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The more scientists are learning about the brain, the more they are inclined to believe that human behavior is largely determined by the brain's structure and chemistry. In particular, recent research has shown that psychopathic murderers have a distinctive brain pattern and genetic markers that seemingly predispose them to criminal violence. However, I recently came across an intriguing story that says, "Not so fast." Nurture as well as nature plays a significant role, perhaps even the predominate role in determining one's destiny. There is evidence that, as A Course in Miracles would certainly affirm, the healing power of love can overcome even the deepest inborn impulse to murder.
The story is an NPR story by Barbara Bradley about brain researcher James Fallon. Fallon has spent twenty years studying the "criminal brain," and like many brain scientists, came to the conclusion that biology is destiny. After all, as I mentioned, the brains of psychopathic killers display a distinctive pattern. They consistently show low activity in an area called the orbital cortex, an area that scientists believe is associated with ethical decision making and control of impulses. Without proper control from the orbital cortex, the amygdala — an area of the brain associated with aggression and appetites — runs amok. You have a person, Fallon says, whose life is fueled by "the area of the brain that drives your id-type behaviors, which is rage, violence, eating, sex, drinking." In short, "People with low activity [in the orbital cortex] are either free-wheeling types or sociopaths."
Psychopathology also runs in families, and scientists are zeroing in on some of the genes that seem to predispose a person to become a killer. For instance, there is a gene called the MAO-A gene, which scientists call the "warrior gene." This gene has a role in regulating serotonin in the brain, and since serotonin is a calming agent, how this gene works makes a big difference in influencing a person's mental state. Many scientists have come to believe that if you have a particular unfortunate version of this gene, serotonin doesn't have the calming effect it normally does. Not having that calming effect is a lot like not having that activity in the orbital cortex: aggression is unchecked, and once again you have an id-driven sociopath.
This, then, is a profile of a violent killer. And here's where things get really interesting. Based on a suggestion from a family member, Fallon researched his own family background and discovered that, lo and behold, he had a long line of violent killers in his lineage. One line in particular, stemming from a great-grandfather who was hanged in 1677 for murdering his own mother, produced no less than seven other accused murderers, including the infamous, ax-wielding Lizzie Borden.
Now Fallon was a bit worried. Though no one in his immediate family was a murderer or seemed likely to become one, how could he know for sure? Who might be a threat to carry on the "family business"? So, armed with his scientific knowledge, he determined to find out which of his current family members might be a potential killer.
When Fallon looked at the brain scans of ten of his closest relatives, he breathed a sigh of relief. Everybody was normal — his wife, his mother, his siblings, his children. But then he looked at his own scan, and you can probably guess where this is headed. Bingo. We have found the enemy, and he is us. Fallon saw that his own orbital cortex looked completely inactive. "If you look at the PET scan, I look just like one of those killers."
But wait. It gets worse. Fallon's next step was to do a genetic profile of the same family members. He looked at twelve genes associated with violence, paying special attention to that MAO-A "warrior gene." Sure enough, everyone in his family had a low-aggression version of that gene except…you guessed it. Fallon himself had the aggressive version. "I'm 100 percent. I have the pattern, the risky pattern," he says. "In a sense, I'm a born killer."
Needless to say, these revelations threw Fallon for a loop: "When I put the two [brain scan and genetic profile] together, it was frankly a little disturbing. You start to look at yourself and you say, 'I may be a sociopath.' I don't think I am, but this looks exactly like [the brains of] the psychopaths, the sociopaths, that I've seen before." The most perplexing thing was the disconnect between this information and his behavior to date. Even though his physical profile was a dead ringer for Lizzie Borden Jr., he had never shown any propensity for violence. When reporter Bradley asked his wife, Diane, if she was worried about the results, she laughed and said, "I wasn't too concerned. I mean, I've known him since I was 12."
Why, then, isn't Fallon a cold-blooded killer? There may be many factors, but one in particular stands out. It turns out that genetics and brain scans don't tell the whole story. Scientists have come to recognize that physical factors are not all-determining; they can incline you in a certain direction, but going in that direction is not inevitable. What is it, then, that turns people to the dark side and leads them to a life of violent crime? Research shows that in addition to genetic profile and brain chemistry, there is a crucial third factor: violence or abuse in a person's childhood.
Crucially, this factor is the one that is utterly absent from Fallon's profile. Diane says with a laugh, "Fortunately, he wasn't abused as a young person, so I've lived to be a ripe old age so far." Indeed, not only was Fallon's childhood not violent or abusive, but it was full of love. His parents nurtured him, and he had loving relationships with them, his siblings, and his entire extended family. It seems likely that it was this that kept Fallon from going the way of his violent ancestors.
This realization has changed Fallon's whole perspective on the role of nature versus nurture in determining a person's fate. As I mentioned above, Fallon once shared the common scientific view that biology is destiny. But now he thinks that his love-filled childhood may have been the determining factor that made him the good person he is today. "We'll never know, but the way these patterns are looking in general population, had I been abused, we might not be sitting here today." Love, it seems, made all the difference.
