More on the criminal brain: Nature vs. nurture
February 28th, 2011
12:49 PM ET

More on the criminal brain: Nature vs. nurture

Whether a criminal's nature is biologically ingrained, and perhaps even inherited, is a highly controversial notion that's now getting serious scientific attention. We had a flood of questions and comments last week about recent research on the topic, which shows that it may be possible to predict which children are likely to become criminals or psychopaths based on brain anatomy and genetics.

Adrian Raine, psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, is conducting some fascinating experiments to figure out the brain signatures of criminal behavior, and what kinds of interventions might prevent people from ever becoming offenders. I posed some of your questions, and my own, to him, after we all had more time to think critically about the issues.

If there are these genetic and biological influences on crime, to what extent are factors like parenting important?

More than a hundred studies have shown that about half of crime is, on some level, under genetic control. That also means that environmental factors such as parenting, abuse, poverty, discrimination and unemployment account for the other half, Raine said. So, the "nurture" part of the picture is just as important as the "nature." For the past several decades, research into criminology has focused solely on the environment story. "If we want to stop crime, if we want to be able to understand the causes and develop treatment programs to attack the causes, we really need to understand all the pieces," Raine said.

What distinguishes repeat offenders from criminals in remission, who may not commit any more crimes?

Research on young offenders has shown that some offenders who haven't committed a crime in four years still have the same brain functional abnormalities as repeat offenders. But this is another example of how important environment can be, Raine said. Those who don't continue committing crimes may have a loving mother or father, or a wonderful teacher who suddenly becomes a role model, or a strong romantic relationship, Raine said. "Falling in love, getting engaged, getting married, that can do a great deal to take someone off the biological path," he said.

"The environment can change the brain, and even though you’ve got these risk factors, they’re not destiny," he said. "Maybe it's the balance of the risk vs. protective factors which is actually the most important thing. We haven't really done that research, and we need to."

What are some possible interventions for children who have risk factors for criminal behavior?

An enriching environment can go a long way in helping young children. Raine's group conducted a study with 3-year-olds in which half of the kids received a two-year program of better nutrition - including two-and-a-half extra portions of fish per week, more physical exercise every day, and educational activities. Then, the study authors followed up with the kids for 20 years. At age 11, the kids who had been randomly assigned to the enrichment program from ages 3 to 5 showed greater attention and signs of having more mature brains. At age 23, researchers found a 36% reduction in criminal offending in the kids who had done the early enrichment.

"It's never too early, and it's never too late," he said. "We can tackle and change these biological risk factors for crime and violence."

There have been more than 45 randomized, controlled experimental trials on using medications with aggressive children, and generally they seem to work - some better than others, Raine said. It appears that certain antipsychotics, antidepressants and anticonvulsants can help, but many parents don't want to put their kids on these kinds of treatments.

That's why Raine's group is looking at omega-3 fatty acids, found in fish oil, as a means of boosting brain power and combating antisocial behavior and aggression in children. Omega-3 has been shown to reduce serious offending among prisoners in two experiments, one in England and one in the Netherlands.

Your research has shown that abnormal fear responses in children may foreshadow later psychopathy or criminal behavior. But what about iconoclasts, people who have distinguished themselves by not being afraid to challenge norms and expectations?

These people who put forward great ideas that go against the grain are courageous, but that doesn't mean to say that they don't feel worried or anxious about what the backlash could be. They have a firm belief that something is right, and feel it's their duty to put it forward. Emotion informs decision-making, and people who lack emotions are psychopathic and make bad decisions.

"A certain degree of anticipatory fear is actually good. It's when you lack that that you make awful life decisions, bad decisions, take awful risks and end up in prison," Raine said.

Do psychopaths know the difference between right and wrong?

They know right from wrong, Raine said, but they lack the feeling for what is wrong. When confronted with moral dilemmas, most people get worried, and those emotions helps inform the judgment. An experiment looking at brain activity during ethical conundrums found that the amygdala, a brain region critical to fear response and emotion, is not as active when psychopaths are thinking about moral dilemmas, compared with non-psychopaths. Interestingly, psychopaths' answers to those questions don't differ from other people's; it's just that their brains aren't showing the same emotional response.

