Your recent coverage of child abuse and neglect in our community prompted me to reflect on my 30 years of work as a criminologist studying individuals who committed heinous crimes.
I have conducted in-depth interviews with and examined the histories of many men, each of whom killed many people. Much of what I research and teach at Fresno State is about violent behavior. The main question guiding my research has been: “Why?”
But as I say to my students, even though I am a psychologist, increasingly as research pours in from multiple disciplines, I find I can no longer speak of the psychology of these offenders without talking about their biology – virtually in the same sentence.
Why do some individuals go through life leaving a multitude of victims of their impulsive rage in their wakes while others become calculating, cold-blooded predators? A large part of the answer to both questions relates to factors that affected the development of their brains.
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This same answer applies to pathological violence in all its forms as well as to mental illness. Violence, criminality and mental disorder do not come out of nowhere. The “why” of violent crime is complicated, to be sure; but it is not a mystery. A common theme in the lives of violent offenders is early trauma.
Beginning during pregnancy, the first 33 months of life is a period of astounding brain development. During this time, critical foundations for a life of peace, compassion and love or alienation, mental disorder and violence are laid down.
We humans are incredible beings. Yet we routinely engage in practices that disrupt the early dance between a mother and her baby, and thus the formation of that reciprocal bond essential to healthy human development.
For example, we are culturally embarrassed by breastfeeding. We grimace at the idea of a mother nursing her 2-year-old anywhere, even in private. And we legislate as unacceptable particular places to nurse or shame a new mother by averting our heads at the mall if we see her nursing.
This discouragement of nursing is disruptive to the basic biological dictates of human development. The stimulation of all the sensory systems that occurs when a nursing mother cuddles her baby is literally nutrition for the proliferation of synaptic connections in an explosively growing brain.
And human breast milk, unlike infant formulas, contains nutrients necessary for the development of biochemical systems involved in mood and behavioral regulation.
Another example of our cavalier disruption of early developmental processes is the routine separation of newborns from their mothers at birth or shortly thereafter.
For primates in the wild, there is continuous body contact between mother and infant; indeed, with the infant often hanging on for dear life as the mother moves about to forage for food or elude predators.
In the lab, infant monkeys reared in isolation away from their mothers and other monkeys – where they have no body contact with others but are otherwise well fed and cared for – rock back and forth and fail to engage with others in healthy ways. We see the same things in humans raised in large orphanages.
Yet we push new mothers into the workforce and too often their weeks-old infants into day care settings where these critical needs are unlikely to be met with the state’s standard ratio of “one adult to three babies.”
A growing body of science shows that our brain-based capacities to love and trust require early nurturing to be developed. Early traumatic experiences create a fearful, insecure and often rage-filled orientation to the world that gets hard-wired into the brain.
Decades of research document that, beginning prenatally, exposure to toxic agents such as alcohol, lead, nicotine, drugs – and toxic experiences like abuse, neglect, domestic violence, maternal depression – can lead to structural and functional brain abnormalities that affect cognitive, emotional and social capacities and impair impulse control.
So we deceive ourselves when we think that the “why” of school shooters or youths who join gangs is a mystery. Violence takes root in early trauma that compromises brain development.
I applaud Fresno County District Attorney Lisa Smittcamp for her recent commentary calling for the support and expansion of evidence-based services such as the Nurse Family Partnership Program and high-quality early child care and preschool for young families in Fresno.
There is good news here: We know much about risk factors that lead children along a path toward violence just as we know much about the factors and the family supports that will alter that outcome. The question is: Do we have the political will to invest in what we know works?
Candice Skrapec is a psychologist and criminologist. She also is a professor in the criminology department at Fresno State. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.