The purpose of the following research is to examine the neurophysiological and psychological roles in criminal behavior. Emphasis will be placed on explaining how various structures of the brain influence behavior under normal and abnormal conditions.
The organization of the research is as follows. First, a general background of the human nervous system and organs of the brain is presented. This will acquaint the reader with certain physiological aspects which are partly responsible for human behavior. Next, various theories and experimental findings are discussed and analyzed with regard to their pragmatic value and/or controversial nature. Finally, there are a few summarizing remarks made on brain and behavioral research.
The nervous system of the human body can be divided into two branches called the peripheral nervous system and the central nervous system. The peripheral system consists of two subsystems designated as the autonomic and somatic systems. The autonomic system works without any conscious control to maintain homeostasis throughout the body. It accomplishes this by stimulating or inhibiting the actions of several organs and glands, including the heart, lungs, stomach, liver, kidneys, pancreas and sensory organs.
The sympathetic division of the autonomic nervous system is responsible for the general stimulation of certain structures, and in preparing the body during “fight-or-flight” reactions. The exhibition of strong emotions would involve the action of this sympathetic division. The parasympathetic division of the autonomic nervous system counterbalances the effects of the sympathetic division by slowing down or inhibiting various bodily functions. Such a system provides a means of maintaining normal homeostatic conditions and conserving bodily resources.
The other branch of the peripheral nervous system, the somatic system, operates under voluntary control and is responsible for many movements and sensations of the body. It consists of many sensory and motor nerves.
The central nervous system is made up of the spinal cord, the brainstem, and the forebrain. Since this paper deals with aspects of human behavior, only those structures of the central nervous system which are involved in emotional and behavioral displays are described.
The brainstem is a group of structures at the base of the brain whose actions are similar to those of the autonomic nervous system. Some of these structures play a part in sleep and arousal mechanism, motivation reinforcement, and emotion. The brainstem contains a system of neurons (nerve cells) called the reticular formation. It is believed that this formation functions in warning or focusing the attention of an individual.
Above the brainstem is a large region containing various organs. This area is known as the forebrain and is highly developed in man. It consists of the thalamus, hypothalamus, pituitary gland, limbic system, and cortex.
The thalamus is an egg-shaped group of nuclei which is located at the midline of the brain. It processes and channels sensory information to the cortex and is involved in sleep, arousal, and attention-focusing mechanisms.
The hypothalamus is similar in shape and composition to the thalamus and is embedded in the base of the brain. Unlike the thalamus however, the hypothalamus exerts a highly extensive control over bodily functions such as eating, drinking sexual behavior, body temperature and many types of emotional behaviors. The hypothalamus works closely with the pituitary gland, a gland which regulates the secretion of vital hormones.
Just in front of the pituitary gland are three structures which are designated as the hippocampus, the amygdala, and the septum. These structures function as a group and are collectively known as the limbic system. The limbic system plays a role in motivation, emotions aggression, and memory. (more information will be related on the limbic system shortly)
The human cortex lies just beneath the skull and forms a cap around all the forebrain structures. It is a wrinkled structure which contains a high density of cells and is divided into the frontal, parietal, temporal, and occipital lobes. The cortex is most markedly developed in man and other organisms of superior intelligence; this implies that the cortex is involved in more sophisticated or abstract functions and not in primitive life-sustaining mechanisms. Indeed, research has shown that the cortex controls very specialized functions which are regulated by specific cortical areas. Cortical function and control will not be discussed in detail here, but they will be mentioned in subsequent paragraphs when they relate to certain types of human behavior.
Indeed, the human brain and neurological system is highly complex and varies greatly from individual to individual. It is this variability in physiological makeup which is partly responsible for differences in personality types. The determination of a suspected criminal’s personality type is very important in criminobiologic investigations: it is just as important as identifying the environmental circumstances surrounding the crime. As a result, various psychological tests have been devised to measure and identify criminal susceptibility among apprehended individuals. One such test, called the Szondi test (Walder, 1959, pp. 21-31), seeks to determine how a certain impulse or drive is related to the crime committed. These drives can be sexual, egotistical, or emotional in nature.
Although personality tests such as the Szondi test are very helpful in assessing certain behaviors, they do not tell the entire story about the criminal character. Many questions remain unanswered. What is the biological basis behind criminal motivation and drives? Are there any biological differences or trends in criminals as opposed to noncriminals? How is criminal behavior affected by brain dysfunction and what can be done about it? In order to answer these and other questions, much research and experimentation has been performed which has led to the construction of various theories.