I find this entire story fascinating, and I see numerous echoes of the teachings of A Course in Miracles. First, from the Course's point of view, Fallon's profile is actually one we all share in a sense. As surprising as it may seem, the Course is clear that in some dark place within us we all have a murderous impulse, a "wish to murder" (T-23.IV.1:7), whether or not we ever literally kill anyone. The Course speaks frequently of our "savage wish to kill God's Son" (T-13.III.2:4) in our brothers and ourselves, and even of our wish to kill God (see, for instance, Lesson 163). Our true nature is not murderous — it is only the ego within us that wants to kill — but unfortunately, we listen to the ego most of the time. So, Fallon is hardly alone; we are all born killers, at least as long as we continue letting the ego run our lives.
Second, in the Course's view, this murderous impulse is not a product of our genes or brain chemistry, but solely due to a decision made by our entirely nonphysical minds. The brain, says the Course, does nothing at all; it doesn't even think: "If you but understood the nature of thought, you could but laugh at this insane idea" (W-pI.92.2:2). The mind, says the Course, is completely independent of the brain, and the entire body for that matter. So, nothing physical forces us to become killers; no "Twinkie defense" for us.
The idea that the mind is independent of the brain sounds strange, but I think we can see hints of it all around us. There is a remarkable book called Irreducible Mind, in which respected scientists present scientific evidence that the mind cannot be reduced to the brain. In a previous CMW piece, I described unusual people whose minds work perfectly fine with virtually no brain at all. And I see hints of this independence of mind in Fallon's situation as well. Fallon's loving childhood apparently didn't cause his brain to change; it still showed no activity in the orbital cortex. There was nothing to stop that raging amygdala. It seems as though while his brain is running the "psychopathic murderer" program, his mind is completely unaffected by it. Perhaps, then, the mind really does have nothing to do with the brain.
Third, I'm struck by the fact that what determines whether a person obeys his murderous hardwiring or turns away from it is the absence or presence of love. The Course tells us, "What is not love is murder" (T-23.IV.1:10). Where love is absent, the impulse to murder is triggered; where love is present, the impulse to murder is undone. More specifically, what scientists have found here is that the impulse to murder is undone when we are in an environment where other people extend love to us. It is growing up in a loving family that keeps that hardwiring from kicking in and leading us to kill.
This is a huge incentive, I think, to become extenders of love ourselves, not only to our own children but to everyone. Just think: You could be the one who turns a potential psychopathic killer to the way of love. What if Hitler had had enough such people in his life? Extending love to others is what the Course calls a miracle; indeed, at one point the Course says the choice before us is "the choice of miracles or murder" (T-23.IV.9:8). Will we "murder" others with our attacks and reinforce their own murderous pathology, or will we offer them miracles of love that can heal them? The choice is ours.
Finally, I want to say a little more about this idea that the choice is ours. Fallon says he has compassion for the psychopaths he studies, for they got "a bad roll of the dice. It's an unlucky day when all of these three things come together in a bad way, and I think one has to empathize with what happened to them." I agree that compassion is absolutely warranted; after all, the Course's central teaching is forgiveness.
However, the Course would never suggest that anyone's problems are caused by an unlucky role of the dice. We are not victims of our childhood. In private counsel to Bill Thetford, who thought he was a victim of his abusive parents, Jesus made it clear that while Bill's parents did make some unfortunate mistakes with him, the pain he experienced was solely because of how he chose to respond to his parents' errors, a choice that was still in force only because he was holding onto it in the present. As the Urtext tells us, "It is alright to remember the past, provided you also remember that anything you suffer is because of your own errors."
This may sound like a cruel "blame the victim" teaching on the face of it, but it ultimately offers a great deal of hope to those who got the triple whammy Fallon talks about. Psychopathic murderers are notoriously difficult for psychologists to treat; the prognosis for real change is, in earthly terms, not good. Many believe that some people are quite simply beyond help. But if it really is their own current mental errors that determine their current state, there is hope. Perhaps, with the help of compassionate healers and miracle workers extending love and forgiveness to them, they can let go of their errors and be transformed into extenders of love and forgiveness themselves.
This is the promise A Course in Miracles offers: We really can let go of our choice to murder and make the choice to extend miracles of love instead. This is the only way to undo the sick murderous impulse in all of us: "Sickness and separation must be healed by love and union. Nothing else can heal as God established healing" (S-3.III.5:7-8). Love alone "can heal all sorrow, wipe away all tears, and gently waken from his dream of pain the Son whom God acknowledges as His" (T-23.IV.9:8). With our efforts alone, healing such horrible pathology would be impossible. But with the power of love — the Love of God expressed in our love for one another — all things are possible. There is no order of difficulty in miracles. "Who with the Love of God upholding him could find the choice of miracles or murder hard to make?" (T-23.IV.9:8).