mind.

It was the summer of 1989 when Adrian Raine almost had his throat slit by a burglar.

He was 35 at the time, on holiday in Bodrum, Turkey. He remembers that night being hot – that’s why he’d left the windows open.

And that’s how someone got in.

When he saw the figure standing beside his bed, all sense went out the window. His amygdala took control.

He leapt up, grabbed the intruder despite his routine advice to students – feign sleep, because 99% of the time, thieves would rather avoid confrontation – and a tussle ensued.

Raine was hit hard in the throat, thrown against the door and beaten to a pulp.

Somehow, he managed to push the intruder out the window.

It wasn’t until he switched on the lights that he saw the blood dribbling from his neck down his chest.

The burglar’s cheap knife could have killed him, but the blade had snapped off in the struggle, leaving just a few millimetres of metal on the handle.

In an identity parade, Raine pointed out the culprit, who was subsequently jailed.

But it wasn’t enough.

Something had snapped in Raine.

His trained, rational mind was taken over by an overwhelming sense of anger. He wanted an eye for an eye. He wanted that man to suffer as he had suffered, to be beaten to a pulp and know what it feels like to almost be killed.

In the days and years that followed, Raine developed a Jekyll-and-Hyde perspective on crime.

“Mr Hyde rants for revenge, and rough justice,” he explains in an e-mail interview with The Star.

But the Dr Jekyll in him continued with his academic interests.

For over two decades, Raine delved into neurocriminology, studying the interaction between social and biological factors that predispose us to crime.

His research interests have included the development of psychopathy, conduct disorder, violence ... the list goes on. It’s been good for him, in some ways.

“Time is a great healer. Of the two, Dr Jekyll is the louder voice right now inside my head.”

His new book The Anatomy Of Violence represents the culmination of an entire career’s worth of research.

And despite himself, the resounding conclusion is that, just as he was a victim of violence, in all likelihood, the perpetrator of that violence is probably a victim of his early biology.

“I think victimology cuts both ways, and therein lies the tension for all of us.”

Ethical quandary

Raine is one of the world’s leading biological criminologists, but not everyone’s a fan.

It seems ironic that opposition comes from two opposing directions – right wingers who don’t want to let offenders off the hook, and liberals who balk at the idea of people being unfairly labelled at the expense of their civil liberties.

Despite general public acceptance of new evidence linking genes and the brain to behaviour and mental health, it would seem the idea that biology could underlie criminal behaviour has been a particularly tough nut to swallow.

Raine understands this defensiveness, considering the conundrum it poses to our universal systems of retributive justice. After all, “if we really view crime as a clinical disorder, then how in good faith can we hold offenders responsible?”

It’s comfortable to view violent offenders as evil – not so if we accept that offenders are victims also.

“Victims of crime want their pound of flesh,” he says. “I think feelings of vengeance and retribution have been instilled in us by our evolutionary heritage.”

If the goal is to prevent crime and rehabilitate criminals, then understanding its root cause is vital.

The resistance to biology playing a part in crime seems to stem from a reluctance to reconcile the concept of biological determinism with the idea of free will.

But it doesn’t have to be a zero sum game.

Acceding to one doesn’t automatically cancel the other out.

At the end of the day, we live in a practical world where we need concepts of responsibility and accountability. The neuroscientific reality is that there is no free will.

The brain, as Raine says, is just a bundle of biological machinery.

“Perhaps it’s time to be intellectually honest about it all and come to terms with the harsh reality. I don’t think such a view really diminishes us or will lead to anarchy and a lawless society where nobody is responsible.”

Brain-based disorder

It’s hard for people to recognise that mental health, as well as other social problems like drug addiction, have a basis in the brain. Raine feels things are slowly beginning to change; there is increasing recognition that drug addiction is a disease that impacts the brain.

“It’s not just a question of having weak willpower. It’s not just a social problem.”

Raine thinks there will come a time when we view repeated criminal offending as, in part, a brain-based disorder.

“That’s slowly but surely becoming a scientific reality – whether we like it or not.”

Facing up to it isn’t just a matter of principle either. Neglecting the biological basis for crime just means less effective treatment.

Rather than simply sentencing to appeal to our sense of retribution, we need a more nuanced perspective, he argues.

Having a better understanding of how the social environment conspires with biological risk factors in causing crime also means we can change those factors for crime with appropriate social intervention.

He also believes both the conservative and liberal sides can be appeased: “... we can treat (offenders) in less punitive and more benign environments than we currently do, and still protect society.”

Perhaps the most controversial idea Raine has raised in his book is something he calls the “Legal Offensive On Murder: Brain Research Operation For The Screening Of Offenders”, or “Lombroso” for short.

A futuristic crime prevention strategy, it involves screening all young men through brain scans and DNA tests, followed by appropriate intervention therapies.

Such an idea still sounds like science fiction now. And the likelihood of such a programme ever being accepted by the more liberal segments of society is highly doubtful.

Nonetheless, unless we spend more time and effort developing early prevention and intervention programmes, Raine says we are not going to stop the rot. Roadblocks placed on uncovering the biological bases of violence have set society back, “and now it’s time to catch up.”

Related Story:

Wired for violence?

Heading off criminal behaviour

Tags / Keywords: Entertainment, Science & Technology, adrian raine, anatomy of violence, mudurucu, kung bushmen

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