Twenty years ago, when brain imaging made it possible for researchers to study the minds of violent criminals and compare them to the brain imaging of "normal" people, a whole new field of research — neurocriminology — opened up.
Adrian Raine was the first person to conduct a brain imaging study on murderers and has since continued to study the brains of violent criminals and psychopaths. His research has convinced him that while there is a social and environmental element to violent behavior, there's another side of the coin, and that side is biology.
"Just as there's a biological basis for schizophrenia and anxiety disorders and depression, I'm saying here there's a biological basis also to recidivistic violent offending," Raine, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and author of the new book The Anatomy of Violence: The Biological Roots of Crime, tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross.
Raine says this re-visioning of violent criminals could potentially help direct how we approach crime prevention and rehabilitation.
"I think prisoners ... [are] not motivated to change, really," he says, " ... because they just think they're a bad, evil person. If we reconceptualized recidivistic crime as a criminal disorder, would we make them more amenable to treatment?"
The key question that preoccupies Raine, however, is that of punishment and the question of the death penalty.
"Simply put," he says, "if bad brains do cause bad behavior, if brain dysfunction raises the odds that somebody will become a criminal offender — a violent offender — and if the causes of the brain dysfunction come relatively early in life ... should we fully hold that adult individual responsible?"
"I've got to be careful here. There's no destiny here. Biology is not destiny, and it's more than biology, and there's lots of factors that we're talking about there, and one factor like prefrontal dysfunction or low heart rate doesn't make you a criminal offender. But what if all the boxes were checked? What if you had birth complications and you were exposed to toxins and you had a low resting heart rate and you had the gene that raises the odds of violence, et cetera, et cetera, stuff happening early on in life. I mean, you're not responsible for that. Then how in the name of justice can we really hold that individual as responsible as we do ... and punish them as much as we do — including death?"
On studying psychopaths
"The most striking thing I found working one-to-one with psychopaths is ... how I really liked being with them, which is shocking and at the time surprising to me but, gosh, I loved dealing with the psychopaths because they were great storytellers. They were always fun. They were always interesting, and I was fascinated most of all with how they could con and manipulate me."
On the possible correlation between lead exposure and violence
"In the '70s, '80s and '90s, violence went up in America. What was causing that? Well, one hypothesis: It was the increase in environmental lead in the '50s, '60s and '70s. You know, lead in gas, for example. So, in the 1950s, little toddlers were playing outside, putting their fingers in dirt, putting their fingers in their mouths and absorbing the lead. Twenty years later, they became the next generation of violent criminal offenders because violence peaks at about 19 or 20. Then what happens is in the 1990s violence begins to come down, as it's been doing. What's partly explaining that? The reduction in lead in the environment. In fact, if you map environmental lead levels over time like that and map it onto the change in violence over time, lead can explain 91 percent of those changes. And to me, it's the only single cause that can both explain the precipitous rise in violence from the '70s, '80s and '90s and also the drop that we've been experiencing."
On what the fact that he has a brain scan similar to that of serial killer Randy Kraft means to him
"It makes you wonder, you know, what put me on one side of the bars in those four years in top-security prison when I was interviewing someone, when maybe with a different life course and other factors in my life, it could have flipped just the other way around? I've got a low resting heart rate. I'm a bit of a stimulation seeker, and, yes, I've got a brain scan like a serial killer. I had poor nutrition as a kid. ... What stopped me [from] becoming a killer, for example, or becoming a violent offender? I was anti-social from the age of 9 to 11. I was in a gang, smoking cigarettes, setting fire to mail, letting car tires down. ... But I've been intrigued: Why didn't I stay on that pathway? And it's an area that we need to do so much more on: protective factors. What protects some people who have some of the risk factors from actually becoming an offender? I think in my life, for example, I had parents who sort of loved me. I always felt loved. There was always a roof over my head. There was always a secure environment. And I got on with my brothers and sisters. You know, and maybe that's the critical ingredient: some love."
On changing his mind about the death penalty after being the victim of a violent crime
"At that point in time, I'd always been against the death penalty. I mean, I'm from England. We don't have the death penalty there, you know. You just think, 'That's crazy, having the death penalty.' After being that victim, I changed my mind about that because it made me feel more about victims' experience and how maybe — maybe in some cases — it could give them a sense of closure. Now I would not be ruled out of the jury on a death penalty case, but I'm not proud of that."
