Will testing the brain, even before birth, separate the good seeds from the bad?
David Gothard / www.davidgothard.com
When he was in his late 20s and living in his native England, Adrian Raine spent a lot of time locked in a van with violent criminals.
Raine worked at a maximum security prison in Hull, where his job involved attaching polygraph-type sensors to the prisoners’ skin to measure their agitation as he bothered them with loud sounds and flashes of light. His lab was in the back of a van, he says, “and the guards were very concerned these men would commandeer the vehicle and escape.”
Their solution? “Take my keys away and lock the doors from the outside.”
“So there I was, in this very tiny space,” recalls Raine, who is now in his 50s and is the chair of the criminology department at the University of Pennsylvania. “And I kept watching the needles these sensors were connected to, for I imagined that the first sign these men were about to rush me would be the needles starting to swing wildly as the men got excited and prepared to attack.”
They never did. And since then, Raine has never strayed far from the company of killers, wife batterers, and psychopaths—searching for clues to bad behavior or even criminal intent. Along with several other researchers, he has pioneered the science of neurodevelopmental criminology, which has established that among adult offenders, juvenile delinquents, and even younger children there are features in the brain that seem to reduce fear, impair decision making, and blunt emotional reactions to others’ distress.
While Raine was attending Oxford, he vacillated between wanting to be an experimental psychologist and wanting to teach primary school. As a result, he did some student teaching, which showed him that “there were some kids who were just bullies, very extreme, and I wondered, Why? Where did the behavior come from? Why were some kids angels and some devils?”
He made the topic into his doctoral research at the University of York, where he began using the lie detector–like sensors to measure heart rates and changes in the way the skin conducts electricity in teenagers with varying degrees of aggression.
After graduating, Raine began his work at Hull, where he did time with murderers, rapists, and pedophiles. “The main thing I learned was that I really can’t change these people,” he says. “It brought me back to kids, to earlier stages, thinking we’ve got to look at the earlier, predisposing factors, when maybe we can do something.”
Raine eventually broke out of jail and into academe, first at the University of Nottingham and then at the University of Southern California. One of his major lines of research was long-term studies of children, measuring physiological reactivity at young ages to see if any pattern related to bad behavior decades later.
Raine lucked into a major source of data. In the late 1960s, the World Health Organization had started to follow about 1,800 children on Mauritius, a small island nation in the Indian Ocean.
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