Dated 2019-04-23

Neurobiological Stories: How Violence Mars Adolescents

Protests erupted in Kashmir after troops killed two suspected militants in a gun battle and shot a civilian dead following a demonstration demanding an end to Indian rule. A 17-year-old boy who was shot by Indian troops died the next morning, a newspaper reports.

Meanwhile, I checked additional stories since July 2017, and three before and from earlier, until I traversed back to July 2016. The pattern persisted with a series of stories in the newspapers with identical texts, same triggers and the same methods of violence. Pellets, gunshots, teargas shells and stones. For sure, the journalists have written up a template and later edit names, numbers and the regions of events. The singularity that resonated across these stories is that of young punctured bodies.

The theme reverberates at global level. People from Middle Eastern and North African countries flee towards the sea, up north, for the fear of war and to avoid persecution. A dead Syrian boy washes off on Turkish shores and a group of young Libyan men drown on their way to Lampedusa - a detention island in Italy, their bodies float puffed up in Mediterranean while fish devour their eyes leaving gaping holes. In Oceania, xenophobia allows indefinite incarceration of people fleeing war and seeking asylum in an Australian detention-centre at Islands north of Papua New Guinea recently; a young Iranian adult is allegedly murdered and children as young as four want to commit suicide. Violence is universal, inflicted largely on the youth and dates back farther than our sense of national boundaries. A report from WHO estimated 23% of adults have experienced physical violence as children, and 200,000 killings occur every year among youth between 10–29 years of age, which is 43% of the total number of killings globally each year. While many violent incidents lead to death, there are many more that sustain serious injuries that cause lifelong impact on a person's physical, psychological and social functioning.

While, there are different types of violence at individual level, both physical and emotional abuse, and motivated for specific purposes such as burglaries or street mugging; the group violence stands in isolation. In the absence of personal vendetta against an individual, a group coordinates and sets out to fulfill distinct group political or religious agenda that are often perpetrated on people based on their identity, sexuality, faith, ethnicity, skin colour or social status.

As a scientist, it is hard not to construct the neurobiological underpinnings of such events. In some ways, it helps to rationalise the behaviour, of both victims and perpetrators, however irrational it may be, since this perpetual state of violence has become ordinary commonplace situation, for people of all ages.

So, when such news erupts, most readers, maybe, feel heartbroken at first, especially the ones who remain sensitised and/or closely identify with group violence and its victims. For those who do, in moments after, the consciousness presents with images of the dead’s family with their first reaction to the news. Train of thought follows the visual or auditory cues from the incident and the brain fills in with added visuals of what may have happened to construct the scene. Seconds later, empathetic emotions fabricate hypothetical situations assuming the worst possible outcome.

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Bio-social Perspective

Facets of human behaviour including crime, impulsivity, trust, love, violence, wisdom, empathy, fear, hatred and many more has been analysed through the prism of standard social science behaviour model. Albeit, it ignores the non-social and scientific causes of such behaviours such as brain plasticity, genetics, epigenetics, cognition and social experiences i.e. a person can be genetically primed for violence from birth. In contrast, neuroscience has been questioned about ignoring the social causes of human behaviours and instead using a more reductionist approach where an individual and their pathology such as depression or alcoholism is responsible for engaging in behaviours, in particular to violence and aggression.

Stories of identical and fraternal twins raised in different parts of the world are examples of this which also spark the nature vs. nurture debate and may agitate many Freudian psychologists and neuro-biologists at the same time. The ‘experiment’ was conducted in the late 1960s by Neubauer and Bernard that hypothesised the equal treatment of twins to be an interference in their individual psychological growth and hence separated them at birth. But it ended in the 1980s as the state of NY decided to legally require adoption agencies in keeping siblings together. Such study would have been impossible in today’s age that showed estimated 40-50% heritability of antisocial behaviour. From a mathematical and statistical standpoint, this could simply be a correlation and not a necessarily a causality.

Genetic traits have manifested in mice models of juvenile aggression and violence but it doesn’t give the entire picture and human behaviour is much more complex and attributed to complex higher order brain functionality than that of mice.

What is critically required today of neuro-social sciences to addressing the roots of violent behaviour is an amalgamation of the two. Neurocriminology, a branch of neuroscience that assesses the anatomical underpinnings and social attributes to crime when biology itself isn’t enough to predict risk factors related to violent behaviour.

In particular at the most crucial years of one’s life such as teens and pre-teens that shape up the conscious self of who we are and predetermine the outcomes of human personality. In addition, academics and thinkers from both disciplines need to let go of their usual allegations and biases and merge together to understand the predictors of violent behaviour and identify its triggers during its early bouts. 

Psychiatry has been alarming us with early exposure to violence but we are long way to go in understanding the differences between adult and early exposures. Young brains have a remarkable absorptive capacity to its surroundings. It is the time of our life when our sense of self and identity is established though perception, emotion, environment, communication, enrichment and exposure. Hence, the focus on change in developmental behaviour in a violent environment is largely based on the teenagers (age 13-19) and pre-teens (10-12) due to the distinct priming paradigm in their brain.  This paradigm controls one’s cognitive processing and associated behaviour as a result of a given repetitive stimulus, such as news of clashes or death of a friend. Thus differences in behaviour or performance is proportional to differences in priming stimuli that can be positive or negative affective, e.g. fear, threat, affection, rage, violence, satiety, trust, impulsivity and happiness.

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Not Always Psychopathy

It is assumed that violence and aggression may stem from psychopathic behaviour but in assessing violence and psychopathy from a social perspective, it appeared to have some dissimilarities. From studying differences in ecological niches, e.g. in economically sound or deficient communities in co-operative and competitive social climates respectively, anthropological studies show how violence and aggression differs from psychopathy in individuals. For the latter is a response to a stimuli behaviour or a means to an end, whereas, psychopathy may not always be outcome driven based on basic necessities.

Studies in tribal communities from Africa and from the Amazonian basin have seen stark differences in violence and psychopathy. The African tribes who grew in a harshly enriched ecology with limited sources favoured violence and associated it with defence and protection of the tribe and were subsequently rewarded. On the other hand, the Amazonian tribe in a highly enriched environment had greater availability of food and engaged in attacking individuals for male-male competition, politics, gossiping, and elaborate rituals that were less associated with defence and were subsequently punished for that behaviour. Hence, individuals engaging in anti-social behaviour need not necessarily be of psychopathic origin- social conditioning, ecological niches and reward systems within the social setups can heavily influence violent behaviour of otherwise non-violent individuals.

Sociologists argue that violent behaviour can be only studied through the prism of socio-economic conditions, while neuroscientists argue that there is an anatomical or biological underpinnings to violence. However, we can now put forth a temporal argument that suggests the timing of exposure to such incidences in early life is equally, if not, more importantly, early predictors of how the individual will perceive and enact upon violence as an adult. This appears as very unfortunate for the adolescents in Kashmir, albeit highlighting the consequences related to early exposures and acts of violence linked to criminal behaviour in the public discussions can bring about a rationalistic approach in dealing with adolescents as opposed to further stigmatising them.

Since these adolescents are set apart from the adults as the way their brain experiences, comprehends and learns about violence, it is imperative to discuss the bio-social context of adolescents in mainstream criminology with those of adults. Lastly, focus needs to be on shielding children and youth from violence around and available virtually through media and gaming. There is little that can be done, in comparison, for the adults who have undergone the lived through unrest in their early years. But those who are growing up have a chance of un-priming the brain, however feeble it may be.

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