On reconciling the victim part of him with the criminologist part of him
"I'm a Jekyll and Hyde. So there's a Dr. Jekyll inside of me that's done the research, seen these risk factors, done longitudinal studies, documented these early risk factors beyond the individual's control that moves them into a criminal way of life, and that Dr. Jekyll is saying, 'You know, you can't ignore this. You can't turn a blind eye to the biology of violence and the social factors, too.' But there's a Mr. Hyde inside of me ranting and raving and saying, 'Look, I don't want sob stories. I don't want excuses. There's a cause for all behavior. We can always find a cause for behavior. ... It comes from the brain: So what? We found the cause. OK, great.'
"You know, what about the victim? What about how they feel and what about that sense of retribution, you know? What about deterrence? So, I mean, I go backwards and forwards on this, and I bet I'll change my mind again at some point in time. ... The scientist inside of me says, 'You know, that deterrence aspect — especially to capital punishment — that's not working,' and I don't think the science really shows it, too, but ... there's a part of me that says, 'It's an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth and a pound of flesh: My throat was slit, his throat should be slit.' I mean, that's just how you feel as a victim. ... Kids need to be socialized and punished for bad behavior, and doesn't that also apply as adults? If you buy into the argument, that Dr. Jekyll inside of me says then all bets are off: Nobody's responsible. You can't have that. That's what Mr. Hyde says."
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Research into the criminal mind took a different turn 20 years ago when brain imaging made it possible for researchers to study the brains of violent criminals and compare them to the brains of, quote, normal people. The first person to conduct a brain imaging study on murderers was my guest, Adrian Raine.
He's continued to study the brains of murderers and psychopaths. This research has convinced Raine that irregularities in the brain and nervous system can contribute to a person becoming violent. He describes his research, as well as other related research in this new field of neurocriminology, in his new book, "The Anatomy of Violence: The Biological Roots of Crime."
The book has inspired a TV pilot co-created by Howard Gordon, who created "24" and "Homeland," with Raine played by David Harewood, who played David Estes on "Homeland." Adrian Raine is a professor of criminology, psychiatry and psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.
Adrian Raine, welcome to FRESH AIR. So let's just give a brief overview of the kind of work that you're doing now. It's premised on the belief that it's not just how you're brought up or what your environment is like that affects whether you become a criminal; it's other things too. What are the other things?
ADRIAN RAINE: Well, the key thing, Terry, here is biology. I mean what I'm doing is arguing that there's a biological basis really to all forms of antisocial behavior - you know, not just homicide, not just rape, not just pedophilia, but just plain everyday thieving and stealing and even cheating.
It's not just the social environment. That's the message I'm trying to get over. Of course the social environment is very important; nobody's denying that. But what I'm saying here is that there's another side of the coin, and that side of the coin is biology. And so far we've only really looked at one side, the social side of the coin. I'd just like us to flip it over a little bit and take a look and see, well, what's lying on the other side there, because I think there could be some profound implications for what eventually we do in terms of trying to prevent and even treat criminal offending.
GROSS: So you were the first person to do brain imaging on convicted murderers. So I'm going to ask you first to just set the scene for us. Like the prisoners were brought in with shackles and chains to the MRI? I mean...
RAINE: It was a PET scanner. My colleague here was Monte Buchsbaum at U.C. Irvine. And yes, I mean it looked quite dramatic when you were there watching it. The prisoner was brought there in shackles and chains with two guards and trooped through the facility. But you know what? The prisoners were very, very cooperative.
You know, they were injected with a radioactive isotope and they had to do a sustained attention task for 30 minutes because that activates or challenges the prefrontal region of the brain, the part we thought may be dysfunctional in the murderers. Then they're put into the PET scanner, and we're looking at the radioactivity coming from their brain.
Now, when your brain's active, it's using glucose as its fuel. Wherever the glucose goes in the brain, so goes the radioactive isotope. And then in the scanner, by looking at the emission of that radioactivity, you can impute what brain areas are most active in that individual's brain.
GROSS: So what did you learn from that?
RAINE: Well, the key finding we got there was that murderers as a group, and you know, there was 41 murderers here and then 41 matched controls. As a group, the murderers had much poorer functioning in the very frontal region of the brain. Now, why might that predispose someone to homicide? Well, the prefrontal cortex is very much involved in regulating and controlling behavior.
