This article explores the roots of the criminal mind and aggressive behavior.
We all get those deep, dark thoughts, whether it is to steal or hurt someone or something. But most of us choose not to act upon these urges. We clearly note the difference between what is right and wrong and thwart those unwanted desires. But there are those that do not hesitate to hurt others, or steal without fear of consequence. So where is the discrepancy between those who do not act upon impulse and those that do?
In order to understand the criminal mind, it is important to understand the basics of the brain. It is well understood that the brain is associated with learning, memory, movement, the senses as well as emotion. The brain has a complicated anatomy that is constantly being studied, but it is known that certain areas of the brain do certain functions.
The brain communicates through specialized cells called neurons. Neurons “talk” to each other by releasing chemicals. These cells can “talk” to one cell or more than one cell, depending upon how many connections they have. The way in which these neurons connect is dependent upon many factors including genetics and personal experience. It is quite possible that the more connections a person has, the more intelligent that individual is. Interestingly, how these cells connect plays a crucial factor in determining a person’s individuality.
Two areas of the brain worth mentioning in terms of the criminal mind is the prefrontal cortex (PFC) and the limbic system. The PFC is located literally toward the front of the brain and has a major function in the orchestration of thoughts and actions. I like to term it the “Don’t be stupid” zone. This area will help in differentiating good from bad, right from wrong, and working memory. It is quite literally the executive decision making center of the brain. Interestingly, studies have shown that the PFC matures faster in females than males and that final maturity in males occurs well into the twenties. This could very well explain the spontaneity of the teenage male. In brain scans performed on a killer, when in comparison to someone who is not a killer, the criminal had an obviously less active prefrontal cortex when asked about their guilt and claiming their innocence.
The limbic system is associated with the primitive mind. It is found toward the center of the brain and is linked to fear, aggression, emotions, sex, biological rhythms: those basic primitive functions. If this area is over stimulated or if there is a chemical imbalance between the neurons, a person can be depressed, angry or overly emotional. Studies have shown that female hormones impact this area of the brain, which could support the concept of PMS (Pre-Menstrual Syndrome).
There are three major roots of violence: environmental, genetic and medical.
Environmental conditions can lead to a mind more prone to criminal activity. Classic conditioning of a child to hate a certain type of person or being exposed to violence repetitively are examples of environmental causes. Children who are neglected or traumatized have an average 20% smaller cortex, the area of our brain that makes us advanced animals (the PFC is a part of the cortex). These individuals also have an increased development of the limbic system, thus their instinctual mind often times overpowers their advanced mind. Abused children also can have left hemisphere issues. The left hemisphere is known for applying logic and analysis. These individuals are more aggressive and self destructive.
Other environmental factors include drugs and alcohol. These chemicals can suppress the activities of the cortex, thus allowing the limbic system to possibly take control, thus encouraging violence and impulsive response.
A “violence” gene has been identified that could play a role in the tendency for someone to be aggressive. It is located on the X chromosome (a sex chromosome found in both men and women) and plays a role in a chemical known as serotonin and its effect on the brain. Because men only have one X chromosome, the likelihood they get the variant is greater. In a study that looked at men who were abused as children, individuals with a variant of the gene were two times more likely to be antisocial than those who were abused but did not have the genetic variant. Boys who were not abused as children, but had the less active version of the gene, lived normal lives.
Men on average have more cells in the aggressive area of the brain than women. The reason for this is unknown.
There is a rare though interesting genetic condition in which boys are born with the sex chromosomes XYY, instead of the classic XY. Studies have shown that these individuals often times show more aggression in psychological tests than their counterpart, XY. The reasoning for this is speculative and many argue that there is no correlation and that the studies were biased. However, the newer studies support the aforementioned aggression.
There are some medical conditions that can lead to a violent individual. A classic, though controversial example, is testosterone. Studies show that criminals with higher levels of testosterone have engaged in more violent crimes. Though, not all men with high levels of testosterone are violent. It is possible that men who have underlying conditions to be violent could see a manifestation of their aggression because of increased testosterone levels. A study that looked at women in prison, found that those with higher levels of testosterone were more violent as well. The reason for this possible link between testosterone and violence, as well as the mechanism of action to increase aggression, is still not understood.
Damage to certain areas of the brain can also lead to a more aggressive mind. Lesions to the limbic system cause an increase in fear and aggression. Damage to the PFC also leads to a more aggressive individual. If the amygdala, which is a part of the limbic system, gets damaged, the individual often shows a lack of empathy and fear.
There is no one cause that leads to a criminal mind. Sometimes there are no explanations or purpose for violent behavior. But there are definitely underlying conditions that could facilitate the formation of a violent person.
“Society prepares the crime, the criminal commits it”
Henry Thomas Buckle