Health TED Conferences

Training the brains of psychopaths: Daniel Reisel at TED2013

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Photos: James Duncan Davidson

Photos: James Duncan Davidson

Daniel Reisel is here to talk about our brains. In particular, how we might change them–and how this kind of thinking might just change the tenor of society as a whole.

He introduces us to Joe, who’s 32, and a murderer. Reisel met Joe in Wormwood Scrubs, a high-security prison that houses England’s most dangerous prisoners. On a grant from the UK Department of Health, Reisel visited the jail to study inmates’ brains and try to find out what lay at the root of their behavior. “Was there a neurological cause for their condition?” he asks. “And if there was a neurological cause, could we find a cure?”

Initial research showed that psychopaths like Joe indeed had a different physiological response to emotions such as distress or sadness. “They failed to show the emotions required; they failed to show the physical response. It was as though they knew the words but not the music of empathy,” Reisel describes. MRI scans (yes, transporting psychopaths across London in rush hour to place them in a scanner, unadorned by metal objects such as, say, shackles, was a nightmare) showed an interesting phenomenon and a tentative answer: “Our population of inmates had a deficient amygdala, which likely led to their lack of empathy and their immoral behavior.”

Acquiring moral behavior is a part of growing up, like learning to speak. By 6 months, we can discriminate between animate and inanimate objects. By 10 months, we can imitate actions. By the time we’re 4, most of us are able to understand the intentions of others, a prerequisite for empathy. But that’s not to say that it’s not possible to learn such behaviors in later life.

TED2013_0069684_D41_4164Reisel wants to talk neurogenesis. This is the birth of new neurons in the adult brain, and Reisel is fascinated by its promise. He left his work with psychopaths to work on mice, whose brains he studied in very different environments. Some were kept in a shoebox devoid of entertainment (similar to, say, a prison cell); others lived in an “enriched environment.” Mice in the former condition lost their ability to bond with their fellow mouse; those in the latter showed the growth of new brain cells and connections. “They also perform better on a range of learning and memory tasks,” says Reisel. “Of course, these mice do not develop morality to the point of carrying the shopping bags of little old mice across the street. But their improved environment results in healthy, sociable behavior.”

Could this research influence the design of our prison systems? “When you think about it, it is ironic that our current solution for people with dysfunctional amygdalas is to place them in an environment that actually inhibits any chance of further growth,” he says. He’s not suggesting that we should pack up all our prisons. Instead, perhaps we might think of rehabilitation through programs such as Restorative Justice, which encourages perpetrators to take responsibility for their actions. “This stimulates the amygdala and may be a more effective rehabilitative practice than simple incarceration,” says Reisel. It’s a fascinating proposition. “Such programs won’t work for everyone. But for many, they could be a way to break the frozen sea within.”

It’s a charming, chilling, thought-provoking talk. Reisel leaves us with three lessons from his work over the past fifteen years. We need to change our mindset, he says. “The moment we speak about prisons, it’s like we’re back in Dickensian — if not medieval — times. For too long we’ve allowed ourselves to be persuaded of the false notion that human beings can’t change, and, as a society, it’s costing us dearly.” Next, we need to prompt and promote cross-disciplinary collaboration. “We need people from different disciplines, lab-based scientists, clinicians, social workers and policy makers, to work together.”

Finally, we need to use our own brains, our own amygdalas, and we need to rethink our view of prisoners such as Joe. After all, if we see psychopaths as irredeemable, how are they ever going to see themselves as any different? Wouldn’t it be better for Joe to spend his time in jail by training his amygdala and generating new brain cells? Reisel concludes: “Surely that would be in the interest of all of us.”