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Neocriminology: identifying a murderer’s brain

by Tim Adams

The Observer

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

In Britain, the causes of crime were allowed to be exclusively social and environmental, the result of disturbed or impoverished nurture, rather than fated and genetic nature. To suggest otherwise, as Raine felt compelled to, having studied under Richard Dawkins and been persuaded of the “all-embracing influence of evolution on behavior,” was to doom yourself to an absence of funding. In America, there seemed more open-mindedness on the question and, as a result, more money to explore it. There was also another good reason why Raine headed initially to California: there were more murderers to study there.

When Raine started doing brain scans of murderers in American prisons, he was among the first researchers to apply the evolving science of brain imaging to violent criminality. His most comprehensive study, in 1994, was still, necessarily, a small sample. He conducted PET [positron emission tomography] scans of 41 convicted killers and paired them with a “normal” control group of 41 people of similar age and profile. However limited the control, the color images, which showed metabolic activity in different parts of the brain, appeared striking in comparison. In particular, the murderers’ brains showed what appeared to be a significant reduction in the development of the prefrontal cortex, “the executive function” of the brain, compared with the control group.

The advancing understanding of neuroscience suggested that such a deficiency would result in an increased likelihood of a number of behaviors: less control over the limbic system that generates primal emotions such as anger and rage; a greater addiction to risk; a reduction in self-control; and poor problem-solving skills, all traits that might predispose a person to violence.

Taboo topic

Even two decades ago, these were difficult findings to publish, however. When Raine presented a far less controversial paper in 1994 to a peer group, one that showed a combination of birth complications and early maternal rejection in babies had significant correlation with individuals becoming violent offenders 18 years later, it was denounced as “racist and ideologically motivated” and, according to Nature magazine, was simply further strong evidence that “the uproar surrounding attempts to find biological causes for social problems will continue.”

Similarly, when, 15 years ago, at the urging of his friend Jonathan Kellerman, the child psychologist and crime writer, Raine put together a proposal for a book on some of his scientific findings, no publisher would touch it. That book, “The Anatomy of Violence,” a clear-headed, evidence-based and carefully provocative account of Raine’s 35 years of study, has only now appeared.

The reason for this delay seems mired in ideological enmities. For all Raine’s rigor, his discipline of “neurocriminology” still remains tarnished, for some, by association with 19th-century phrenology, the belief that criminal behavior stemmed from defective brain organization as evidenced in the shape of the skull. The idea was first proposed by the infamous Franz Joseph Gall, who claimed to have identified over- or underdeveloped brain “organs” that gave rise to specific character: the organ of destructiveness, of covetousness and so on, which were recognizable to the phrenologist by bumps on the head. Phrenology was widely influential in criminal law in both the United States and Europe in the 1800s, and often used to support crude racial and class-based stereotypes of criminal behavior.

The divisive thinking was developed further in 1876 by Cesare Lombroso, an Italian surgeon, after he conducted a postmortem on a serial murderer and rapist. Lombroso discovered a hollow part of the killer’s brain, where the cerebellum would be, from which he proposed that violent criminals were throwbacks to less evolved human types, again identifiable by ape-like physical characteristics. The political manipulation of such hypotheses in the eugenics movement eventually saw them wholly outlawed and discredited.

As one result, after World War II, crime became attributable to economic and political factors, or psychological disturbances, but not to biology. Prompted by advances in genetics and neuroscience, however, that consensus is increasingly fragile, and the implications of those scientific advances for law — and for concepts such as culpability and responsibility — are only now being tested.

Raine is by no means alone in this argument, though his highly readable book serves as an invaluable primer to both the science and the ethical concerns. As the polymath David Eagleman, director of neuroscience and law at Baylor College in Texas, recently pointed out, knowledge in this area has advanced to the point where it is perverse to be in denial.

What are we to do, for example, Eagleman asked, with the fact that “if you are a carrier of one particular set of genes, the probability that you will commit a violent crime is four times as high as it would be if you lacked those genes. You’re three times as likely to commit a robbery, five times as likely to commit aggravated assault, eight times as likely to be arrested for murder and 13 times as likely to be arrested for a sexual offence.

“The overwhelming majority of prisoners carry these genes; 98.1 percent of death row inmates do . … Can we honestly say that the carriers of those genes have exactly the same range of choices in their behavior as those who do not possess them? And if they do not, should they be judged and punished by the same standard?”

Raine’s work is full of this kind of statistic and this kind of question. He draws on a number of studies that show the links between brain development, in particular — and brain injury and impairment by extension — and criminal violence.

Already legal defense teams, particularly in the U.S., are using brain scans and neuroscience as mitigating evidence in the trials of violent criminals and sex offenders. In this sense, Raine believes a proper public debate on the implications of his science is long overdue.

Close to home

Raine was in part drawn to his discipline by his own background. In the course of scanning his murderers, Raine also examined his own PET profile and found, somewhat to his alarm, that the structure of his brain seemed to share more characteristics with the psychopathic murderers than with the control group.