You know, it checks on our impulses. You know, we all get a bit impulsive at times. What stops us lashing out? It's a good-functioning prefrontal cortex that says wait a bit, you know, now is not the time to lash out. And it's also the part of the brain that regulates and controls emotion. Now, look, you know your daily life we all get angry at some point in time.
What stops us, you know, going crazily berserk and picking up the kitchen knife and stabbing someone out of rage, it's that prefrontal cortex. It's like the guardian angel on behavior, you know? And if the guardian angel is gone, well, the devil may come out, and an individual may commit homicide.
GROSS: So what was wrong with the prefrontal cortex of some of the murderers whose brains you were scanning?
RAINE: It just wasn't functioning well. So glucose metabolism measures the amount of activity in that part of the brain. You know, just like height or weight, you can take two groups. Are there differences between the two? So as a group, the murderers had less activity in that frontal region of the brain, meaning it's just not functioning as well as it might be.
You know, think of, like, the brakes on your car. You know, if they're worn and you put them on, well, they may not work well, and you may have an accident. And that's just the same with the murderers. Their brakes are a bit worn, the prefrontal cortex not really functioning too well. So they can get out of control.
GROSS: So you scanned the brains of 41 murderers, which, you know, it's a lot of people to brain-scan, but it's not a really huge proportion of our murder population. So how typical do you think their scans are of the larger population of people who commit murder?
RAINE: You know, this is a very important point because it's not one-size-fits-all. I mean, you know, as a group, yes, the 41 murderers had poorer frontal-lobe functioning, but they didn't all have poor frontal-lobe functioning. In fact, you know, when we divide our murderers up into those who plan and regulate their homicide versus those who are impulsive and emotional, it's the ones who were impulsive and emotional during the homicide, they were the ones with the poor frontal-lobe functioning, whereas in contrast those that plan and regulate, you know, they were quite normal there.
I mean take one of our murderers, Randy Kraft. He killed 64 people in a 12-year period almost without getting caught. I mean imagine that - 12 years, nobody's catching you. In fact, he was really unlucky to be caught. I mean it was just a moving violation late one night on the freeway outside of Los Angeles, and he was pulled over.
And you know, the California Highway Patrol got a little bit suspicious when they found a dead body in the passenger seat. Serial killers actually tend to get caught by that; the license plate drops off. But take Randy's brain. He had excellent frontal lobe functioning. And he's the exception, I think, that proves the rule, because here we have a man, you know, computer consultant, smart guy.
He could carefully plan and regulate those homicides, cleaning up the bodies, wiping away the clues and then getting in to do a hard day's work on his computing work, you know, without a care in the world. You've got to have something good going for you to be able to do that. And what he had good going for him is that good frontal functioning, allowing him to plan and regulate and control his behavior.
GROSS: So if you were able to scan other parts of his brain and do a kind of biological assessment of him, what do you think you would find that might explain his serial murders?
RAINE: It's not the frontal cortex in his case. In people like him, who are planning and regulating, what I suspect, and what others suspect too, is that there's a deeper part of the brain. It's called the amygdala. It's the seat of emotion. It generates emotions, you know, like fear, for example, it generates fear. Or it's involved in having empathy for people or having a conscience or feeling remorseful.
When we brain-scanned psychopathic individuals in the community and compared them to matched controls, we found that that amygdala part of the brain, the emotion part of the brain, it was reduced in volume by 18 percent. It was shrunken physically 18 percent. So if the emotion part of the brain is shrunken, that might well explain why psychopaths lack remorse, lack guilt, lack conscience, and why they don't really care about sticking a knife in you to get what they want.
GROSS: So when you describe them as lacking in remorse, conscience and empathy, is that what you consider to be the basic definition of a psychopath?
RAINE: You know, again, great question: How do you define a psychopath? If I had to use one or two words, I'd say without conscience. I think that's the core deficit that characterizes the psychopath. They just lack feelings, normal feelings that we usually have. They'll often talk about feelings, rage and anger, but there's nothing really going on beneath the surface.
But it's true there's more than that. It's more than that emotion deficit. They are charming. They are good verbal manipulators. They tend to control the interview before you know it. You know, you'll start off asking the questions, and before you know it, the psychopath is asking you the questions. They're impulsive. They are stimulation seekers.
They move around from job to job, place to place, to try and get that buzz for themselves that they're just not getting, and frankly, that's why maybe some of them do the horrendous acts that they do, just to get that arousal jag that they're missing, basically, from their lives.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Adrian Raine. He's the author of the new book "The Anatomy of Violence: The Biological Roots of Crime." And he's a professor at the University of Pennsylvania in the Departments of Criminology, Psychiatry and Psychology.
