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Crime, punishment and compassion as pathways in the brain

BrainWeek RI panel explored the synaptic roots of fear and social connection

Photo by Richard Asinof

A week-long "cerebral celebration" marked BrainWeek RI, an effort to engage in conversation with the public around brain research in Rhode Island.

By Carol Green
Posted 3/18/19
Three researchers at Brown explored the ways in which pathways in the brain influenced human interactions around compassion, justice and intolerance and fear, as part of BrainWeek RI.
How does the ability to express compassion toward others influence our capability to engage with others who are different than ourselves? What are the dangers of behavior modification in the new age of surveillance capitalism, where our human emotions become the raw product to exploit? How important is it to engage in face-to-face conversations as a way to find convergence and community? Why did none of the featured discussions as part of BrainWeek RI involve toxic stress?
As we move toward the 50th anniversary celebration of the first landing on the moon in July of 1969, it is appropriate to remember that perhaps the most important discovery was the image from space of the blue orb we call home, Earth. As the scientific race into outer space once captivated a generation, so, too, the new scientific race seeks to understand the inner space of the brain as the next frontier, even as the existence of life as we know it is being threatened by climate change.
All of us, in how we set our bearings, are oriented around the search toward home. Yet our current sense of home keeps slip sliding away, a story as old as human civilization being disrupted and forced to adapt in order to survive, in exodus, in migration, in displacement, and with it, battling the reactive forces championing the fear of change and promoting authoritarianism.
The question is: at what point does the pursuit of knowledge about how the brain works translate into a better understanding of what makes us human?

PROVIDENCE – What does the quintupling of U.S. incarceration rates since the 1920s have to do with transmagnetic cranial stimulation? What does either have to do with compassion?

The answers to these eclectic questions were provided, with engaging insight, by three Brown University researchers last week, as they wove a colorful narrative at a panel discussion entitled: “Exploring Fear and Social Connection through the Sciences.”

The session was a featured part of Brain Week RI, heralded as “a cerebral celebration in March,” which was held from March 9-17, in a series of public-facing events that sought to engage the community, showcasing Rhode Island’s wealth of neuroscience talent and expertise, including panels on the opioid addiction crisis and advances in Alzheimer’s research.

The discussion on fear and social connection, which was held at the Institute for the Study and Practice of Nonviolence, drew a diverse audience that included undergraduates, graduate students, neuroscience researchers and community members.

Adaner Usmani, a postdoctoral fellow at the Watson School of International and Public Affairs, was the first panelist to speak. His presentation, “Violence, Panic and the Public: The Story of Mass Incarceration,” began with a panic-worthy statistic: In the early 2000s, the U.S. incarceration rate was nearly 800 per 100,000, a rate believed to be higher than that of the Soviet Union under Stalin.

Not just the war on drugs
One might have had a knee-jerk explanation for this, blaming the failed War on Drugs in the 1980s. But Usmani challenged that view, saying that nonviolent drug offenders accounted for only account for 10-20 percent of inmates, suggesting that mass incarceration could not be blamed solely on drug laws.

Usmani argued that the public had been moving toward harsher punishment of crime across racial lines, a response to a reported surge in violence of the 1950s and 60s [itself a complicated story, influenced partly by a population boom and de-industrialization of cities].

By the 1980s, prosecuting crime became a hot button political issue. Even today, as New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik described it: Prosecutors are “political creatures, who get unlimited rewards for locking people up and almost unlimited power to do it.”

Although the crime rate dropped in the 1990s and early 2000s, the number of U.S. prosecutors simultaneously rose, and numbers of inmates continued to grow. As Usmani argued, the American public had overreacted to violence since the 1960s, voting in lawmakers and politicians who then created systems of imbalanced, punitive power.

Justice and the brain

The next speaker, cognitive neuroscientist Mascha van’t Wout-Frank, addressed the neurocognitive basis for our understanding of injustice in her talk, “Anger, Punishment, Revenge.”

It started with a game: the ultimatum game, a commonly used social sciences tool with two players. One player receives $10, then chooses how much to give to the other player. The second player can accept the offer or reject it. But if rejected, no one gets the money. In general, Frank explained, people are willing to accept “fair” offers of $4 or $5. Anything less is often refused.

Frank’s lab used trans-cranial magnetic stimulation [TMS], a non-invasive brain stimulation technique, to see if there were ways to alter the typical response. After stimulation, subjects were more likely to accept unfair offers and slower to reject unfair offers, if they rejected them at all.

In another round, instead of TMS, subjects made “cognitive reappraisals” before making a decision in the game. Statements such as, “Maybe this other player really needs the money,” or “Something is better than nothing,” were examples of such reappraisals – call it cognitive behavioral therapy on the fly. Significantly, people were as likely to accept unfair offers this way as during TMS.

Her research, she said, suggested two things: the area of the brain studied likely controls our ability to stay “goal-directed” in the face of injustice, and cognitive retraining may be just as effective – and cheaper – than external devices like TMS.

Was Frank proposing a system in which we encourage quick fixes to those faced with systemic oppression? I don’t think so. But the questions remain: Is it right to reappraise any injustice? At what point do we become complicit in perpetuating the injustice?

Wired for compassion
The last speaker, Amy Cameron, an assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Alpert Medical School, gave a delightful lecture called “Compassion is the Answer.”

Cameron said that Charles Darwin theorized that “sympathy will have been increased through natural selection,” [something that social Darwinists of the early 20th century apparently missed]. We are wired for compassion and physiologically rewarded for it, Cameron argued. Compassion feels good.

Imagine having coffee with a friend telling you about a recent break-up. You might make the universal sign of compassion: put your hand over your heart, then take a deep sigh. The act of exhalation stimulates the vagus nerve: it slows your heart rate, drops your blood pressure, and stimulates the release of the feel-good hormone oxytocin. You don’t enjoy the suffering; rather, you enjoy the chance to alleviate it, if only by listening over a latte.

The compassionate parts of our brain are the last to stop developing, according to Cameron. It’s not until we are in our late 20s that we are fully mature in such “compassion zones,” she said. Could this be an example of neuroanatomy reflecting ethics? What does it mean that compassion takes so long to develop? Is this nature’s way of giving humans multiple chances to become good? It certainly suggests that compassion takes work.

The politics of compassion
Along those lines, one audience member admitted that he was “intolerant to intolerance.” This brought up a lively discussion about our current political climate. Cameron reminded us that, just maybe, there are reasons for the voting habits of extreme conservatives in America [of whom there seemed to be none in the audience]. Should liberals, for whom compassion is a kind of shibboleth, practice more compassion toward conservatives?

Usmani suggested that a compassionate approach might lead to better political outcomes. Perhaps we would see less reactionary voting habits if both parties felt listened to and heard. Again, this sounds like a practical, goal-directed approach toward injustice. But, like accepting a $2 offer in the ultimatum game, is it right?

A conversation shift such as this risks neglecting the people for whom the conversation was initially about: the truly marginalized.
Then again, perhaps some New Englanders, such as our northern neighbors in Suffolk County, Mass., who were recently reported in The Atlantic to be “the most politically intolerant” county in the U.S., could benefit with a lesson or two from these brain researchers at Brown.


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