Neuroscience and Criminal Punishment

Neuroscience is continuing to show that strict punishment is not optimally effective in preventing or reducing crime. Yet we as a culture persist in our resistance to change. Science is also showing that parenting is a mechanism that passes down behavior patterns from one generation to the next.

I recommend this great article by David Eagleman and Sarah Isgur Flores, delineating the distinction between what modern science is showing about human behavior and the way our criminal justice system operates: Defining A Neurocompatibility Index for Criminal Justice Systems: A Framework to Align Social Policy with Modern Brain Science by David M. Eagleman and Sarah Isgur Flores.

Eagleman’s and Flores’ recommendations for improvement include more personalized review of each individual’s situation; specialized courts for different issues such as substance abuse and mental illness; tailored sentencing based on risk assessment; and customized rehabilitation.

To improve outcomes and to make the most beneficial changes, it is critical that we as a society implement processes to speed up dissemination of the results of the most recent academic research to the general public and to policymakers.

Violence May be Profitable

Jameis Winston Signs with Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The numbers keep rising. These are only of the cases that went public. How about the enormous numbers of those that have not? The statistics on domestic violence and sexual assault are staggering. However, the amount of domestic violence and assaults that remain behind closed doors never to be discovered are significantly more so. It’s really like an iceberg.

Statistics also show that children who witness domestic violence often go on to engage in domestic violence relationships in their adulthood. Statistics show that relationships where domestic violence takes place between intimate partners are more likely to involve violence against children. Statistics and evidence show that people who are raised by parents who engage in violence tend to become more aggressive and to relive violence in their adult lives. Statistics show that head trauma can lead to further aggressive and violent behaviors. Football is a game where aggression and violence are necessary for success, and football is incredibly lucrative.

It is draft season and in its honor, many NFL investigations appear to be vindicating quite a few NFL players.

The NFL has instituted a new personal conduct policy containing more defined penalties, but many would surmise the situation as obligatory. The fact that the Ray Rice incident was caught on video precipitated criticism that could not be ignored and put pressure on the NFL to stop supporting denial of violence and aggression in the private lives of its players, despite the cost attached to having to deal with the issue.

The toughest penalty I see at this point is Greg Hardy’s 10-game suspension, reportedly worth $5 million to him. Here is what the investigation revealed about his situation, which apparently involved quite a bit of evidence:

The NFL’s investigation concluded that Hardy violated the Personal Conduct Policy by using physical force against Nicole Holder in at least four instances. First, he used physical force against her which caused her to land in a bathtub. Second, he used physical force against her which caused her to land on a futon that was covered with at least four semi-automatic rifles. Third, he used physical force against her by placing his hands around Ms. Holder’s neck and applying enough pressure to leave visible marks. And fourth, he used physical force to shove Ms. Holder against a wall in his apartment’s entry hallway.

The net effect of these acts was that Ms. Holder was severely traumatized and sustained a range of injuries, including bruises and scratches on her neck, shoulders, upper chest, back, arms and feet,” Commissioner Goodell wrote. “The use of physical force under the circumstances present here, against a woman substantially smaller than you and in the presence of powerful, military-style assault weapons, constitutes a significant act of violence in violation of the Personal Conduct Policy.”

Is a 10-game suspension an appropriate punishment? What are your thoughts? Is punishment even the answer and how much money is at stake?

I am learning more and more that when it comes to violence and money, money seems to win out. I have learned that abuse in the home and/or in the privacy of an intimate relationship, hidden, secret, shocking, continuing, intense, horrific, even leading to death in many cases, by the very loved ones of the victims, is in fact not at all infrequent in the upper socio-economic classes. It is not confined to the homes of the poor. However, when it occurs in homes where the abuser is a man with power and money, it is much less likely to ever be brought to light.

The victim is afraid, people don’t believe that a respected successful man could abuse or attack, and even more sadly, when it is brought to light, many of those with power and money don’t really care about the suffering of victims – often women and children. The bottom line, money and power, more often wins out.

Recently, the NFL vindicated the following players/draft picks: Frank Clark, Jameis Winston, Ray McDonald. It’s unknown yet what the NFL will do with respect to Joseph Randle.

The NFL is making donations, and draft attendees will be watching a 45-minute presentation on domestic violence. During the draft, it appears that dealing with the consequences of domestic violence and sexual assault charges have become a necessary inconvenience.