One such theory has to do with the relationship between levels of cortical arousal and the amount of extraversion and criminality among normal individuals. This theory has been described by H.J. Eysenck and has been substantiated by the experimental work of scientist A. Gale (Eysenck, 1977, pp. 83-100). The idea evolves from the observation that one of the major functions of the sophisticated human cortex is to suppress actions inspired by the more rudimentary limbic system. These actions include the basic, more-or-less instinctive types of behavior which are found in many lower organisms; some examples are the feeding, fighting, and sexual drives, emotions such as fear and anger, and the tendency toward self-protection. The cortex is said to be in the arousal state when it is in the process of inhibiting the limbic system.
The degree of cortical arousal can be measured directly by taking an EEG, or electroencephalogram of the cortex. The EEG is a measurement of the electrochemical activity of the brain. The measurement is taken by placing metal plate electrodes on the scalp over the desired brain area. This method enables one to observe and record the electrical activity of large groups of brain cells all at once. The recordings of such electrical potentials appear as oscillatory, wave-like lines. Because these waves have such low amplitude, they are enlarged by a factor of about 10,000 before being recorded on paper or magnetic tape. The EEG readings fall into characteristic wave patterns and frequencies which depend on the brain’s activity during recording. Characteristic patterns have been connected with such cortical activities as sleep and wakefulness, dreaming, learning, and arousal.
In the formation of the arousal-extraversion theory, the EEG alpha waves (waves which have a frequency of 8-13 per second) of several subjects were examined. It was discovered that the more outgoings extroverted subjects yielded slow, high-amplitude alpha waves which were characteristic of low cortical arousal. On the other hand, the more reticent, introverted subjects exhibited fast, low-amplitude alpha waves which were an indication of high cortical arousal.
It was also shown, by a number of experiments (Eysenk, 1977, pp. 89-99, 105-109) that extraverted subjects are less susceptible to conditioning and are more receptive to strong stimuli than introverts. These results are ultimately derived from cortical arousal differences.
In relating the experimentally observed findings to the general population, it was theorized that a typical psychopath or criminal would most likely exhibit a low level of cortical arousal. This level of arousal would be manifested by uninhibited displays of emotion, poor response to conditional constraints of society, and the elevated receptivity to such stimulations as smoking, drinking, and social contact. Indeed, support for this theory has been provided by several lines of research on criminals and criminal psychopaths. R.D. Hare summarizes the results of the research as follows:
Several lines of research and theory suggest that psychopathy is related to cortical underarousal. As a result, the psychopath seeks stimulation with arousing or exciting qualities. In the process, however, he may be unaware of, or inattentive top many of the subtle cues required for the guidance of behavior and for adequate social functioning (Hare, 1970).
If the foregoing theory holds true for most criminals, and criminal psychopaths, it exposes some major flaws in the present-day American prison systems. First of all, a criminal is sent to prison because he has broken the moral and sociological code of society. It is thought that he is as a menace to law-abiding citizens and that removing him from society will solve the problem. However, this is like sweeping dust under the rug. The prisoner’s psychological problems are still there, and simple imprisonment will not make them go away. Although some attempts have been made at prisoner rehabilitation and behavioral therapy, these programs are not adequately tuned toward recognizing the biological and emotional problems of the criminal. Many times prison conditions are such that the prisoner’s mind becomes even more criminally-oriented.
If the extroversion-arousal theory can be widely acknowledged, methods can be devised that can not only reduce criminal behavior but can also prevent it. One method of prevention is to keep careful observations on young school children to see if any exhibit abnormally high levels of emotion and extroversion. Such children can be singled out for conditioning treatment to reform their behavior. This conditioning treatment would have to be much more rigorous and efficient than that which would be applied to a normal or introverted individual. The initiation of the program at an early period of the child’s development further enhances the possibility of noncriminal behavior in the future.
Another approach to solving the criminality problem is more biologically oriented. It has been shown that various drugs can affect cortical activity. These drugs can be categorized as either stimulants or depressants. The stimulants increase cortical excitation, and in so doing, cause an individual to become more introverted. Some examples of stimulants are caffeine amphetamines, and benzedrine. The depressant drugs have the opposite effect; they lower the level of cortical activity and produce a greater degree of extroversion. The drugs included in this category are alcohol, barbiturates hypnotic drugs, sedatives, and tranquilizers. Many scientists have taken advantage of these narcotic effects by using drugs to successfully treat children with behavioral difficulties. Such studies have been conducted independently by psychiatrists Cutts and Jasper, Donald B. Lindsley and Charles E. Henry, and C. Bradley and M. Bowen. Their experiments and observations are discussed more fully by Eysenck (Eysenck, 1977, pp. 217, references).
The methods of drug therapy and positive social conditioning may also conceivably be extended to prisoners and juveniles delinquents. Although one behavioral/drug program has successfully been employed by L. Eisenberg (Eysenberg, 1977, pp. 186-189), no other attempts have thus far been made in applying the concepts of the extroversion-arousal theory.
