On Oct. 3, in place of a typical Interdisciplinary Discussion Course (IDC) for the Focus program, we were brought together in the White Lecture Hall on East to hear Dr. Jeremy G. Richman give a lecture on “Violence, Compassion, and the Brain”.
Since his daughter Avielle was killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, Dr. Richman has been studying violence and the brain with the Avielle Foundation. Using his extensive research experience in neuroscience and neuropsychopharmacology, Dr. Richman has been working with a team on understanding the risk and protective factors for violence.
The brain is very complex, and its processes and connections are still very much veiled. As a result, The Avielle Foundation currently conducts research on understanding violence by “bridging biochemical and behavioral sciences” using functional MRI brain scans, biochemistry, and genetics and epigenetics.
Based on the research he has analyzed, Dr. Richman identified four types of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) that are risk factors for violence: psychological, physical, sexual, and household dysfunction/neglect.
Interestingly enough, research has shown that physically abused children are not necessarily more likely to be arrested for a violence-related crime. While it can happen, the situation is complicated because there is more than one factor involved. Adverse childhood experiences typically lead to violence towards oneself. When someone has at least four ACEs, their risk for alcoholism increases seven-fold. When males have more than five experiences within the ACE categories, their risk for drug use increases by 46 times. The more ACEs experienced, the greater exponentially the percentage of lifetime history of attempted suicides.
Studies have shown that firearm access in the home “is associated with an increased risk of firearm homicide and firearm suicide in the home.”
The debate of Nature vs. Nurture also comes into play. Humans have a monoamine oxidase A (MAOA) gene, also known as the Warrior Gene. MAOA is also associated with low dopamine levels. When males experience physical abuse and have low MAOA, the chance for them to have psychopathology increases. The interesting thing is that there is one main difference between a violent psychopath and a resilient leader: childhood experiences. A violent psychopath likely had an adverse childhood experience; the resilient leader had a nurturing childhood. Richman noted that studies involving neuroscience and psychology always have shortcomings because of the brain’s complexity. The brain’s processes and connections are still very much veiled.
Despite all these risk factors to violence, there are protective factors in place. One is less at risk when in a compassionate, kind, resilient, and connection-building environment with family and peers who embody these ideals. Healthy habits, good nutrition, and exercise help reduce stress, which in turn helps reduce the chances for violence.
Post by Meg Shieh