It's kind of one of those scientific findings that ought to be obvious, but here it is: Children who are physically and emotionally abused often become violent criminals. In the exciting world today that is neuroscience—that has really taken off in the last 20 years with myriad discoveries about our brains—study after study is helping us look at the roots of criminality in our society, if we bother to pay attention and think about the different society we could have if we collectively ensure that children are adequately cared for. (Don't balk at "collectively"; plenty of mean people want us to collectively punish, imprison, disparage and neglect the same children. I argue at we do something else before it gets to that point, and science backs me up.)
One study, reported this week, shows the connection between child abuse and gray matter loss:
Childhood abuse is associated with reductions in cerebral gray matter volume and adolescents may have gray matter changes putting them at risk for behavioral difficulties even if they do not have symptoms that meet full criteria for psychiatric disorders, according to a report in the December issue of Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.
The brain areas impacted by maltreatment may differ between boys and girls, and may depend on the type of maltreatment: abuse versus neglect and physical versus emotional.
"Here we have teenagers who may not have a diagnosable illness but still have physical evidence of maltreatment," wrote Hilary Blumberg, associate professor in the departments of psychiatry and diagnostic radiology at Yale University in New Haven, Conn. "This could help to explain their trouble with school performance or increase their vulnerability to depression and behavioral difficulties." [...]
The authors found that self-reported physical abuse, physical neglect and emotional neglect subtypes of maltreatment were all associated with reductions in gray matter volume of the rostral prefrontal cortex. In addition to reductions in the prefrontal cortex, self-reported scores on the Childhood Trauma Questionnaire were associated with a negative correlation with cerebral gray matter volume in the striatum, amygdala, sensory association cortices and cerebellum
In another study, reported earlier this year, researchers looked at the effects of drug abuse on the brain, examining how and if it correlates with violent criminal behavior. Fascinating stuff here:
Structural MRI has revealed that individuals with violent criminal histories have larger gray matter volumes in the brain, while previous drug users show smaller volumes in other brain regions, compared with healthy individuals, firming up a growing link between biology and social behavior, according to a study published online June 6 in Archives of General Psychiatry.
In previous studies, researchers have discovered an association between brain morphology and the commission of violent crimes. However, because most persons with violent criminal records also present with substance use disorders, studies have failed to establish that structural brain differences are in fact linked to violent behavior. Instead, the differences might indicate that drug abuse holds the relationship with brain structure variations, argued Boris Schiffer, PhD, from the department of forensic psychiatry at the University Duisburg-Essen, in Essen, Germany, and colleagues.
On a related note, read this piece about feeding children's brains. And here's a bit of food for thought, pardon the expression, of the potential of bad diets to cause young people to act out and even engage in criminal behavior. A portion:
There is no longer any serious debate about what a TV diet does to your body. A government survey published last month shows that the proportion of children in English secondary schools who are clinically obese has almost doubled in ten years. Today, 27% of girls and 24% of boys between 11 and 15 years old suffer from this condition, which means they are far more likely to contract diabetes and to die before the age of 50. But the more interesting question is what this diet might do to your mind. There are now scores of studies suggesting that it hurts the brain as much as it hurts the heart and the pancreas. Among the many proposed associations is a link between bad food and violent or anti-social behaviour.
The most spectacular results were those reported in the Journal of Nutritional and Environmental Medicine in 1997. The researchers had conducted a double-blind, controlled experiment in a jail for chronic offenders aged between 13 and 17. Many of the boys there were deficient in certain nutrients. They consumed, on average, only 63% of the iron, 42% of the magnesium, 39% of the zinc, 39% of the vitamin B12 and 34% of the folate in the US government's recommended daily allowance. The researchers treated half the inmates with capsules containing the missing nutrients, and half with placebos. They also counselled all the prisoners in the trial about improving their diets. The number of violent incidents caused by inmates in the control group (those taking the placebos) fell by 56%, and in the experimental group by 80%. But among the inmates in the placebo group who refused to improve their diets, there was no reduction. The researchers also wired their subjects up to an electroencephalogram (which records brainwave patterns), and found a major decrease in abnormalities after 13 weeks on supplements.
See more evidence-based crime stories on the JFP Crime Blog.
Folks, don't forget that we have some of the unhealthiest children, and fattest, in the country. In too many cases, they are eating crap -- and even in many families who can afford better food. Adults refuse to change bad eating habits, and pass them on to their children, not realizing that their brains can be affected, even potentially leading them to criminal behavior.
This is serious stuff. And it's crime-fighting. Take it seriously.
More on dangers of 'TV diets' here:
Even in homes where parents are present, they may let their children watch for many hours, no matter how harmful the programs.
American children starting as early as age 2 watch from 22 to 25 hours of television weekly. Appalled by this, pediatricians say children should be limited to one or two hours of TV watching a day, and parents should emphasize other activities such as reading, athletics and hobbies.
For some children the real world is the TV world, with its damaging diet of violence and irresponsible sex. Some children wrongly conclude violence can be acceptable ``if you`re the good guy.``
And the sedentary young couch potatoes balloon into obese teenagers, consuming junk food while watching junk television. [...]
Pediatricians are not just lashing out unthinkingly. Their conclusions are based on solid studies of the disastrous effects of bad TV on American children. Their efforts deserve support by parents and television executives who are responsible. And by those who, on consulting what`s left of their consciences, wish to become responsible.
22 hours of television a week? Seriously?
I can only imagine the habits and diets of children in homes with absent parents. More emphasis on family structure is needed.
"Family structure"? It's not exactly that simple, Robbie.
A. Many families with a traditional structure feed their kids crap.
B. Many parents, and especially fathers, in traditional-structure families physically and emotionally abuse their children, not to mention sexual assault (abuse trends similarly across all socioeconomic and communities, esp. sexual). Thus, some children are safer away from one or both of their parents, or in single-parent homes with positive conditions.
C. In some communities, especially, African American, their fathers are disparately in prison for lesser crimes than whites -- especially drug crimes which whites are much more likely to receive no prison time for (many make deals with friends in high places).
D. The African American family structure--traditionally VERY strong; probably stronger than in white families-- was obliterated by white supremacy from slavery through Jim Crow and now disparate sentencing and has had a difficult time rebuilding.
I could go on, but suffice it to say that blaming crime and these other issues on "family structure" is extremely simplistic, and won't change anything unless these other conditions are given serious attention.
The question is what are YOU going to do to help change it? Blaming doesn't count.