The Source of Evil

I think I understand the source of evil.

I watch families struggle in dependency court every day, I read the recent research, I observe the patterns.

What I see are broken hearts. I see my 9-year old client wishing and praying her mother would enter a drug treatment program, stop using methamphetamine, be there for her, not miss visits, not leave her in foster care. I see beautiful children abandoned, abused, neglected, hurt, victimized, falsely blamed by the parents who will live in their hearts forever, no matter what.

I see the children suffering and in pain, waiting, believing, hoping. I see people live all sorts of painful family patterns. I see the children suffering, often starting from when they are too young to remember, then reliving the same pattern and pain again and again.

At some point, a different point for each of them, but at some point, the pain becomes too overwhelming. They can’t handle the pain any more. If they can’t die, then they have to survive and go on.

Their mind and body have to adapt to survive. The adaptation is dissociation and a blunting of the normal stress response processes. The adaptation is denial of what happened because acknowledgement is too painful. The adaptation is surviving the repetition of the terrible patterns but in the role of perpetrator who no longer suffers. After that, like a vampire, the perpetrator will need the “blood” of victims to keep his own pain at bay. This way, even though he can’t stop the patterns from repeating, he is not victimized, and he does not suffer.

Cycles of abuse are pervasive, deep, and continuing. They get passed down through the generations, in families and in communities.

Where do we intervene? How do we stop them?

First, we have to try to understand them, as best we can.
They are controlled by numerous complex factors, including patterns established in the brains and bodies of both the victim and the perpetrator. Those patterns are based on both their genetic makeup whose expression is controlled by environmental influences through the generations and on their own experiences.

The brains of both the victim and the perpetrator support the perpetuation of the patterns of abuse. Cycles of abuse are perpetuated in families through many biological mechanisms. The person who grew up witnessing or experiencing abuse or neglect in early childhood when that person’s brain was just developing will develop a brain architecture that perpetuates the continuation of those same patterns.

That brain architecture is comprised of the neural connections that control those individuals’ experiences and behaviors, conscious and subconscious throughout life.
The brain controls the functioning of their stress response systems, it controls what they think, it controls what they do, it controls who they partner with romantically, it controls their feelings, their moods, their cognitive abilities, their relationships, their workplace functioning, their economic behaviors, their daily lives, their capacity to plan, their responses to stress, the way they express anger, their parenting behaviors, even their physical health. This is shown by research.

Through parenting behaviors, the victims, who have become perpetrators but retain neural pathways in their brain structure that perpetuate the same traumatic patterns they lived as children, then pass down the patterns to their own children.

These cycles often continue through generations. They also often continue in groups and societies whose parenting patterns may be similar through social convention and through cultural experience passed down epigenetically. They lead to and perpetuate war, social violence, crime.

I think the source of evil is broken hearts, millions of them.

The next question will be how to repair them and eliminate those dysfunctional patterns. We need to work much harder as a society to find answers, as the impact in society is vast. Imagine a world where patterns of abuse and neglect are eliminated. It would be a world of peace. We need so much more funding directed to mental health research, to the appropriate training of mental health professionals, and to making effective high-quality long-term mental health services widely available.

The Brain’s Neural Connections

Right now, I’m thinking about neural connections and epigenetics.

New research is showing remarkable things about the way our bodies and minds work. These affect all our experiences as human beings, including our daily lives, our physical health, our relationships, our emotional well being, our intelligence, our family lives, our economic well-being, and so much more.

Unfortunately, much of the general population is unaware of recent groundbreaking studies currently being published on these topics.

The neural connections in our brains control our behavior and experience throughout life. They send signals to our bodies directing all our conscious and subconscious behaviors.

The average human brain contains about 100 billion neurons, nerve cells which connect to each other through signals sent along pathways called synapses. In a human being, the neural connections begin forming in the womb and continue to form throughout life. However, there is an incredible burst of neural connectivity in the first several years of life.

Each individual’s brain connections are unique.

The primary neural connections are formed based on the individual’s genetic makeup including epigenetic markers on those genes.

Epigenetics is the process by which the environment creates signatures on the genes affecting how and to what degree they express themselves. Epigenetic signatures can be enduring and can be passed down through the generations.

