Neurocriminology, Meet Human Development

Fence and GateThese are two lines of research that will hopefully increasingly merge… Neurocriminologist Adrian Raine’s new book The Anatomy of Violence: The Biological Roots of Crime presents a biological approach to criminal behavior, but a biology that increasingly recognizes developmental and environmental influences even while insisting “wait, it’s the biology…”

Infant Mental Health presents human development as relational and contextual, even as its research shows how brain development and our developmental trajectories both instantiate and shape how each of us develop as a person. It’s more the theoretical flavorings and basic orientations that keep the research apart, not some fundamental difference in what the results are showing. An encompassing paradigm – of encultured brains
– can help bring these approaches into more fruitful conversations.

So first Adrian Raine’s book is reviewed in The Guardian with the deadly wrong title, How to Spot a Murderer’s Brain. Skip over the first half and its biology vs culture framing. When it gets to Raine seeing that his own brain scan looks like a pscyhopath’s, like the same people he was studying as criminals, things suddenly get much more interesting.

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 – entirely liberated from the limitations set by our inherited genes and our particular neuroanatomy – 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? …

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 behaviour associated with maturity, self-control and empathy – are made.

And now onto the second article, DSM, NIMH on mental illness: both miss relational, historical context of being human written by Infant Mental Health specialist Claudia Gold. Dr. Gold comes at behavior and mental health problems from a different perspective…

The growing discipline of Infant Mental Health offers just such a paradigm. This discipline is characterized by four key components. First and foremost, it is relational, recognizing that humans (and that includes their genes and brains) develop in the context of caregiving relationships. Second, it is multidisciplinary. Experts in infant mental health offer different perspectives. They come from many fields, including, among many others, developmental psychology, pediatrics, nursing, and occupational therapy. Third, it encompasses research, clinical work and public policy. The field looks at mental health within the context of culture and society. And last, it is reflective, looking at the meaning of behavior, not simply the behavior itself. The ability to attribute motivations and intentions to behavior is uniquely human, and research has shown that this capacity is closely linked with mental health.

These two approaches often think they are on separate sides of the fence. But what has happened is something a bit different. Each field placed a fence, saying “We don’t go there…” But the research has increasingly nudged the fence of each approach a bit further afield, eventually crossing into the realm of the other. The disciplinary fences are still there, but they’ve pushed so far into the other’s territory that suddenly there is a whole field in between. On that fertile land new paradigms will be grown. Greg and I outlined such an approach in our 2012 paper Neuroanthropology and Its Applications: An Introduction.

Gold mentions work on Adverse Childhood Experiences, and how the ACE people have become increasingly applied in their work. I wrote about the ACE approach and applied neuroanthropology last year in the post Neuroanthropology, Applied Research, and Developing Interventions.

This approach to intervention and policy is one that recognizes context, behavior, and meaning as equally important components alongside more targeted techniques that fields like psychology, psychiatry, and neuroscience have developed. We know from previous work with mental illness that in general, a pharmacological treatment and a psychotherapy treatment work better together than either one on its own.

This approach pushes that formula one step further, recognizing the anthropological dynamics of applied work and the ways we can achieve targeted effects both matter.

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5 Responses to Neurocriminology, Meet Human Development

  1. I’ve been teaching these concepts for the past 20 years.
    And since it was published in 1998, I’ve been using Karr-Morse and Wiley’s book “Ghosts from the Nursery: Tracing the Roots of Violence,” in my Anthropology and Human Nature course. It’s interesting to see some (but not all) of Karr-Morse and Wiley’s insights finally get some recognition. The ACE studies of the CDC/Kaiser Permanente have brought some attention to this issue, although they ignore the 9 months of pregnancy, while Karr-Morse and Wiley include pregnancy and the first two years of life. One day, hopefully, people will realize that when you fail to treat human children like the little animals/mammals/primates/GreatApes they are, there are consequences to pay — in brain anatomy, in the physiology of stress and fear, and in a higher risk of violent and aggressive behavior. Children are born expecting to be breastfed for several years (at least), to be in constant/near-constant contact with their mother’s (or other caregiver’s) body for several years, to cosleep, to have all their cries met promptly and consistently and appropriately. We would see a huge difference in the behavior of children and adults if the damage done by formula, cribs, and lack of physical affection were recognized.

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  3. PN says:

    Great piece!

    The big battle when it comes to figuring out where people’s ethics come from is, of course, nature vs. nurture. And these parallel threads are meeting to reinforce what most really credible sources already know. It’s both, inextricably.

    Raine’s and others’ work shows that the brains and genes we begin with differ and may give us particular predispositions. And knowing what those are in any given person may help us tailor environmental conditions to optimally suit their development into a healthier person. Environment matters, but not in the same way to everyone. So we can perhaps learn to customize things better.

    I had not heard of the infant mental health field, per se, though. It sounds like one that is very important. The ACE studies I did know about, but the entire field of infant mental health is one I will investigate further. Thank you for bringing it to my attention!

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