"The law is predicated on the cognitive component of 'do you know right from wrong?' That was fine 800 years ago, as a rule to guide us in punishment, and innocence-guilt," he said. "But now I think we have to ask, do people have the emotional ability to make the right moral decision? That's the question I'm raising for the judicial system and the legal system."

soundoff (966 Responses)
  1. halloween stores near me


    June 18, 2021 at 06:25 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. casino near me

    Very good post! We will be linking to this great content on our website. Keep up the great writing.


    June 18, 2021 at 07:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. RV Repair Garden Grove


    June 18, 2021 at 16:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Camper Repair Shop Near Me

    After I initially left a comment I seem to have clicked on the -Notify me when new comments are added- checkbox and from now on each time a comment is added I recieve four emails with the exact same comment. Is there a means you can remove me from that service? Kudos!


    June 18, 2021 at 16:30 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. RV Repair Shop

    Good post. I learn something totally new and challenging on websites I stumbleupon every day. It will always be helpful to read through articles from other writers and use something from their web sites.


    June 18, 2021 at 18:30 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. RV Repair Near My Location

    Everything is very open with a clear clarification of the challenges. It was truly informative. Your website is extremely helpful. Thanks for sharing!


    June 18, 2021 at 19:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. RV Repair Seal Beach


    June 18, 2021 at 19:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. places hiring near me


    June 18, 2021 at 20:48 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. RV Repair Orange County

    I really like looking through an article that can make people think. Also, thank you for permitting me to comment!


    June 18, 2021 at 23:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Camper Repair Near Me

    Aw, this was an extremely good post. Taking the time and actual effort to make a top notch articleÖ but what can I sayÖ I procrastinate a lot and never manage to get anything done.


    June 18, 2021 at 23:50 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Sprinter Repair Costa Mesa

    Good post. I learn something new and challenging on blogs I stumbleupon on a daily basis. It will always be exciting to read articles from other writers and practice a little something from their websites.


    June 19, 2021 at 05:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. bbq near me

    Oh my goodness! Incredible article dude! Thank you, However I am encountering difficulties with your RSS. I donít know why I can't subscribe to it. Is there anyone else having identical RSS problems? Anybody who knows the answer will you kindly respond? Thanx!!


    June 19, 2021 at 05:58 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. RV Repair Nearby

    There's certainly a great deal to find out about this subject. I like all of the points you have made.


    June 19, 2021 at 06:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Nearby RV Repair


    June 19, 2021 at 09:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. bbq near me


    June 19, 2021 at 11:12 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. dump near me

    Pretty! This was an extremely wonderful article. Thanks for providing this info.


    June 19, 2021 at 16:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. RV Repair Shop


    June 19, 2021 at 18:30 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. Camper Repair Shops Near Me

    Having read this I thought it was really enlightening. I appreciate you taking the time and effort to put this content together. I once again find myself spending a lot of time both reading and posting comments. But so what, it was still worthwhile!


    June 19, 2021 at 19:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. RV Repair Mission Viejo


    June 19, 2021 at 19:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. RV Repairs Near My Location


    June 19, 2021 at 19:48 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. RV Repair Nearby


    June 19, 2021 at 21:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. RV Repair Around Me

    This is a topic which is near to my heart... Many thanks! Exactly where are your contact details though?


    June 19, 2021 at 21:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. RV Repair

    Hi, I do believe this is an excellent web site. I stumbledupon it 😉 I am going to revisit yet again since i have book marked it. Money and freedom is the greatest way to change, may you be rich and continue to help others.


    June 19, 2021 at 23:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. Video Marketing Near Me

    That is a really good tip particularly to those new to the blogosphere. Simple but very precise infoÖ Thanks for sharing this one. A must read article!


    June 20, 2021 at 01:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. Video Marketing Near Me

    Hello there! I simply wish to offer you a big thumbs up for the excellent information you have got here on this post. I am coming back to your web site for more soon.