Many additional and more detailed neural connections are formed in line with the individual’s experiences. It is during the first few years and based on the experiences of the first few years when a burst of activity takes place during which the majority of the brain’s neural pathways are formed. These are the connections that will control the individual’s behavior and experience throughout life.

During development, the neurons and synapses also undergo a process called pruning in which rarely used connections are eliminated as unnecessary so that ones that are used frequently become more efficient.

After the first several years, many of these connections undergo another process called myelination, which involves the formation of a sheath of tissue around them so that they become more efficient as well as much harder to change.

The bottom line is that much of our behavior and experience is based in neural pathways in our brains the most fundamental of which are formed in earliest childhood. Our parents are the most important influencers of the way these pathways form. The experiences we fail to have also have lifelong effects due to the pruning process.

The Mental Health Needs of Men and Boys

Mens’ mental health needs

The mental health needs of men and boys are undertreated. They are underappreciated. They are frequently misunderstood. Most of the world’s cultures often promote and have for centuries promoted instructing men and boys to keep their feelings to themselves, and in current American society, men and boys frequently hear the presumably well-meaning command, “Man up!”

Certainly, male and female brains and bodies differ in some critical ways. However, the feelings and behaviors of men and boys stem from their brain and body patterning, as they do in girls and women.

Just like females, males have brains and bodies. Just like in females, the male brain develops neural connections that control the functioning of the brain and body throughout life. Just like in females, the neural connectivity in the brains of males undergoes a dramatic burst of development and activity in the first years of life. Just like in females, this patterning controls behavior, feeling, activity, and experience throughout life.

Scientific evidence is now demonstrating that experience becomes embedded in human genes and that early life experiences affect the expression of genes. The signatures written on the genes through experience can be temporary or enduring and can even be passed down through the generations. This genetic composition is another level at which our brains and bodies control our experiences and behaviors throughout life. Of course, this happens in both males and females.

Evidence, including the groundbreaking Adverse Childhood Experiences Study out of Kaiser Permanente (“the ACE Study”), has also shown that adverse childhood experiences which may include things like divorce, childhood neglect, parental mental health issues, among other things, affect physical health, including even leading to an increased risk for cancer.

As is finally becoming more widely recognized in the United States, including through a new campaign by the First Lady of the United States Michelle Obama, mental health is as important as physical health and is irretrievably interconnected with physical health. Public understanding is behind and has not kept up with the recent evidence.

The mind is a part of the body, a fundamental part.

The male brain and body developed with some different patterning than the female brain and body. Historically and traditionally, men tended to be the hunters, while women’s brains and bodies developed to nurture their young optimally closer to home. Men’s brain architecture continued for generations to support behavior that was optimal for that need. When hunting, men tended to be quieter to keep from warning their prey, they tended to be more likely to be exposed to physical violence and thus tended to develop protection from reactivity to pain, including perhaps patterns that provide more of a capacity for compartmentalizing their pain, they may have been away from home longer when searching for food and thus may have developed patterning that supported less sentimentality and attachment to the women and children they love. These patterns are in line with the classic command, “Man up!”

However, society is developing and changing. In modern industrialized society, hunting is mostly unnecessary. Food production is now business. Men often go out into a structured and/or intellectualized workforce that is part of a large complex and organized civilization. Men still have more flexibility to be out of the home during childrearing years, as women are the ones who physically carry a child and breastfeed. However, female and male roles are evolving significantly.

The human mind and body is meant to evolve with changing conditions. Its amazing complexity adapts to evolution. As society has become more industrialized and intellectualized, the human mind and body gradually develop to support its optimal functioning under new environments. It happens gradually over the generations through neuronal patterning, epigenetics, and numerous other complex incredible processes that scientists are continuing to work at trying to understand.

As nature is varied and imperfect, individuals evolve at different rates. It is here we develop our current dilemma. In modern society, optimal behavior and childrearing involves men who are capable of loving attachment. Studies have shown that children with fathers who are involved and loving have brains and bodies that develop to be stronger and healthier emotionally and cognitively. In modern society, we generally seek to minimize violence and violent behavior by males. Hunting is no longer necessary. It is now a relic. Yet the patterns in the brains and bodies of males whose social and family patterning is taking longer to change remain more emotionally detached and more likely to engage in violence.

