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Saturday, December 19, 2009

Neuroscience and popular culture: Neuroscientist examines brains of his family members for killer gene

Here we read,
The idea was to correlate findings from his family's brain scans with a parallel analysis of genes thought to be associated with aggression and violence. Changing activity in certain parts of the brain relates to aggression, emotion and the inhibition of impulsiveness. Dr. Fallon's previous research on murderers had suggested that many killers show distinctive patterns in these brain areas.

"There's gonna be bad news, but I don't know where it will pop up," Dr. Fallon said in September, before he had seen the family data.

- Gautam Naik, "What's on Jim Fallon's Mind? A Family Secret That Has Been Murder to Figure Out: Nature Plays a Prank on a Scientist Looking for Traits of a Killer in His Clan", Wall Street Journal, November 30, 2009
Whatever happened to a fundamental rule of medicine that you do not practice on family members – with or without a license?

Naik decently points out what many miss:
The idea of the "born criminal" has a long history and is deeply controversial. Drawing conclusions about the biology of psychopathic murderers is especially hard because data are scarce. Those in jail rarely agree to a genetic or brain analysis. As a result, scientists rely a good deal on inference. While many people can be aggressive, violent and impulsive, only a tiny fraction become psychopathic killers, capable of committing bone-chilling crimes without empathy, remorse or a sense of right and wrong. Dr. Fallon says his research and other findings suggest that psychopathic killers often have lower intelligence than most people, which can be the result of brain damage.

Dr. Fallon and other scientists increasingly believe that violent offenders emerge when three factors are combined: several "violent" genes; damage to certain brain areas; and exposure to extreme trauma and poor parental bonding in childhood. In other words, nature and nurture.
Notice how personal choice has dropped out of the picture.

I don't know about any of this stuff:

"'violent'" genes? Most people want to live and thrive, however misguided their approach. Whether violent crime results depends on where and how they live, what they expect from life, and how it squares with legal and social codes.

"damage to certain brain areas"? Well, that is unlikely to be inherited, but bad memories of brain damaged adults, passed down as stories, may well be a cultural inheritance.

"exposure to extreme trauma and poor parental bonding in childhood"? Sure, but for every person I have met who shipwrecked on the shoals of life on these accounts, I have met at least six who decided, "I will not live the way I learned."

Anyway, in my experience, the dictum that one should not practise on family members is a sound one.

Denyse O'Leary is co-author of The Spiritual Brain.


Hat tip: Stephanie West Allen at Brains on Purpose

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