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Brain plasticity and criminal behavior (part 2 of 3)

Posted Apr 09 2009 7:14pm

This post is a continuation of my previous post, Brain plasticity and criminal behavior part 1

Now, let’s consider the child in which “all does NOT go well”.

1) What if the schedules of interaction between the child and his primary caregiver(s) are sparse?

2) What if interactions are more often negative than positive?

3) What if significant attachments to other adults within or beyond the limits of the child’s home are never developed?

4) What if the child has very socially constrained early experiences that limit the development of THEIR world model to a narrow sub-culture?

5) What if the child is brought from a different ‘world’ as an immigrant, into a world that is very different from the one that has grown in their brain?

6) What if the child creates a mythic model of the ‘real world’ (e.g., the world of the ‘haves’) that bears little relationship to the one (the world of the ‘have-nots’) that they shall later have to deal with?

7) What if the child is never formally or systematically taught ‘the rules’ that govern acceptable social behavior?

8] What if the child is raised under conditions of continual childhood stress?

9) What if the child is subjected to a regular schedule of physical or emotional abuse?

10) What if a child self-identifies as a failure, in their early school-house life?

All of these conditions richly apply in American society. To go down our list:

1) Most American primary caregivers must work throughout their infant/child’s early post-natal epoch. While we Americans assure that families can take a limited time off when a child is born, we are the only ‘advanced society’ that does not provide for a paid leave of absence. It is no accident that the drug warlords in Mexico primarily recruit the detached children of working parents as their soldiers. It is no accident that clinical problems of attachment and related problems of social/emotional control (e.g., bipolar disorders) have exploded in our child populations. The development of weaker attachments is one very good suspect for a wide variety of later-emergent childhood problems.

2) Scientists have literally counted the percentage of “approbations” in financially struggling American families, and compared their proportional numbers with those used in child-adult interactions in financially and culturally successful (‘professional’) families. When a family is struggling (we Americans have, proportionally, a lot more of these than do other ‘advanced countries’), more often than not, a vocal interaction between a kid and a caregiver is corrective. “Knock that shit off, Billy!” When a family is doing well, 5 or 6 or 7 times as often as not, the interaction is supportive. “Way to go, Annie!” In psychology, we call this ‘negative reinforcement’ vs ‘positive reinforcement’. Positive interactions STRENGTHEN attachments. Negative interactions weaken them. If empathy stems from our growing Self-referenced attachments to other members of our family, tribe and society, then on the statistically average (there are MANY exceptions, of course), growing up in a struggling family is not the environment for growing them. In contrast to other ‘advanced countries’, our society has a disproportionately larger percentage of families that are fall through the cracks of a very porous ’social safety net’.
[You might not that a special case of heavy dosing with positive messages comes from Asian-American subcultures, where affirmations:approbations occur on an especially high rate.]

3) Social attachments beyond the immediate family can also be greatly impoverished through the young life of the child. Unfortunately, for many children, the first really strong attachments may be formed through their interactions with other children coming from a similar history of weak attachment, i.e., with other de-tached older child and adult mentors. This is the basis of the comradeship of pre-gangs (junior thugs) and gangs (senior thugs).
Aristotle long ago explained to us that you cannot get something from nothing. Respect – empathy – for other individuals, or for your elders is subject to great individual distortion. It is product of our neurological experiences. We call the failure to create strong attachments to all other members of society of all ages as a part of the Person forming in our brain in our young life “psychopathy”.

4) Special problems can arise when an individual creates a model of THEIR world in their young life, then find that the greater world (that they first experience, for example, when they go to school) is not at all the same. The very things that can make an individual effective in the world model that they create from their own environment can be completely dysfunctional in the greater society in which they now have to operate. For example, aggressiveness that might contribute importantly to successful adaptation in a home or local environment might be called a ‘bad conduct disorder’ in the alternative universe of school that the child later find theirSelf has landed. THEIR world might be “all action” and “little talk”. Most schools are “all talk”, and “little action”! Little Annie, raised in a positive, conversation-rich environment of a thriving family finds school to be absolutely wonderful because it is FULL of talk, and she is good at it. Little Billy, raised in a negative, conversation-impoverished struggling-family environment hates all of that talking, and dreads the moment when the teacher asks him to join in.
Not too many years ago, the Oakland School district acknowledged this problem and came up with a radical solution. “We’ll use the language of the street — ‘Ebonics’ — in school”, they suggested. “You’re insane.” said the critics (which included 99% of American citizens who heard about their plan. And because those kids ultimately have to operate in the wider world, the critics had a point.