So we were talking about psychopaths, and you spent four years as a psychiatrist or psychologist at a...
GROSS: Psychologist at a prison. And what did you get - I'm sure you weren't doing your brain scans there yet. What did you get from actually talking to and working with people who were psychopaths?
RAINE: I mean the most striking thing I found one-to-one with psychopaths is A) how I really liked being with them, which is shocking and at the time surprising to me. But gosh, I loved dealing with the psychopaths because they were great storytellers. They were always fun, they were always interesting, and I was fascinated most of all by how they could con and manipulate me.
So, you know, before I would go and see one of the prisoners, I'd always read their case file, you know, often thick documents. Because these men are serving at least five years in prison. It's a top-security prison. So you think you've got them squared away. You think you know them. And then you go in and you're interviewing them about their backgrounds, their history, and then suddenly all the cards seem to get shuffled there.
It's not how you thought it was. They say no, no, no, that's not right. This is what happened. And you say, well, are you sure about that? And they can spin an extremely convincing story to convince you that you've actually just got it wrong. And you'd walk out of that room saying, you know, I've got it wrong, I've got it wrong, only to go back, check with other people, re-read the files, and find out that the individual is a pathological liar.
They tell one story to the probation officer, they tell another story to the medical officer, another one to these prison psychologists, and you know, fascinatingly I sometimes wondered, do they actually know that they are lying? I think sometimes they do, and they deliberately lie and con, but I think sometimes they've just lost track with what the truth is because they've told so many different stories. And I found that really fascinating.
GROSS: So I want to talk a little more later about how the brain, neurochemistry, biology, affects somebody's predisposition to crime. But let's just pause here for a second and talk about in terms of, you know, murder and psychopathology. If you have a brain disposition to that, how should that be taken into account at your trial and how society decides to punish you?
RAINE: The key question is this: Simply put, if bad brains do cause bad behavior, if brain dysfunction raises the odds that somebody will become a criminal offender, a violent offender, and if the causes of the brain dysfunction come relatively early in life - and that's what I argue for; there's a whole host of factors we can go into here - but if that's true, then should we fully hold that adult individual responsible when the root causes of its behavior came early in life, well beyond its control?
Now, I've got to be careful here. There's no destiny here. Biology is not destiny, and it's more than biology, and there's lots of factors that we're talking about here. And one factor, like prefrontal dysfunction or low heart rate, doesn't make you a criminal offender. But what if all the boxes were checked? You know, what if you had birth complications and you were exposed to toxins and you had a low resting heart rate, and you had the gene that raises the odds of violence, et cetera, et cetera, stuff happening early on in life, and you're not responsible for that?
Then how in the name of justice can we really hold that individual as responsible as we do do, and punish them as much as we do, including death? That's the question that neurocriminology, this emerging body of evidence, is posing for the judicial system who are increasingly becoming interested in the interface between neuroscience and the law?
GROSS: Well, even if the cause of the pathology is out of the person's control because it has a neurological root, they're still capable of terrible behavior, and you have to - you have to acknowledge that. So just tell us briefly: What are some of the alternatives that you see to just, you know, like death row or throwing them in prison for the rest of their lives and into prisons that are usually pretty violent too?
RAINE: You know, I mean at one level we can talk about treatment. We may come on to that a little bit later. But take that individual with all the boxes checked, all the risk factors, and their free will was constrained early in life, OK, and they commit a murder. Then let's take you, who I presume you don't have too many risk factors in your life, and then you go and kill me, you commit the same act.
You've got no excuses; the other person has. Don't we go easier on that other person and instead of either executing them or taking away their basic rights, we put them more in a safe, secure institution, which - where the regime is not as harsh, and their basic human rights are not lost?
So at one level, even before we get into treatment, I think people like this could be held in safer, more humane conditions because, you know, prisons are dangerous places to be. And, you know, we should cut them some slack. Protect society - I'm not saying let them back out on the street, because, as I say, they could be walking time bombs waiting to explode - but let's step back a bit and recognize that, you know, OK, maybe we do have free will, but some people have more free will than others.
GROSS: So in looking at the biology of crime, like what might lead somebody toward crime, you mention heavy metals, including lead. So what's the relationship?
