Recently—especially since the Newtown shootings, but at least for the past five years or so—scientists have shown increasing interest in understanding the brains of violent people. Their studies offer significant hope but also pose very real ethical and methodological questions that should give us pause as we evaluate and apply them.
Although it is a broad generalization, it is fair to say that most of these studies are finding brain abnormalities of one kind or another in people who have engaged in violence, especially violent criminals (often the subjects of the studies). A few particular brain areas, the areas governing emotions, fear, and inhibition, have been identified as potentially important. After all, those with lowered fear, inhibition, and empathy are those most likely to commit violent acts. (For more information on these studies, check out this Wired article and this brief from the Congressional Neuroscience Caucus.)
However, although most of these studies have identified brain abnormalities in violent people, there are some very significant ethical and methodological concerns. In the first place, these studies are almost always conducted on those who have already committed violent acts. Among those people, the identified brain abnormalities are correlated with higher levels of violence, recidivism (especially being re-arrested for a felony after being released from prison), and other problem behaviors. The issue is that almost no one is studying these brain abnormalities among nonviolent people. In other words, we know that these brain differences are associated with higher violence among already-violent people, but it’s possible that these same differences exist in “normal” brains as well.
Why does this matter? It matters because the final goal of these studies is to create tests that can predict violence among those who have not (yet) committed violent acts. This is a potential ethical quagmire. If it were proven that among all people, these brain abnormalities are always associated with violent behavior—that they always or almost always actually lead to violence—that would be one thing. But if there are some people who have these abnormalities and never commit violent acts, it would be wrong to use those abnormalities to label people as violent. (For more on the ethical issues involved in actually applying the new brain studies, here is a short but interesting CNN article.)
That said, of course everyone would be safer if we could find a way to identify those who would commit violent acts before they did so. Perhaps the best news on this front is that the 17-year ban on funding for gun violence research has been lifted, allowing the Centers for Disease Control to begin to fund and perform valuable studies. (For a history of the ban, look here.) These studies will need to be nuanced and non-partisan to work—a tall order these days—but at least they may be done. We may well find that what we believe about the causes of gun violence is outdated or incomplete.
We may also find, however, that the tell-tale signs of approaching violence are those we have known for a long time. Increasing cycles of negativity, symptoms of psychosis or schizophrenia, and admiring references to previous attacks and attackers have been noted in almost every recent shooter. As the Society for Neuroscience argues, lack of appropriate treatment for known, obvious psychotic behavior is probably the biggest risk factor. After all, the shooter who attacked Rep. Gabrielle Giffords had been reported by a fellow student who was afraid he would become “one of those schools shooters,” and the Batman shooter actually warned his friends about himself. No brain scan was necessary to see the violence these men were headed toward.
This leaves us with the questions of prevention and incident management. The prevention question—what we can do to intervene more effectively when a person shows such obvious signs of disturbance—is a larger societal debate that we are finally having (thanks, in part, to these new brain studies). But how to manage incidents effectively, with the least loss of life, is our bailiwick: dispatch is the information clearing-house and a major source of instructions and help for victims during an event.
So weigh in if you have experience in this area. What is your communications center or emergency response agency doing to prepare? What are your thoughts on the prevention research?
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