He laughs quickly when I ask how that discovery felt. “When you have a brain scan that looks like a serial killer’s it does give you pause,” he says. And there were other factors: he has always had a markedly low heart rate (which his research has shown to be a truer indicator of a capacity for violence than, say, smoking is as a cause of lung cancer). He was plagued by cracked lips as a child, evidence of riboflavin deficiency (another marker); he was born at home; he was a blue baby, all factors in the kind of developmental difficulties that might set his own researcher’s alarm bells ringing.

“So,” he says, “I was on the spectrum. And in fact I did have some issues. I was taken to hospital at age 5 to have my stomach pumped because I had drunk a lot of alcohol. From age 9 to 11 I was pretty antisocial, in a gang, smoking, letting car tires down, setting fire to mailboxes, and fighting a lot, even though I was quite small. But at that age I burnt out of that somehow.

“At 11, I changed schools, got more interested in studying and really became a different sort of kid. Still, when I was graduating and thinking ‘what shall I research?,’ I looked back on the essays I’d written and one of the best was on the biology of psychopaths; I was fascinated by that, partly, I think, because I had always wondered about that early behavior in myself.”

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 toward 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 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 behavior — poverty, bad neighborhoods, 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 neurocrimonology, 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 behavior 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 neighborhood, 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.”

Legal ramifications

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 tumors have resulted in arguable changes in character and behavior — 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 colored 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 behavior — 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 an 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?”

But then there is a further thought, that if you start to see criminality as a biological illness, where does a sense of retributive justice stand?

Raine himself was forced to face this dilemma when he became a victim of violent crime. While on holiday in Turkey several years ago, a burglar entered his bedroom and in the struggle that followed tried to cut Raine’s throat with a knife. He fought the attacker off, but when the following morning he was presented with two possible suspects by police, he admits to not only choosing the one who looked most like a thug [the man later admitted the crime, under duress], but also to wanting to visit on him the terror he had felt himself.

“That event changed me from someone dead set against the death penalty to someone who wouldn’t be ruled out of a jury on a capital case in America. I think now my mind will always go backwards and forwards on this, the scientific understanding of the causes of crime versus being a human in society with all these gut reactions to people who commit awful crimes.”

If the neuroscience raises as many questions as it answers about culpability after a crime has been committed, what about its role in crime prevention? Here, the questions seem no less fraught.

One of them was posed a couple of years ago by the arch-inquisitor Jeremy Paxman of Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, on Newsnight. “If science could predict with 100 percent certainty who was going to commit a violent crime, would it be legitimate to act before they commit that crime?”

Chakrabarti was in no doubt: “I would have to say that in a liberal society of human beings, and not animals, my answer to your question would be ‘no.’”

But if such intervention could prevent Newtown, you wonder, would any of us be quite so certain? The fact is that the reality will always be a much grayer area because even the most nuanced neuroscience will never produce a perfect prediction of human behavior. But is there a point at which the science — in identifying the possibility of repeat offending, for example — will be accurate enough to warrant routine scanning of those on the sexual offenders’ register?

“The fact is,” Raine says, “parole boards are making exactly these kind of predictive decisions every day about which prisoner or young offender we are going to release early, often with crummy evidence. At the moment, the predictors are social and behavioral factors, marital status, your past record. What is not used are biological measures. But I believe that if we added those things even now into the equation, we could only improve the prediction.”

Raine cites two very recent brain-imaging studies back this up. One is a study in New Mexico in which prisoners are scanned on release. “What they are discovering is that if the functioning of the anterior cingulate, part of the limbic system, is lower than normal before release, they are twice as likely to be reconvicted in the next three years. And that marker is more accurate a guide than all other social factors,” Raine says. A second study apparently shows if a released prisoner has a significantly smaller volume in the amygdala, the part of the brain crucial for processing memory and emotion, he is three times more likely to reoffend. “Now, this is only two studies, but what they are beginning to show is proof of concept, that if we added neurological factors into the equation we could do a better job at predicting future behavior.”

Pre-emptive scanning

At the end of his book, Raine suggests various possible Orwellian futures of such science, an ethical “slippery slope” of interventions that ultimately imagines a society that assesses the biological risk of all individuals and pre-emptively locks up those at the extreme end of the curve. He by no means advocates any of it, though when I ask if he would have his own children scanned, he suggests he probably would.

“If there was the opportunity for screening at school or through a GP program, would I do it? Well, if my kids had problems, as a parent I would want to know about them and I would want to know how I might deal with them. If you brought in such things as emotion regulation and impulse control, which we know are risk factors for behavior, then to me, as a parent, I would sort of want to know what could be done to help with those.”

It is perhaps not too wildly far-fetched to imagine that such scans will one day be as routine as immunization programs; the bigger question then will be how we begin to react to the results. Raine rather likes the idea of public health programs as crime prevention: “The teenage brain is still very malleable. There is good evidence from randomized control testing that omega-3 [fish oil] has a positive effect on young offenders, and even mindfulness seems to improve behavior and brain structures.”

You can’t help thinking: if only it were as simple as that.