RAINE: Well, first of all we know that infants who have high lead levels are more likely to grow up, not just in adolescence to be antisocial and aggressive, but also to be more likely to have criminal convictions later in life, even controlling for background social factors. Because of course kids who are exposed to lead in the environment come from different homes. But even controlling for that, you find that there is this relationship.
And that's been found in quite a number of countries. We also have brain imaging data on people exposed to lead showing that it particularly reduces the structure of the prefrontal region of the brain, and that's part of the brain that we find to be dysfunctional in antisocial individuals. So at an individual level, lead exposure, which is neurotoxic to the brain, may be one of the environmental causes of the brain basis to crime and violence. That's at one level.
But then there's level of secular trends, meaning the change over time. So you know, in the '70s, '80s and '90s, violence went up in America. What was causing that? Well, one hypothesis, it was the increase in environmental lead in the '50s, '60s and '70s - you know, lead in gas for example. So in the 1950s, little toddlers were playing outside, putting their fingers in dirt, putting their fingers in their mouth and absorbing the lead.
Twenty years later, around 1970, they became the next generation of violent criminal offenders, because violence peaks at about 19 or 20. Then what happens is that in the 1990s, violence begins to come down, as it's been doing. What's partly explaining that? The reduction in lead in the environment. In fact, if you map environmental lead levels over time like that and map it onto the change in violence over time, lead can explain 91 percent of those changes.
And to me it's the only single cause that can both explain the precipitous rise in violence from the '70s, '80s and '90s and also the drop that we've been experiencing.
GROSS: So do you think that they are necessarily correlative or that it's an interesting theory?
RAINE: Obviously it's a correlation, but put it together with longitudinal data showing that kids who are exposed to lead are more likely to become offenders, putting that strand of evidence together, I think it makes the whole argument more substantive.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Adrian Raine, author of the new book "The Anatomy of Violence: The Biological Roots of Crime." He was the first person to conduct studies imaging the brains of murderers. He's continued to study the brains and the neurobiology of criminals and psychopaths. Early in his career he was a prison psychologist. Raine is a professor of criminology, psychiatry and psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.
There's been interesting studies about resting heart rate and how that corresponds to behavior. I want you to explain it.
RAINE: Yeah. I mean it sounds a bit funny. This low resting heart rate predisposing to antisocial and aggressive...
GROSS: Resting heart rate means what your heart rate is when you're still...
RAINE: That's right.
GROSS: ...when you're just kind of sitting still.
RAINE: That's right. Yeah. You know, it is 75 beats a minute? Is it 60 beats a minute? Sixty beats a minute would be low. About 75 would be about average, depending on the situation. Well, lots and lots of studies have now measured heart rate in kids and shown it relates to antisocial and aggressive behavior. The lower the resting heart rate, the higher the aggressive behavior, and it's even been shown to predict to future violent offending. Why would that be? There's two reasons, really. One is we think a low resting heart rate reflects a lack of fear. For example, if you're in the laboratory as a kid, you're having electrodes strapped on you, strange experiments around you, it's slightly stressful. So if a kid doesn't show a heart rate response during that situation, they're relatively lacking in fear and a lack of fear could predispose to crime. And we know low heart rates in part reflect a lack of fear because bomb disposal experts in the Army, they have lower resting heart rates than soldier controls. And we suspect that, you know, this could be one of the biological predispositions to violence. Even bombings like, you know, Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, you know, he had a low resting heart rate. He had a resting heart rate of 54 beats a minute. So one reason why low resting heart rate predisposes to crime is because it reflects a lack of fear and a lack of fear we think is a predisposition.
GROSS: Well, I think it's really interesting the comparison between the low resting heart rate of the person who might become a bomb disposal expert...
GROSS: ...in the military, doing courageous work that we're all grateful for - and the person who becomes the killer. And both of them have a relatively low amount of fear. For one it leads to an act of courage and for the other it might lead to an act of crime or even murder.
RAINE: What's going on?
RAINE: I think this is an important question because what I want to do here is bring in the social environment, because it's critically important. And "The Anatomy of Violence" argues the social environment is absolutely critical. We don't have the full answer, but I think it clearly depends on the social environment in which the child is brought up in. If you're brought up in an environment where there's also spouse abuse, for example, and there are other social risk factors for crime, then in addition to the low resting heart rate, that fearlessness may choose you to go and join a gang, because maybe, you know, you look out of your window, what do you see, drive-by shootings, gangs. But brought up in quite a different home environment, that lack of fear and that courage to go out and push the envelope on your abilities and skills in, you know, a sort of higher socioeconomic home background could lead to a very different outcome - like a brave soldier who saves lives instead of taking lives.