With increased male involvement in the home, the brains of the children of these fathers develop with more intellectual capacity, with stronger, healthier, more efficient neural connections through which signals travel more efficiently. The command, “Man up!” in this context makes little sense. It is a relic.

In addition, because nature is complex and imperfect (however amazing and beautiful), all this change and development has caused numerous problems and concerns. Change involves friction. In families and societies with numerous absent fathers and a high degree of violence, mental health issues are rampant. In families and societies where this process is at a more advanced stage, there is nonetheless friction through change.

In our modern world, it is time for men and boys to heal. Explosive anger and violence has little benefit anymore. We now know that war is a lose-lose proposition. No one wins through violence. No one wins through dysfunctional brain patterning. No one wins through pain and insensitivity. We all win through optimal social health and cooperation.

Public understanding needs to be brought in line with the evidence. The general public needs to see that the mental health needs of boys are a critical part of their health and well-being, as they are for girls. As in getting treatment for a physical illness, there should be no shame in addressing one’s mental health needs.

In fact, it is critical to actively develop systems and processes, including appropriately allocated funding, to ensuring the mental health needs of our population are addressed. In line with what research is showing, our governments need to allocate large amounts of funding to the development of the most effective mental health services and to their implementation.

Poignant Description of How Childhood Traumas Affect the Present

Child alone

As scientific evidence mounts demonstrating and explaining how our childhood experiences affect our brains, bodies, and adult experiences and behaviors, we can use that evidence to help us notice those effects in our daily lives. Bringing the subconscious to consciousness is the first step to healing.

I read a moving piece written by a woman, who like many of us went through difficult or frightening times in her childhood, during which her parents failed to make her feel safe and protected. With tremendous honesty in her self-analysis, she movingly explains her own life experience. Her genuine description of how it feels to be her powerfully demonstrates how childhood traumas, including even parental neglect or failure to reassure a child, can impact that child throughout life.

Please take a look at this moving and very real piece and start considering in what areas of your life childhood experiences are affecting you. What patterns and what pain are you re-living?

Weathered by My High ACE Score, at ACEs Connection, February 14, 2015.


The effect of violence in the home

I read a fantastic New York Times article about the impact of violence in the home on violence in society: To Stop Violence, Start at Home.

It has been shown statistically through a number of studies that individuals raised violently in their homes by their parents grow up to re-live violence as adults, both as perpetrators and as victims. The statistics now have backing in science.

Experiencing violence and observing a parent demonstrate violence against one’s other parent both constitute traumas to a young child’s developing brain. The developing brain is particularly sensitive to trauma in the womb and in the earliest years, when its very architecture is created. During this time, the developing brain is maleable. It forms numerous synaptic connections in line with the individual’s experiences and then prunes those that are unnecessary to create wiring that under ideal circumstances is efficient and well-functioning. Take a look at this video from the Harvard University Center on the Developing Child: Experiences Build Brain Architecture.

When an individual experiences a trauma, such as being beaten by a parent or observing a parent beating one’s other parent, that creates defective connections in the child’s developing brain. When it is severe and/or recurring, as violence in the home often is, it can also lead to brain dysfunction as well as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

PTSD involves a dysfunction in the body’s stress response system which leads to overreation and avoidance responses to triggers that remind an individual of the original trauma. It also involves a defective resting level of stress. A healthy stress response system reacts to stressful situations with a release of cortisol and a “fight or flight” response.

Those raised in a home with violence, even when it is experienced when in the mother’s womb as a fetus, grow up with defective stress response systems, potentially with PTSD or with post traumatic stress symptoms that don’t rise to the level of diagnosable PTSD, as well as with a brain whose synaptic connections are formed in an environment of violence. Among other effects, this type of brain programming leads to an adult who re-experiences violence throughout his or her life.

Violence breeds violence. This understanding now has a backing in science.

Pennsylvania Enacts New Stricter Child Abuse Laws

Jerry Sandusky

The Pennsylvania Task Force on Child Protection convened in the wake of the Sandusky scandal and in 2012 recommended changes to Pennsylvania’s child abuse laws. Pennsylvania had been known as a state particularly lax in the structure of its child abuse regulations and as having consequently low reporting numbers. The Sandusky situation and the publicity it brought served to help bring the problem to light.

The new laws were signed by the governor on December 18 and are now in effect. They include 21 pieces of legislation.

