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Integrate Knowledge: Scans Look for Clues to Violence

Adrian Raine is putting together a puzzle. One of the puzzle’s key pieces is central to the nature versus nurture debate about the human experience: What makes people do bad things? Are violent criminals born, or are they made?

As a Penn Integrates Knowledge professor, Raine examines these questions through his three departmental appointments in two schools—the Perelman School of Medicine’s Department of Psychiatry and the School of Arts and Science’s Departments of Psychology and Criminology. Evidence suggests that the answers don’t lie entirely within one field.

In his new book, “The Anatomy Of Violence,” Raine takes an interdisciplinary approach to get at the deepest roots of antisocial behavior.

He uses the techniques of psychology and neuroscience to connect the dots between the social factors associated with crime and the physiology of the brain. Specifically, neuroimaging technology has provided mounting evidence for something long-suspected: Brain damage can manifest in the form of dramatic changes in personality, including poor impulse control or decreased empathy, which could contribute to a tendency toward violence.

People at risk for violent behavior are exposed to many potential sources of brain damage, from malnutrition and physical abuse to environmental toxins. The brain is most susceptible to these dangers when it is first forming, so risk factors can begin to accumulate before a person is even born. Pregnancy complications, such as those brought on by smoking or drinking, can also play a role. Even the stress of living in a dangerous environment can increase a person’s risk, reinforcing a vicious feedback loop of poverty and crime.

Knowing the fundamentals of brain chemistry provide a way to prevent or potentially repair the damage caused by these factors, Raine supports a public health approach that is both social and physiological, and includes a combination of cognitive behavioral therapy and nutritional interventions. This multifaceted approach, combined with a better understanding of the physiological or environmental risk factors, could result in preventing crimes decades before they occur.

Text by Evan Lerner
Video by Kurtis Sensenig

Originally published on, July 12, 2013.