GROSS: In relationship to the low resting heart rate, you say that one of the treatments that's being experimented with now for certain criminals is biofeedback...
GROSS: ...in which you try to control - well, there's, I guess, various things you can control through biofeedback; and awareness training, which is a form of meditation. How would those things come into play in trying to kind of retrain the mind of a criminal?
RAINE: Yes. And you know, we're certainly not there yet by any manner of means, and I don't do the research myself, but having reviewed the literature, I'm intrigued by mindfulness training. There's very good randomized controlled trials which do show that, you know, eight weeks of meditation or mindfulness training, training yourself to be more in tuned with what's going on inside you and your senses and your feelings and your thinking, then that enhances the prefrontal region of the brain - the very part of the brain that we find to be dysfunctional in offenders. Also we know that people who meditate on a long-term basis, they have increased thickness in the prefrontal cortex, and we find structural impairments in that frontal part of the brain in psychopaths and antisocial offenders. So if it's really the case that mindfulness training can enhance brain functioning - and by the way, you know, one study has shown it activates the amygdala, that brain structure that is burnt out a bit in psychopaths - then the intriguing question is: If we could put some of these offenders through mindfulness training, would it bring back online those emotion regions that are involved in empathy and compassion like the amygdala and possibly change their behavior? Now, some studies have been done. There's even been a study giving meditation to 1,300 prisoners, claiming it reduces aggression, but we haven't had the randomized controlled trials yet to document that this can really change reconvictions in the future. But it's intriguing.
GROSS: In all your years of imaging the brains of criminals, have you done imaging of your own brain?
RAINE: I actually go through all procedures that all my subjects go through. I just think it's only fair. And with PET scanning, you know, you're exposed to the equivalent radiation of eight X-rays. So yes, I had my own brain scanned, and most unfortunately it looks very much like that of the serial killer who killed 64 people. I've got very good frontal...
GROSS: This was the methodical serial killer.
RAINE: The methodical serial killer. That's right.
GROSS: So you have an organized mind. You do a lot of planning.
RAINE: Absolutely. If you match my brain scan to the serial killer, the one-off killer, the normal control, it's a dead ringer for the serial killer. But I have to tell you, I've never been caught and convicted for any homicide, either in Los Angeles or here in Philadelphia. I'm absolutely clean.
RAINE: The only thing I have been done for is smuggling mooncake into Australia from China. I didn't know it was illegal to take mooncake into Australia. But that's my only conviction.
GROSS: So what does it say to you that you have a brain scan similar to an infamous serial killer?
RAINE: It makes you wonder, you know, what put me on one side of the bars in those four years in top-security prison when I was interviewing someone, when maybe with a different life course and other factors in my life, it could have flipped just the other way around? I've got a low resting heart rate. I'm a bit of a stimulation seeker, and yes, I've got a brain scan like a serial killer. I had poor nutrition as a kid. I had riboflavin deficiency and glastomatitis(ph). What stopped me becoming a killer, for example, or becoming a violent offender? I was antisocial from the age of nine to 11. I was in a gang, smoking cigarettes, setting fire to mail, stuff like that, letting car tires down. Mind you, quite a number of kids do that.
GROSS: Did you say setting fire to...
RAINE: Mail. Trying to set fire to mail.
GROSS: Oh, oh, to postage kind of mail. OK.
RAINE: Yeah. You know, in the mailbox, putting matches in there to set fire to the mail. And I'm not proud of any of this.
RAINE: And I think a lot of kids go through phases like that. But I've been intrigued: Why didn't I stay on that pathway? And it's an area that we need to do so much more on: protective factors. What protects some people who have some of the risk factors from actually becoming an offender? I think in my life, for example, you know, I had parents who sort of loved me. I always felt loved. There was always a roof over my head. And I got on with my brothers and sisters. You know, and maybe that's the critical ingredient: some love.
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GROSS: My guest is criminologist and psychiatrist Adrian Raine, author of the new book "The Anatomy of Violence," about the biological and neurological roots of crime.
So you've also been the victim of crime.
GROSS: In fact, your new book, "The Anatomy of Violence," basically opens with a burglar intruding into your bedroom at 3 in the morning in Turkey where you were at the time.
