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Saturday, September 18, 2021

The science of violence

The tragedy of Newtown, Connecticut has been pervasive in recent media, and Adam Lanza is becoming a household name. In all the coverage, there seems to be one question on everyone’s lips: Why? News reporters seem to have scrambled for answers, featuring experts and using eyewitness testimonies of “warning signs.” Even more people are asking about what can we do to prevent this from happening again. Some researchers say the latest developments in science hold the answers, while others deem “predictive science” a myth.

Predictive science combines many different fields of expertise to form a profile of an individual who is at high risk of committing a violent act. Currently researchers are searching for answers using patterns in behavior, brain activity, brain circuitry, genes and substance abuse.

“The only absolute predictor of future violence is past history of violence. And there is no question that there is a big connection,” said Dr. Peter Yellowlees, a professor of psychiatry and developer of curricula concerning disaster preparedness responses at UC Davis.

A more sophisticated approach being researched is faulty circuitry between the prefrontal cortex of the brain and the amygdala — the emotional arousal and regulation part of the brain. The amygdala is stimulated when there is a threat or perceived threat to an individual. In normal individuals, the prefrontal cortex sends a chemical message to cease the stimulation in the amygdala But in violent people, the amygdala never receives the message and thus inappropriate aggressive behavior is observed. Another technique that can be used is analyzing actuarials — statistical equations used by insurance companies.

While patterns of behavior are very clear in large groups of people, it is difficult to use these techniques on individuals. Rather, a combination of risk factors are analyzed, and one factor has been more prominent in recent years due to sensationalized media coverage: the desire for recognition and fame.

“To me, the big issue is the glorification of violence that I think goes on in society. Part of that is seen in the media reporting but equally, part of it is the NRA’s inappropriate response to suggest teachers and armed guards have guns in schools,” Yellowlees said. “But again it is just glorifying the gun culture … the exposure to violence that occurs is something that is clearly likely to increase violence in the long run.”

With the limitations of neuroscience, psychology and developing technology, most experts would argue that prevention should take the spotlight rather than prediction. There are multiple ways to reduce risk including better mental healthcare, harm minimization, stricter gun control laws and, ultimately, being better prepared mentally.

Yellowlees described harm minimization as an approach that involves steps taken by a psychiatrist or psychologist to reduce or eliminate the risk of an individual harming themselves or others. Generally if a mental health professional perceives a threat, he or she can contact the police to remove the firearms from that person’s home and get that person treatment, whether it be medication, or in some cases, involuntary institutionalization.

“With respect to the Newtown tragedy, I agree with those who have argued for the importance of prevention,” said Ross Thompson, a distinguished professor in the UC Davis psychology department. “If we had communities where people could obtain affordable mental health services when needed, where parents could obtain support when their children begin to show signs of serious problems, and where there were strong restrictions on gun violence — and restrictions on the kinds of firearms that can be owned — there is good reason to believe that these kinds of mass killings would be reduced.”

Director of the Violence Prevention Research Program at the UC Davis Medical Center Garen Wintemute’s research focuses on the nature and prevention of violence, specifically firearm violence, and on the development of violence prevention measures. He is a proponent of stricter gun control laws and more effective ways of preventing individuals with mental illnesses and histories of violence or substance abuse from purchasing firearms.

“As we all think about ‘What do we do?’ my plea is: let’s not focus on how to prevent the next Sandy Hook, because there won’t be a next Sandy Hook,” Wintemute said. “The next one will be different and if we come up with ideas that are specific to those circumstances, we will fail. We need to come up with proposals that will deal with firearm violence broadly.”

NICOLE NOGA can be reached at science@theaggie.org.

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