Are we designed for violence?

Are we wired for violence – is it brain-based, an original sin never to be expelled? Or could it be less indelible than we fear?

I thought I’d post a short essay, originally written for another destination, that touches on issues discussed below in a previous post. It’s also cross-posted at my own blog. Hope y’all enjoy, and I welcome any feedback or crit of my somewhat contentious take on the issue.

Violence is common to our present, history and prehistory. Is there reason to hope that our future will be different? Doubtless we’ll know in the long run, thanks to the grand uncontrolled experiment of life. Meanwhile some argue we can get an early forecast by using the behavioural sciences – investigate our nature to divine our future. But just what do we mean by a violent nature, and would such a nature necessarily force us to be so pessimistic? Such a wide issue needs to be viewed through a narrow prism, so here we shall focus on the neuroscience of violence. Are we wired for violence Рis it brain-based, an original sin never to be expelled? Or could it be less indelible than we fear?

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More cartoon fun

comich.jpgFurther to the dinosaurs Vaughan speaks of below, there is a Flash-based dynamic comic* at Neuroscience for Kids which is a nice intro to the entire nervous system, with Sam and his friendly neurons. In addition, there are also suggestions for a number of neuroscience-based fun lesson plans, like synaptic tag.

Sam’s brainy adventure: link

*No, a cartoon this does not make. Although action within panels, rather than dynamic transitions such as Scott McCloud’s The Right Number (click where it says to preview the work, unfortunately the full deal does cost an imposing 50c to view), does start to push the boundaries somewhat. But speech bubbles and panels maketh the medium – at least, McCloud would argue that.

Through the k-hole

What do squat parties in Brixton, vetinarians in Buckinghamshire, and cereals in Budgens have in common?* The answer, of course, is Special K.**

Ketamine is a tranquillising agent that was widely used until patients began to complain of its hallucinogenic effects, which they experienced when coming out of sedation. Not too fun. Except, of course, for those who take it for pleasure – of whom, according to ongoing research by Mixmag magazine and the Institute of Psychiatry, there have been more than a fourfold increase between 1999 and 2003. Apart from this population, the drug is still administered as a tranquilliser for animals, and also young children for whom the trippy effects don’t seem to occur. Notably, after Putin banned the drug in Russia in 2003, Bridget Bardot campaigned for a reversal, on the basis that it would result in more suffering for animals; whether the implications for children were weighed is not on record, but in any case Russia reversed the ban in ’04. Notably, the drug is not illegal in the EU, and whilst a controlled substance is low down in priority, at least in the eyes of the law. But if you’re an ocassional taker, or curious about it, I suggest you read further, to get the skinny on the cognitive neuropsychopharmacology of ketamine.

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Abstract structure need not be based on language

Grammar-impaired patients with problems in parsing sentences can parse sums. This weighs against the argument that language underpins our capacity for abstract thought: these individuals have problems with telling “dog bites man” from “man bites dog” but no similar problems with 112-45 vs 45-112.

Aphasia and other language problems stemming from brain damage can indeed lead to calculation problems, but this study suggests that they are not necessarily intertwined. As the authors put it, the performance of their subjects is “incompatible with a claim that mathematical expressions are translated into a language format to gain access to syntactic mechanisms specialized for language.”

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Chimps fair or foul

I went to a conference a few years ago at the LSE; if you look at the speakers you’ll see why. Although it proved to be patchier than I’d hoped, I was captivated by Frans de Waal’s contribution, outlining some wonderful research on the social behaviour of apes. One highlight, which is now finally coming to publication, was the finding that chimpanzees judge reward not just on its instrumental value, but whether it is even-handed or otherwise. They reject a moderate reward if they see an unfamiliar ape get a better one. Good to know that apes throw their toys out of the pram as well.

The explanatory gloss on this is that apes have a ‘sense of fair play’. Another angle that comes to mind is that preferential reward may be seen as the forming of a dominance hierarchy, and the smart ape should make it clear that it’s not going to acquiesce -a nuclear threat to dissuade a minor loss.

Possibly this is merely talking at different levels of causation – the monkeys may have such a sense due to the need to hold their own in a fluctuating dominance hierarchy. It’s also very possible that my thought doesn’t fit with chimpanzee social structure at all. Regardless, it keeps the mind sharp to explore the gloss at least as much as the nuts and bolts of a study. Simian Cold War, or chimp village cricket: can you find a better tack?


Since we’ve been hitting lie detection recently, I thought I’d point out that according to a brief communication in a 2000 volume of Nature (May, vol 405, abstract here, full text here if you can access it), people who have acquired aphasia (an impairment in the processing of others speech, leading to difficulties in comprehending spoken language) are better at detecting lies. The case the authors make is that the brain redresses damage to the circuitry that underpins language ability by boosting the recognition of non-verbal behaviour. This more sensitive detection (which isn’t merely better processing of the information in the voice, but depends on using facial cue information) allows a superior level of ‘lie-detection’ – which in this study was confined to recognising emotions that models (the people being viewed – effectively the stimuli for this kind of study) are trying to conceal.

Using patients as some kind of high-falutin sniffer dog isn’t particularly appealing. But the finding lends itself to some great hard-boiled noir…

“I don’t know what the hell he’s talking about. But this guy’s a liar.”

It’s also a fun conundrum for philosophers of semantics, no? An entity that can evaluate whether something is true or false without accessing its content. And they’re a bit more real than zombies.