Thursday 9 May 2013

Amygdala. Meet Reality. Neurocriminology: Where the Psychological Rubber Meets the Anthropological Road

I know. It's a memory hog. But it's so pretty. The hippocampus is shown in red. Kudos to Wikipedia and Anatomography, website maintained by Life Science Databases (LSDB).
I just came across something that has me all fired up. It's called "Secrets of the Criminal Mind" and it's in yesterday's Scientific American online. Adrian Raine, a self-styled neurocriminologist, is touting a fundamental role for genes and biology in development of a criminal disposition. Raine steadfastly holds on against accusations of biological reductionism, because he reckons the jury's in and the verdict has already come down. He confidently asserts that
There’s no question whatsoever that genetic influences play a very significant role in shaping crime and violence. That can no longer be disputed. What can be debated is what specific genes are involved–and in what way. The gene that codes for the enzyme MAOA does seem to be involved at some level, but there’s still a long way to go in the hunt for genes that predispose to violence.
I'll admit, I'm a thoroughgoing anthropologist. As such I'm professionally sensitized to claims of biological determinism, if only because of the proven potential for human societies to act uncharitably if they fall for such screeds and find it necessary to weed out those babies having  Raine's putative predisposition to adult criminality. So, like the archaeological glutton for punishment that I am, I went digging into Raine's professional output. I stuck in my thumb and I pulled out this plumb.
Gao, Y., Raine, A., Venables, P.H., Dawson, M.E. and Mednick, S.A. (2010). Association of poor childhood fear conditioning and adult crime. American Journal of Psychiatry, 167, 156-160. 
The authors state their case
Amygdala dysfunction is theorized to give rise to poor fear conditioning, which in turn predisposes to crime, but it is not known whether poor conditioning precedes criminal offending. This study prospectively assessed whether poor fear conditioning early in life predisposes to adult crime in a large cohort.
Your brain, lateral and anterior. Amygdala shown in red. Kudos, once again, to Wikipedia and Anatomography, website maintained by Life Science Databases (LSDB).
That tiny protrusion at the end of the curlicue in the image above is the bit of your brain that Adrian Raine wants to blame for those who grow up to have a "criminal mind," whatever the Hell that is.

No wonder shrinks get a bad rap from anthropologists!

I may not be a neurocriminologist, but I can spot a fallacious argument when I see one. This one involves my old favourite: argument from want of evident alternatives. That's the one where ingenuous scholars claim to have found the answer to a question by eliminating everything but the real causal mechanism, which for some reason eluded them when they were looking around for possibilities. Saying that a thing has certain characteristics based on a limited set of potential explanations almost always leads to an unwarranted conclusion. Gau et al. is a case in point.

The article is listed as one of the neurocriminological "Representative Publications" that appear on Raine's academic web page. You've already seen what the authors had to say about their reasons for conducting this research. Cutting to the chase, they conclude that  
"Poor fear conditioning at age 3 predisposes to crime at age 23. Poor fear conditioning early in life implicates amygdala and ventral prefrontal cortex dysfunction and a lack of fear of socializing punishments in children who grow up to become criminals. These findings are consistent with a neurodevelopmental contribution to crime causation." 
Poor fear conditioning? At age 3? Which translates to criminal behavior 20 years later? Is this another failure of early childhood education? Hardly.

I'll leave the issue of informed consent and experimental ethics for some other time. There's plenty to be said on those matters, but for now I want to focus on the 'research' itself. So, to answer their momentous question these researchers found a cohort of small children in an impoverished and most likely oppressed group of non-Europeans. Where have I heard this before? Tuskegee? So, these [have I used the phrase well-meaning yet?] psychologists and psychiatrists set out to, in their words, classically condition hundreds of 3-year-olds. To do what, you ask? Why, to experience fear when presented with a stimulus other than the stimulus used to condition them in the first place. These top-drawer scholars then measured electrodermal activity as a proxy for amygdala disfunction [there's a story there, too, but life is short]. As far as the experimenters are concerned, the lower the response to hair-raising stimuli, the more dysfunctional the amygdala. The more dysfunctional the amygdala early in life, the more likely one is to commit crimes as an adult. 

Although I find their experimental design abhorrent in that it turns otherwise normal, happy-go-lucky 3-year-olds into fearful 3-year-olds [with unknown long-term effects], I will focus on Gau et al.'s effort to 'control' for the socializing effects of 'adversity,' as a means of ruling in or out the effect of environment in creating criminals. As far as the authors are concerned, if there is no environmental explanation for adult criminality, then the only possible conclusion is that biology is the root of criminality. You remember the bleeding-heart liberal's cogent arguments for the influence of the early childhood environment on adult behavior? Hmm. Let's see. There's poverty, entrenched racism, poverty, more racism, poor nutrition, racism, and so on.

Kayso, take a look at the composition of Gau et al.'s 'adversity index,' which for them is the sum total of all possible environmental reasons that could create the circumstances for adult criminal behavior. For each 3-year-old they recorded if the father or mother were educated, if the father was a semiskilled or unskilled worker, if mother was a teen [not, apparently, whether she worked or not, semiskilled or not], whether they lived in a one or two parent household, whether or not they lived separately from parents, were part of a large family, if mother's health was poor, or if the home was overcrowded. At first glance one can't dismiss any of these criteria as potential indices of adversity. Except, that is, that these are environmental characteristics that are peculiar to the American cultural experience. Who's to say if teen motherhood is a disadvantage in Mauritius? Why is a large family considered adverse to a healthy upbringing? If only one parent survives, or has been abandoned, they should have been asking if the remaining parent gets help from the extended family. Gau et al. seem oblivious to such questions. And it spells trouble for their experiment.

When you really start to think about it, the authors' 'adversity index' comprises environmental 'puffballs' compared to the more potent environmental influences that ARE known to be associated with adult criminality. I'm talking about the three As: Abuse, physical, Abuse, psychological, and Abuse, sexual. Just because such conditions would be a bit hard to assess in a hit and run survey of several hundred young-uns doesn't mean that those conditions were absent in the childrens' homes, much less that the experimenters could simply ignore them. These 3-year-olds are not blank slates! Three year olds can learn to read, fer gawd sake! If they're capable of language, reading and being classically conditioned by well-meaning but misguided experimental psychologists, surely there is the minutest possibility that conditions other than those making up the authors' adversity index have created the occasional toddler pre-conditioned to, more or less, ignore fear-inducing stimuli. What about emotional detachment? These authors really need to do their homework, beginning with some lessons in informal logic and valid argument.

Make what you will of such 'scholarship' as Adrain Raine's. I'll be happy when such shenanigans are safely behind glass in the Museum of Failed Research Programmes.

That is all ...


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1 comment:

  1. I have to say, you are absolutely RIGHT! Neuroscience is far far away from the essence of psychology or sociology.


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