GROSS: You write you had always told your students if there is an intruder in your home in the middle of the night, you just pretend you're sleeping because the vast majority of burglars who are home invaders, they want to get the goods and go. They don't really want to hurt you. But what you actually did, instead of taking your advice, was?
RAINE: In one split second I leapt out of the bed and grabbed him by the throat with my hand. I have no idea why I did that. I mean looking back, it's an instinctive reaction from the amygdala, the fight/flight system. I have no idea what I was doing. All I knew at that point is that, I mean he was hitting me with everything he had. It felt like he had four fists because he was kicking me with his feet and hitting me with his hands. What I didn't know is that during the fight - because it was dark - he had a knife in his hand and when he hit me hard in the throat, hit me hard in the head, I saw white light, he threw me against the door. What fortunately for me occurred is that the blade of the knife snapped off early on in the fight, so when he stuck the knife into my throat, there was only two or three millimeters of metal left on the handle so I lost my voice and I only needed five or six stitches in my throat.
GROSS: So he slit your throat but not much of it.
RAINE: That's right. Exactly. You know, I managed to push him out of the window. You know, you're not thinking during that. Actually, you're not really feeling anything either. You know, you're just going through the motions. I put the light on. I had this sense of relief and then I saw this blood down my chest, tried to shout out and there was nothing coming out of my voice, so, you know, they took me to the hospital to get stitched up. And I'll never forget, laid out on that slab in that Turkish hospital, and I'm not making this up, there was a party going on somewhere. There was a record playing, it was The Beatles, "It's Been A Hard Day's Night."
RAINE: I'm not joshing you. That is a true story.
GROSS: So what were some of the lessons you learned as a criminologist from being the victim?
RAINE: Being a victim - it's not exactly a lesson but it changed my perspective on the death penalty. I'd always been against the death penalty. I mean, I'm from England. We don't have the death penalty there. You know, you just think, you know, that's crazy, having the death penalty. After being that victim, I changed my mind about that because it made me feel more about what victims' experience and how maybe in some cases it could give them a sense of closure. Now, I would not be ruled out of the jury on a death penalty case, but I'm not proud of that. But I have to tell you, after what happened to me, I had that feeling inside me.
GROSS: Wait a minute. This goes against everything that you were saying earlier...
RAINE: I know.
GROSS: ...that like if say you did a brain scan of this criminal's brain, the one who could have killed you, had his blade been longer - 'cause he did try to slit your throat - say you found that there was some deficiency, structurally, anatomically in his brain that could have helped explain his inability to control his actions. Earlier you were saying that person probably shouldn't be killed, that person maybe shouldn't have even been thrown into a violent prison, that person maybe should be put in a center that's controlled, where they'll never get out again, but they'll in a more rehabilitative environment with medication maybe, with, you know, psychotherapy, with things that might help them understand themselves better and perhaps become more, quote, normal. So I don't know, have you reconciled the victim part of you with the criminologist part of you?
RAINE: I'm a Jekyll and Hyde. So there's a Dr. Jekyll inside of me that's done the research, seen these risk factors, done longitudinal studies, documented these early risk factors beyond the individual's control that moves them into a criminal way of life, and that Dr. Jekyll is saying, you know, you can't ignore this. You can't turn a blind eye to the biology of violence and the social factors too. But there's a Mr. Hyde inside of me ranting and raving and saying, look, I don't want sob stories. I don't want excuses. There's a cause for all behavior. We can always find a cause for behavior. It comes from the brain: So what? What about the victim? What about how they feel? And what about that sense of retribution? You know, what about deterrence? I mean, I go backwards and forwards on this and, you know, I bet I'll change my mind again at some point in time.
GROSS: But I thought you'd made the argument earlier that for some criminals, deterrence wouldn't really be effective because they have no feelings of guilt...
RAINE: I believe...
GROSS: They don't have an emotional center and they don't have any fear.
GROSS: So how would deterrence prevent anything?
RAINE: The scientist inside of me says, you know, that deterrence aspect - especially to capital punishment, you know, that's not working, and I don't think the science really shows it too, but how can I say it? I mean there's a part of me that says, you know, it's an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth and a pound of flesh, that you know, there has to be accountability here. My throat was slit, his throat should be slit. That's just how you feel as a victim. Again, I'm not proud of this. I'm not proud to say that. But it's the truth. You know, kids need to be socialized and punished for bad behavior, and doesn't that also apply for us adults, you know? If you buy in to the arguments that Dr. Jekyll inside of me says, then all bets are off. Nobody's responsible. You can't have that. That's what Mr. Hyde says. That's what he says.
