On Predicting Evil

Animal - Animal acting human - Baby with non-human primate

Empathy shown by a chimpanzee toward a human baby. We picked this image to show cross-species bonding.

First, we express our emotions: Shock. Horror. Outrage. Sadness.

Normally, we don’t blog about major world events — we don’t want to trivialize them as our views tend to be on the superficial side.  But, the public commentary — on guns, on mental health, on parenting — is so unhelpful, we thought we’d opine where we think the best preventative measures could be — in using biology to pre-empt evil.

We would hope that the other neuroscience blogs would also contribute to the conversation, but it seems that most are not. We view this as a failure of neuroscience leadership.

We voted in favor of  ”Brain Porn” – although we agree with the criticisms (that it’s inaccurate, and sometimes downright misleading) we’re seeing it from the 35,000 ft view: better to promote biology and data, rather than merely the subjective analyses that end in “there’s nothing we can do.”

As we said on December 10:

. . .Plus the biggest elephant in the room — Personality Disorders — isn’t addressed at all by current psychological theory except in the most vague and useless of ways, and we guess that personality disorders are among the most harmful of brain disease. (Listen here). So we vote that getting the biology —>behavior concept out there — even if occasionally sensationalized or misunderstood — is a benefit that outweighs any risks. It removes stigma and helps people understand others better.. . .

We were criticized for this by “real” neuroscientists — and we see this as the problem. At some point, neuroscience has to come out of the lab and people have to take the leap into real world problems. The neuroscientists, being a conservative lot, are unwilling to make guesses unless there is absolute certainty. We get that. But, we view behavior as too important a topic to be limited to the faculty lounge and rarefied scientific meetings.

Take shooters. The perpetrators are (typically) not hallucinating or having other problems with perception. It’s the way they think:  impaired empathy toward others coupled with extreme sensitivity to their own needs.  These shooters may have untreated mental illness (schizophrenia, psychosis, etc.) but the major problem is the John Hinckley Jr. situation – personality disorder.

Of course, we don’t know about this shooter, or any other shooter. But, what we do know is that everyone tip toes around  personality disorders.

Yet, there is virtually no neuroscience leadership. We’re still stuck with basic behavior observation.

And so, we think that the “personality disorder” criteria has to be based more on objective data — and that’s what we blog about here, mostly. Without understanding the biology, how can we ever develop meaningful treatment?

The biology is getting to the point where behavior can be — well, not exactly predicted, but surmised. If someone has disconnected white matter between the frontal lobes and the limbic machinery, then perhaps they should come in for a look-see.  Or maybe the oxytocin receptors aren’t the kind that bind oxytocin all that well. Or maybe there’s a dopamine receptor that has a 7 repeat in it impairing the ability to bind dopamine. And these are all just baby steps, the cave-man era of neuro tool making.

We blogged about this in 2010 — complaining about the DSM hokum, and proposed a “DSM-Matic” based on objective phenotypes. Here is our prototype form — sorry, the result only goes to some weird place on our database and doesn’t actually give a diagnosis.

We’re not saying it’s perfect, or even valid. But, isn’t objective data better than subjectively interpreted observation?

Where is the neuroscience leadership on this?



White matter or other connectivity issues

Affiliative peptides and hormonal factors

Appetitive and Addiction