The changes include a critically important redefinition of what is abuse. Specifically, the standard previously required “serious physical injury”, which was a high benchmark in cases where there was clear injury which doctors had trouble classifying as “serious”. The standard has been reduced to requiring “bodily injury” including “impairment of a physical condition” or “substantial pain”.

The new definition of child abuse is also changed to include relatives who don’t live with the child and a significant other of a parent, while the previous definition included only parents.

The laws put further protections in place, including expanding the list of mandated child abuse reporters, expanding background checks for school staff and volunteers, and adding training for certain mandated child abuse reporters, among other things.

One could say it’s unfortunate that these protections for abused children had to be fueled by a football scandal, which seems to lead to attention that child protection in itself does not receive. Nonetheless, these laws are a major improvement and a positive step forward in child protection.

Is There a Holiday Spike in Domestic Violence?

Domestic Abuse

There are many factors involved in a victim’s decision whether to leave an abuser in a violent relationship – these include fear, threats of further violence, economic dependence on the abuser, patterns of power and abuse wired into the victim’s brain from the victim’s own childhood, etc.

Apparently, domestic violence shelters generally see an increase in activity around New Year’s Day. We can speculate as to the causes for this increase, such as the abuser’s efforts to keep it together for extended family and friends during the holidays and then resulting explosive reactions around New Year’s, as well as perhaps a victim’s perception of the inability to live another year with the abuse, and potential alcohol fueled violence.

Regardless, the fact remains that staff at shelters such as the District Alliance for Safe Housing in DC are doing amazing, difficult, and stressful work, to try to support victims and repair broken patterns running through society for generations.

Statistics about domestic abuse are staggering. It has been shown among other things that the second leading cause of death of women under age 50 in the U.S. is being killed by a domestic partner. Here is a link to a number of statistics on this topic complied by the CDC: Data Sources. Facts about abuse are often kept hidden, covered up, and protected from public knowledge.

Statistics also show that when children witness domestic violence, even when the violence is not directed at them specifically, they become significantly more likely to repeat domestic violence relationships in their future. The violence between one’s parents is a trauma to the observing child that literally becomes programmed into the architecture of that child’s developing brain.

Take a look at this informative article in The Atlantic.

Kennedy Forum Illinois Addresses the Impact of Trauma on Mental Illness

Kennedy Forum Illinois at City Club of Chicago
Patrick J. Kennedy

The Kennedy Forum Illinois, formed by Chicago business leader Peter O’Brien, brought together educators, mental health professionals, advocates, and lawmakers last month to address issues relating to the importance of recognizing and treating mental health issues. O’Brien and his wife Mimi, who lost a son to mental illness, believe and advocate for the importance of de-stigmatizing mental illness so that earlier discovery can lead to more effective treatment.

The Kennedy Forum Illinois was inspired by the Kennedy Forum, which was created by the son of U.S. Senator Edward Kennedy, Patrick Kennedy, to make mental health an essential component of healthcare through the implementation of the Mental Health Parity and Addictions Equity Act of 2008. Fifty-one years ago, President Kennedy signed the Community Mental Health Act, the anniversary of which was commemorated last year with a big event held by the Kennedy Forum.

The thrust of these movements is to work toward eliminating the stigma of mental illness and the provision of effective treatment. Discussed during the Kennedy Illinois Forum last month were issues such as the prevalence of mental illness, including the fact that approximately 50 percent of us will have a diagnosable mental disorder in our lifetimes, the lack of treatment, as well as the impact of childhood trauma on mental illness.

Showing an understanding of the recent research on the effects of childhood trauma on the human brain, Kennedy spoke on the importance of prevention in his remarks to the crowd at last month’s forum. “The best way to treat mental illness is to prevent it,” he said, “and we do not have a prevention strategy in this country. Some mental illness is the result of people simply growing up in toxic environments where their brains are inalterably affected by the stress and trauma of growing up. . .” especially in cities plagued with violence.

The forum also included a panel discussion on children’s mental health including a discussion on the impact of toxins, trauma, and stress in utero on human mental health.

A number of notable people attended and/or presented at the conference on issues including depression, personality disorders, suicide, and the effects of murder on family mental health. This included dinner speaker Mariel Hemingway, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Brandon Marshall of the Chicago Bears, and Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke, among others.