5) A related problem applies for the child that comes to the U.S. as an immigrant. Their families and community can provide them with a strong representation of a ‘world’ that is not entirely congruent with the world that they shall later be required to operate in (in school; in the wider society), as older children and adults. Perhaps you know that special education was initially established to serve just such a community – immigrants who, as a people, just didn’t thrive in our schools, who resisted assimilation, and were generally regarded as genetically inferior. Now, 70 or so years later, we call them “Italian-Americans”. Of course we NOW understand that they were NOT ‘slow’ or ‘unteachable’ or ‘genetically impaired’. They just operated from a ‘world model’ that they were delighted to be a part of that was NOT the model of mainstream America or its schools. Still, our basic societal strategy is to wrest such children from THEIR world, put them into OURS (the mainstream world) and applaud ourselves for the way that we have provided them with ‘equal opportunity’! Is it surprising to you that children from these environments more often rebel than do children from the mainstream?
One of the dumbest things that sometimes hear politicians and public authorities say is that ‘you just cannot blame criminal behavior on a person’s environment.’ It’s complex, to be sure, but in it’s entirety, where the hell ELSE do you think it comes from, as it emerges from an operational Brain expressed as the Person that is literally created from that environment!

6) Of course the child may actually create a mythic model of the world that comes from substantially artificial sources. Some people call that “television”, or “the media” or “the shopping mall”. They might present the child’s world as one in which people can be expect to surround themselves with the finest material things and privileges that a modern society has to offer. Perhaps later, a child might discover that THEIR real world isn’t exactly going to BE like that. And they might already know or soon learn that they just don’t possess the personal resources to successfully join, or reap the benefits from that wonderful, mythical Eden.

7) In Japan, every individual in society understands and obeys certain rules of politeness. Almost every social interaction begins with a formal acknowledgement, in word and by gesture, that signifies sensitivity and respect for every other person in your presence. The same applies for northern European societies, where ‘manners’ require formal small talk and acknowledgement of the other person in your presence, as tenets in every child’s ‘rules of engagement’. We Americans have no similarly reliable strategy to extend our attachments and empathy from a small number of individuals out to every other member of the wider national community.

8] What if the child is raised under conditions of continual childhood stress? The science is clear. It changes their brain. It delays their development. It lowers their experience-acquired ‘intelligence’ (3 or 4 negative factors in life + about 15 IQ points). It impairs them for later-life responses to stress. It greatly increases the probability of onset of serious mental illness. It adds significantly to the risks of failure, at school and at life. It ain’t good, re success in life.

9) What if the child is subjected to a regular schedule of physical or emotional abuse? Ditto, because this is a special way to induce bad brain-causing stress. However, here we get a second harvest. Cruelty engenders cruelty. In ways and for reasons that are not completely scientifically understood, the more likely a child is subject to cruel treatment, the more likely they are
to inflict it. Abuse also greatly increases the risk for emergent, older-age mental instability (e.g., bipolar disorder).

11) So let’s send these children to school. Not just the ones with have developed strong attachments to a caregivers and other adults, or to other children, but all of those DE -tached children as well. That would include many children from struggling households in which their primary interactions with adults were sparse and/or were NOT affirmative, but to the contrary, were ANTI-attachment, i.e., consistently, primarily approbative. We’ll include all of those children with impoverished experiences (sparse language, limited cultural expiences) that limit the model of the world that they’ve created in their brains to a narrow, perhaps-primitive sub-world, and that provides them with only a very limited repertoire of skills and abilities and words and concepts that shall make it pretty damn hard to get off to a good start in school. We’ll include a substantial percentage of children that have been physically and emotionally abused, which we KNOW has resulted in physical changes that have frustrated and shall continue to slow the development of their neurological abilities. We’ll include little hellions that have developed learned-aggressiveness strategies that work to some extent at home, but that, in our little schoolhouse, will be called ‘bad conduct disorder’. Let’s throw in kids who have been under continuous stress from infancy onward, which throws on the physical brakes for normal development of skills and abilities of every stripe, and which sets them up an instable older-child and adult life. We’ll include a large body of children that have developed an adequate world model that unfortunately has amazingly little in common with the world that is in play in the fresh environment of that elementary school. Most of those children will be uncomfortable in their world transition (a lot of ‘corrective’ brain plasticity has to occur) from the get-go; a large proportion will never fully adapt to the demands of this ‘real world’. We’ll provide only limited education to this stew of kids about the rules of politeness between one another, and between children and adults in school. The weakness of that education about the social rules of engagement shall be richly manifested in the flagrant disrespect of teachers (of ANY adult) that will be a common aspect of the older-age classroom, and of the operation of older children in the world.


In part 3, we’ll briefly consider the consequences of what it means to set up a child for almost-certain failure; how that stimulates their offending; and how, as a society, we react to their law-breaking.

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