    June 20, 2021 at 09:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  26. Tory Hilado

    I need to to thank you for this very good read!! I definitely enjoyed every bit of it. I've got you book marked to look at new things you postÖ


    June 20, 2021 at 12:17 | Report abuse | Reply
  27. Martin Shadoan


    June 20, 2021 at 16:09 | Report abuse | Reply
  28. Lia Empleo

    Aw, this was a really nice post. Finding the time and actual effort to make a top notch articleÖ but what can I sayÖ I procrastinate a lot and don't manage to get anything done.


    June 20, 2021 at 16:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  29. Damion Dagon


    June 20, 2021 at 20:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  30. Vivienne Nevin

    Oh my goodness! Incredible article dude! Thank you so much, However I am having troubles with your RSS. I donít understand the reason why I am unable to subscribe to it. Is there anyone else having identical RSS issues? Anyone who knows the answer will you kindly respond? Thanx!!


    June 20, 2021 at 21:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  31. Harris Perriello

    Oh my goodness! Incredible article dude! Thank you so much, However I am experiencing troubles with your RSS. I donít understand the reason why I cannot subscribe to it. Is there anybody else getting the same RSS issues? Anyone that knows the solution will you kindly respond? Thanx!!


    June 20, 2021 at 21:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  32. flowers near me

    I would like to thank you for the efforts you have put in writing this blog. I'm hoping to view the same high-grade content by you later on as well. In truth, your creative writing abilities has encouraged me to get my own website now 😉


    June 20, 2021 at 23:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  33. healthy food near me


    June 21, 2021 at 03:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  34. RV Repair Near Me


    June 21, 2021 at 03:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  35. warehouse jobs near me


    June 21, 2021 at 07:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  36. Nearby RV Repairs

    Great site you've got here.. Itís hard to find quality writing like yours nowadays. I really appreciate people like you! Take care!!


    June 21, 2021 at 07:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  37. Camper Repairs Near Me


    June 21, 2021 at 08:06 | Report abuse | Reply
  38. supermarket near me

    You made some good points there. I checked on the net to find out more about the issue and found most people will go along with your views on this web site.


    June 21, 2021 at 08:22 | Report abuse | Reply
  39. flower shops near me


    June 21, 2021 at 08:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  40. Stylish Vapor LLC

    Does anyone have any idea Ho Mart Vapor Shop vaporizer store in 2761 University Dr offers ejuice made by Daily Grind by Cafe Racer Vape? I have tried sending them an email at at in_joe1@yahoo.com


    June 21, 2021 at 08:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  41. RV Repairs Near Me


    June 21, 2021 at 12:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  42. RV Chassis Repair Near Me

    Everyone loves it when people get together and share views. Great site, stick with it!


    June 21, 2021 at 17:47 | Report abuse | Reply
  43. Nearest RV Repair

    Next time I read a blog, Hopefully it doesn't fail me as much as this particular one. I mean, Yes, it was my choice to read through, however I genuinely believed you would probably have something interesting to talk about. All I hear is a bunch of whining about something you can fix if you weren't too busy looking for attention.


    June 21, 2021 at 18:48 | Report abuse | Reply
  44. RV Repair Near Me Now


    June 21, 2021 at 22:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  45. RV And Camper Repair Near Me


    June 21, 2021 at 23:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  46. RV Repair Orange County California

    You're so awesome! I don't believe I've truly read anything like this before. So wonderful to find somebody with some original thoughts on this issue. Really.. thanks for starting this up. This site is something that is needed on the internet, someone with some originality!


    June 21, 2021 at 23:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  47. Rv Upgrades Shop


    June 22, 2021 at 00:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  48. RV Repair Shops Near Me Now

    When I initially left a comment I seem to have clicked on the -Notify me when new comments are added- checkbox and now whenever a comment is added I recieve 4 emails with the exact same comment. Perhaps there is a way you are able to remove me from that service? Thank you!


    June 22, 2021 at 04:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  49. meditation coach near me


    June 22, 2021 at 06:44 | Report abuse | Reply
  50. goal coach


    June 22, 2021 at 07:56 | Report abuse | Reply
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19

Post a comment


CNN welcomes a lively and courteous discussion as long as you follow the Rules of Conduct set forth in our Terms of Service. Comments are not pre-screened before they post. You agree that anything you post may be used, along with your name and profile picture, in accordance with our Privacy Policy and the license you have granted pursuant to our Terms of Service.

About this blog

Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.