The major opposition toward initiating the program falls along two lines. The first involves issues of a judiciary nature. Since the American government states that every individual is equal before the law, the sentencing of criminals should be made without regard to race, status, creed, or color. But scientific techniques in criminal behavior modification involve the selection of different criminals for different types of treatment. This type of punishment is outside of judicial control and would interfere with the normal processes of law.
Another opposition to the scientific treatment arises from a moral standpoint. Because the drug therapy programs are still in the experimental stages, there have been arguments that the program’s patients would function as guinea pigs and that there may be certain dangers involved. Others have protested that the drug and conditional therapies would be a form of brainwashing.
The foregoing objections are based on rather tenuous grounds, however. For one things the idea of brainwashing is overreactionary and is without any tangible basis. It is not as if the scientists were forcing the prisoners to become totally different human beings; they are just endeavoring to control the more negative aspects of their patients’ behavior. Also, the term “brainwashing” carries with it a negative connotation. But in actuality, everyone is subjected to some form of brainwashing every day. Our schools, churches, television shows and literature all expound upon values particular to our culture. From these forms of daily exposure the mind becomes conditioned, or “brainwashed” to a certain extent. The point is that brainwashing doesn’t always have to carry with it a negative meaning; it can also be thought of as a positive process, as in the case of psychophysiological and pharmacological conditioning. Therefore, it appears that further time and investigation should be devoted toward establishing and applying the extroversion-arousal theory.
The influence of genetic factors also seems to correlate with the extraversion-arousal theory. It has been believed by many scientists that there is a link between certain abnormal chromosome patterns and violent or criminal behavior. (this belief is still subject to controversy however) The abnormal chromosome patterns are designated as the XYY and XXY syndromes. Experiments performed by several scientists have indicated that subjects with such genetic abnormalities displayed slow, high-amplitude alpha waves which are like those found in genetically normal, extroverted individuals. This piece of evidence supplements the evidence on the extraversion-arousal theory and adds a new dimension to the causes of criminal behavior.
A lot of other useful information can be learned about the brain’s function in abnormal behavior by examining individuals who have various brain dysfunctions. Dr. Russell R. Monroe believes that there is an association between certain brain abnormalities and excessively aggressive violent, or destructive behavior. Among these abnormalities are brain-related epilepsies, brain damage due to head injuries and/or nutritional destruction, mental retardation, virally-related brain damage (a form of organic brain syndrome) and dysfunctions of the limbic system. In many cases, damage or malfunction in brain structures can lead to abnormal EEG readings, and are thus predisposing factors in criminal behavior. A 1972 study (Monroe, 1978, p. 33) of Indiana state prisoners reveals that 58 percent exhibited abnormalities in EEG readings. It is known that the limbic system is highly susceptible to great bursts of electrical activity which can lead to the production of maladaptive behavior. Amygdaleal implantation experiments have demonstrated this susceptibility. One of these experiments involved the carbachol implantation in the amygdala of cats; these implantations produced “violent delirium” within a very short period of time. Similar experiments have also been performed on human beings, with radio and electrical stimulation replacing the amygdaleal implants. The effect of radio-stimulation on one patient (p. 23) was the production of violent rage attacks. Other subjects of independent experiments (p. 23) exhibited emotions such as aggression, anxiety, guilt, embarrassment, and jealousy upon electrical stimulation of the amygdala. Still other subjects showed signs of confusion, incoherent speech, visual distortions, and seizures.
In addition to implantation and stimulation experiments, psychological techniques have also been employed to study the limbic system and other regions of the brain. Several patients in the past have undergone amygdalotomies, where certain parts of the amygdala were removed. These patients had previously been suffering from either hostile, aggressive, or self-mutilative behaviors, epilepsy, or mental retardation. These patients had not responded to other more conventional methods of treatments and so the amygdalotomies were used as a last resort. The results of the surgery showed that in many cases epileptic seizures were controlled to some extent and significant improvements were made in regard to the negative behaviors.
Temporal lobotomies (Monroe, 1978, p. 39) have also been performed on individuals who were suffering from epilepsy, psychopathic behavior, or abnormal aggressiveness. This surgical treatment has produced decreases in aggression among a majority of patients, which in turn has led to better interpersonal relationships and occupational performance. Temporal lobotomies have also relieved the long-term effects of severe epilepsy especially in cases where the patients were resistant to anticonvulsant drugs.
Amygdalatomies and temporal lobotomies are the favored methods of treatment for abnormally aggressive and destructive behavioral but occasionally, other procedures such as frontal lobotomies and hypothalamotomies have been performed instead. Good results have been obtained by J.R. Schwarz (Monroe, 1978, p. 42), who utilized the procedure of hypothalamotomy in treating abnormally aggressive subjects. His follow-up reports, which covered a post-operative period of six to forty-eight months, showed that seven patients were completely cured of their aggressiveness, three were partially controlled and one showed no positive effects from the operation.
