Criminal Minds

Will testing the brain, even before birth, separate the good seeds from the bad?

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    David Gothard /

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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?”

11/27/2014 1:28:14 PM

I have read a lot about psychopathy over that last few years. From my understanding, Raine has nailed it. Psychopaths know right from wrong, hence dealing with mental illness, it is not included for obvious reasons. There are NO drugs that help brain function in brain development... If anything, drugs are downright dangerous for children and their undeveloped brains. Lest we forget, the brain is the last major frontier. Thank you for the article... I actually learned something more!

Bob Bennett
11/28/2011 6:19:29 PM

The article ignores meditation which has been proven to increase activity in the left pre-frontal lobe as well as reduce violent impulses. Perhaps a more humane to proceed would be to introduce meditation in schools and prisons, which would be a whole lot better than finding a whole new group of scapegoats to be abused and exploited.

11/28/2011 4:58:45 PM

Very interesting article. I'm disappointed, though, that the author hasn't included at least a mention of the research on additional events or circumstances (the mother's stress, health, injuries, prescription or illegal drug use, exposure to toxins, even moderate alcohol use, etc. during pregnancy) influence (sometimes permanently) brain development of a fetus. I've read that certain of these impacts can occur as early as 19 days after conception. Just because the changes are present in vitro doesn't mean they're all genetic.

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