GROSS: So integrate those two together for me.
RAINE: Ah. I'm a split personality. You know? I mean, at different times I think different things. I'm a scientist, and when I look at the hard scientific facts, I take a very, very different perspective. When I step outside of all of that as a person in society - because I'm not just a scientist; you know, I'm a father, I'm a husband.
GROSS: And you were burgled last summer, too.
RAINE: Yeah. But you know what? I've been burgled four more times since.
RAINE: Would you believe it?
RAINE: Four more times. Two burglaries and two attempted break-ins. I don't know what's going on.
RAINE: Yeah. That's why I'm angry. My two boys, 11-year-old boys, three weeks ago they were mugged outside of the movie theater.
GROSS: Oh, my gosh.
RAINE: One was choked. Yeah. So I'm boiling up here. So, I mean, it's not just the burglaries. Not just the muggings and stuff. I mean, I'm thinking for other people. Because - let's take Donta Page. He was a man who brutally raped and killed a wonderful young woman in Denver, Colorado. I was brought in by the defense because they thought there's something wrong with him.
I brought him across state lines, had him brain-scanned in the same brain scanner that I'd brain-scanned the 41 murderers. I found poorer functioning in the prefrontal region of the brain. Not just that, Donta Page was battered from pillar to post as a young kid. He was brought up in one of the worst ghettos in the United States. I mean, I won't go into all of it, but it was a living hell that this poor kid was brought up in.
And he had the brain dysfunction. So the mix of the social and the biologicals conspiring together to make him do this horrible act. I went and defended him and showed the brain imaging and that persuaded the three-judge panel not to execute him. But then you see the mother walking down the aisle with in one hand the favorite flowers of her daughter and the vase that contains her ashes, and speaking for two hours about how her daughter wasn't murdered; she was slaughtered like an animal.
And I don't know. You listen to that and you think, gosh, there's another side here.
GROSS: So does that mean you felt guilty afterwards for the case that you made on the stand?
RAINE: I go - I've gone backwards and forwards on it. I did the right thing on the stand. I didn't exaggerate anything. I mean, gosh, that poor baby, that innocent young baby, had no chance in life. He had no chance in life. I mean I can't ignore that.
GROSS: What was the verdict?
RAINE: Well, the jury found him, you know, guilty of first-degree homicide but in Colorado at that time it's the three-judge panel that decides, do we give him the death penalty or do we give him life in prison. They bought the brain imaging, the bio-social package, of, you know, hits to the brain, terrible abuse, lead exposure as a kid, no father, complete neglect, rectal bleeding at the age of 10. Come on, he's been raped by the neighbor across the road. I mean, that kid never had a chance. He never had a chance.
GROSS: So what I think I'm hearing you say is that even you, who's at the forefront of the brain scanning of criminals to try to understand how brain dysfunction affects somebody's criminal direction, even you - maybe you aren't really sure how we should be using this yet. You're not really sure.
RAINE: I know.
GROSS: What does it mean? How do we apply it?
RAINE: I know, I know. As an academic, part of me is arguing we need the concept of partial responsibility so in the guilt phase, not just innocent or guilt, but partial responsibility. You know, taking into account things like this. I think in part we need to change the law at one level. I think we need to take these, you know, mitigating factors far more into account in the penalty phase of a trial than we're doing at the moment.
I mean, that's true. I believe that. I do believe that. One side of me believes that. But another part of me says, but, you know, again, where goes responsibility? I'm worried about that. Free will. You know, are we going to lose our concept of free will, agency? Does it mean that we don't have control? That, to me, is a slippery slope, a dangerous slippery slope to Armageddon.
GROSS: Well, Adrian Raine, thank you so much for talking with us.
RAINE: Thank you very much, Terry. I really enjoyed it.
GROSS: Me too. Adrian Raine is the author of the new book "The Anatomy of Violence." You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org. The book is being adapted into a TV pilot by Howard Gordon, the creator of "24" and "Homeland." Here's how the Hollywood Reporter describes it: This hour-long entry will center on Dr. Raines, a criminal psychologist with an expertise in sociopaths, who partners with a young female detective with whom he shares a conflicted past.
Sounds intriguing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.