From the foregoing data, it can be seen that psychosurgical techniques have proved to be successful in altering harmful and deleterious behaviors. It must be cautioned, however, that these techniques have only been used on mentally or physically abnormal patients who did not respond to conventional means of treatment. One must have unquestionable proof of effectiveness in surgically treating patients who have alternative means of cure.
One of these alternative methods is drug therapy. It has been found that several types of anticonvulsant drugs have worked in controlling epilepsy and explosive behavior. These drugs include phenytoin (or Dilantin), primidone, carbamazepine and certain benzodiazepines. Phenytoin works especially well in decreasing psychotic aggressiveness and epileptic seizures; it also reduces irritable aggressiveness in women. Other types of drugs such as tricyclic antidepressants and lithium are also commonly used to curb explosive, abusive, or hyperactive behavior.
After collecting and reviewing all the data on brain dysfunctions and methods of drug therapy, a team of psychiatrists and neurologists (including John R. Liong Russel Re Monroeg and Jeffrey S. Rubin), undertook a study of prisoners at the Patuxent Institute. The study was designed to investigate the reasons for the prisoners’ incarceration and to see whether certain drugs and medications might alleviate any behavioral problems stemming from neurological abnormalities.
Although the program was intended for the sole benefit of the prisoners and others with similar problems the actual carrying out of the procedures was not without barriers. Several problems arose because of the nature of the surroundings and the persons who were participating in the study. The first obstacle encountered was in convincing the prisoners to take part in the experiments. This was not easy at first. Many did not understand the information about the experimental procedures and drugs and were suspicious of the scientists’ motives. Others feared having to take medications and were also worried about the possible side effects of the drugs. Still others did not want to bother with all the written and oral tests, and complicated drug dispensing procedures which were part of the program. For these reasons, some inmates completely refused to participate in the study. One group of men felt so strongly against the experimentation that they incited a prison riot. (there were also other prison-related reasons behind the riots however)
Another obstacle encountered was in insuring that there would be no institutional administrative pressures put on the prisoners in their decision to participate. Such pressure might occur because the participation of some individuals would complicate the security system. Therefore, the prison administrators were completely excluded from the selection of prisoners.
The unique situations and barriers encountered makes prison research especially difficult. Some individuals in the scientific field have spoken against this type of experimentation and have claimed that unavoidable coercive forces place an criminal subject are not justified. But others have claimed that the study of criminals is essential in learning more about violent behavior. They feel that every precaution is taken to insure the subjects’ safety and privacy, and that much can be learned from the research that will benefit many.
Indeed, some valuable information has been learned from the Patuxent Institution research (Monroe, 1978, pp. 141-146). After conducting various mental and physical tests on the prisoners it was found that there were correlations between many psychophysiologic symptoms, belligerent, negativistic behavior and high distractibility. It was also discovered that subjects displayed various degrees of anger, overreactive emotional behavior, fluctuation of feelings, poor judgement and self-defeating action; these behaviors were specifically dependent on the type of neurophysiology exhibited by the subjects. From the data collected, the researchers were able to categorize the subjects into four groups. Group one consisted of those which exhibited epileptoid dyscontrol, i.e., impairment which stems from birth traumas head injury, certain types of epilepsy and damage to the central nervous system by infection drug usage, etc This group showed sexual and perverse tendencies as well as impulsive and aggressive behavior. Group two members exhibited “hysteroid” dyscontrol, which consists of explosive aggressiveness followed by periods of mild amnesia. The researchers concluded that this behavior was the result of an epileptoid mechanism, coupled with certain psychodynamic and social factors. Group three consisted of “inadequate” psychopaths whose psychosocial impairment was caused by central nervous system dysfunction. The members of this group were less impulsive, and had less neurologic function than those of the other groups, however. The fourth group was composed of individuals who also displayed forms of antisocial behavior but showed a higher degree of abstract thinking.
In regard to the drug studies carried on by Dr. Monroe and his group, the results were not as dramatic as expected. The investigators had hoped for some significant response to anticonvulsant medications but nothing conclusive was observed. There were some indications however, that all subjects participating in the drug program showed improved intellectual functioning.
In summary, it can be seen that there has been much experimental work carried out in the area of brain function and behavior. From this work, various theories have been developed which relate abnormally violent or criminal behaviors with certain brain activities and dysfunctions.
In the endeavor to study the neurophysiological aspects of aggressive and criminal behavior, many problems and issues have been raised based on moral, legal, and social aspects. If these problems can be circumvented, the practical value of brain research is virtually unlimited.