In the wake of a tragedy like the Orlando shooting, there is an odd sense of comfort in the idea that anyone capable of such an act must be profoundly unwell. We like to think that their brains are wired differently than our own for many reasons. It is easier to come to terms with their actions when we see them as the uncontrollable manifestation of a sickness, rather than a conscious decision. It reassures us that such unspeakable violence could never happen at the hands of one of our loved ones, or even ourselves. It helps us make sense of the unthinkable.
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But is it true?
For years it has been widely acknowledged that people who engage in violent and severely antisocial behavior must have something wrong with their brains. However, there has been very little research conducted in this area. Truly, it is a thought that most would rather accept than investigate.
A very recent study sought to delve more deeply into the connection between antisocial behavior and abnormal brain activity. Researchers used neuroimaging methods to study the brains of teenagers who had been diagnosed with conduct disorder. Conduct disorder is characterized by aggression towards people and animals, destruction of property, deceitfulness, lying, stealing, and a propensity towards serious rule violations – all things that we might associate with antisocial behavior. The results were eye-opening.
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The researchers conducted brain scans on nearly a hundred young people, some of whom had been diagnosed with conduct disorder and some who had not. They used these scans to assess the thickness of many areas of the cerebral cortex, a part of the brain in which damage can impact a person’s capacity for awareness, perception, memory, and other traits that help us to engage in life and connect to others with ease.
This study found many clear and measurable differences in the brain development of young people whose behavioral problems had started in childhood and those who began to act out as teenagers. The researchers also found that both groups differed significantly in their brain development from the control subjects, who did not suffer from behavioral abnormalities.
These results are groundbreaking not only in understanding antisocial behavior, but also in defining conduct disorder as a medical illness rather than a decision to behave poorly. The discovery of neurological differences between those who began to stray from normal behavior as children and as teenagers is also significant, as it points to the possibility of environmental factors in the latter group. More studies of this kind are desperately needed. They could help not only in the prevention of violence and tragedy, but also in giving these children a chance to assimilate into society as helpful and productive citizens.