Advertisement

Books Violence and the Brain

170 pages, $6.95.

JUDGING by present high levels of violent crime, this nation is sick. Conservative political candidates offer their law-and-order solution, while sociologists insist on the abolition of social injustices. Two Harvard Medical School professors have come up with a third prescription-analysis of the biological causes of violent behavior. Violence and the Brain, a newly-published monograph, urges a scientific investigation of the role of the brain in individual violence while developing biologically-oriented social implications for both the criminologist and the politician to study.

And individual violent act, according to Drs. Mark and Ervin, results from a combination of biological and social factors. The immediate violent impulse comes directly from the brain, and its character is determined by the brain's threshold for violent action. This threshold is specific for every individual, and is determined by experiences: Past environmental influences are imbedded in the brain in the form of memory, and the effect of these influences on behavior is dependent solely on the functioning of the brain. This point of view suggests several social implications: The rehabilitation of violent criminals assumes that the subjects have normal brains. From evidence presented by Drs. Mark and Ervin, it is quite likely that a high proportion of people arrested for violent behavior have poor impulse control due to malfunctioning of the brain. In such cases, social rehabilitation is useless; a medical response through either drug treatment or surgical operations offers the only means of reversing that individual's predisposition towards violence.

HIS biological orientation towards violence also challenges sociological theories that classify aggressive behavior in man as instinctual. These theories hold that the interaction of ritualized behavioral drives develops into violence because man has "lost" intraspecies inhibitions. This point of view, formulated by Konrad Lorenz and others, is disputed by Drs. Mark and Ervin. The two argue that the internal brain mechanisms which guide the complex behavioral system of aggression are learned, as evidenced by the fact that directed attack behavior can be stopped "in midcharge." Man is violent only unnaturally:

If man's brain is diseased or malfunctioning, then his capacity for senseless violence exceeds that of any other animal, for his repertoire of behavior and his lethal abilities surpass those of other species.

The fact that behavior is functionally determined by brain mechanisms suggests a number of intriguing problems, some of which the book tries to develop. How much of present widespread violence can be attributed to poor impulse control? And how many of these cases are related to brain malfunctions? If an individual's threshold for violent action is low, is it due to a gross cerebral defect, such as a tumor? Or is it the result of progressive environmental influences, such as living in a lower-class urban environment or watching violent television programs, which might create a cerebral predisposition to violence on a molecular (memory-bank) level?

Advertisement

QJESTIONS such as these require that the sociological perspective be coupled with a medical approach to the problem. Not coincidentally, Dr. Mark is an associate professor of Surgery at the Medical School while Dr. Irven is an associate professor of Psychiatry. Their book reflects this schizoid nature-Lorenz, DeVore, Aristotle, and even Dostoevski's The Idiot are listed as references right along with scores of neurology medical research papers.

The medical and biologically-oriented parts of Violence and the Brain give a complete accounting of the present level of knowledge concerning the functioning of the brain in violent behavior on a fairly elementary level. Diagrams of the limbic brain system are given, and brain wave recordings are charted, but smooth, nontechnical explanations keep the material within easy reach of a general audience. In fact, some of the casualness in discussing the medical applications of surgical techniques may seem a bit gruesome to the uninitiated. A dozen pages of pictures illustrate the drilling of holes in the human skull and the implanting of electrodes deep inside the brain. The following brief description of a stereotactic surgery case is characteristically non-technical and understated:

We implanted four multilead electrodes in Clara's brain: two in the right temporal lobe and two in what remained of her left temporal lobe after the lobectomy.

The chapters which discuss experimentation with the human brain may seem a bit macabre, but contain compelling evidence linking specific brain mechanisms and behavioral functions.

Violence and the Brain proposes combining this important medical evidence with modern sociological interpretations of violence. This approach to the problem should encourage both criminologists and medical personnel to integrate their fields. There is no question that today such an approach is desperately wanting. Several weeks before climbing a tower in Austin, Texas, from which he murdered 17 people by rifle, Charles Whitman had gone to a psychiatrist and spoken of doing just that. After Whitman was killed, autopsy revealed a brain tumor-easily detectable by a simple medical procedure.

Recommended Articles

Advertisement