Column: A Culture That Nurtures Future Murderers
Clay Bennett, Chattanooga Times Free Press
We have known how to cultivate greatness for generations: expose our children — early — to an enriched environment with skilled and devoted mentors. Surround them with excellence; teach excellence, encourage excellence, reward their efforts and their successes. Excellence must permeate their environment in visual images, song, verbal explanations and the example of experts. In the Renaissance, Florence did this for art and architecture, and it became the fount of masterpieces. Vienna did the same for music in the 18th century, and cultivated several geniuses, especially Mozart. Today, Singapore, China and New Delhi cultivate the world’s childhood masters of mathematics.
When young children are immersed in enriched environments, special areas of the brain, sometimes called “mirror neurons” mimic what the children hear, see, taste, smell and feel. Most animals do this: “Monkey see, monkey do.” Child brains are wired to do this. Brain structures are also wired to mirror empathy and to be rewarded, internally, by acts of compassion that we receive, and that we give.
Enriched environments improve all children, but they will not make every child an expert or a genius. That takes extra gifts derived from special aspects of a person’s genetics, family and culture. Florence did not produce 1,000 Michelangelos, nor did Vienna produce 1,000 Mozarts.
Instead, those two gifted children were cultivated by their environment until they bloomed into the full flower of their greatness.
The United States cultivates many things; one of those things is violence. Perhaps we are becoming the Florence of fighting, the Vienna of violence. We expose our children to an environment enriched with the images, sounds and language of violence. Our children’s brains develop deep images that unconsciously encourage them to seek the future rewards of violence. Their unconscious minds see that violence can eventually reward them with pennies, pleasure, power and praise. Our children are exposed very early to the World Wrestling Federation, mixed martial arts cage fighting; expertly violent arcade games; enticing advertisements for games in which players accumulate points and money for attacking victims savagely. See Science Daily, December 2012, for a review of how prolonged exposure to violent games desensitizes players to violence and increases aggression. The American Academy of Pediatrics has an official policy to limit children’s exposure to violent games.
A report in 2011 suggested that violent games used by adults decrease crime, because violent adults are too busy having their violence satisfied by the games to go out and actually do crimes. That is the circumstance that proves the rule. Players cultivate their violent approach to life. Eventually, when children are the players, that cultivation will bloom.
It is ridiculous to exaggerate and assume that our culture will make every child violent. However, perhaps as many as one in 25 children have a decreased brain capacity to embrace or understand empathy and compassion. There may be something wrong with their mirror neuron systems, caused by the interplay between their genetics, their family and the environment around them. See Martha Stout’s book The Sociopath Next Door: The Ruthless vs. the Rest of Us. These latent sociopaths are, in effect, the hidden Mozarts of murder. Given a culture enriched in violence, they will be cultivated. Neurologically, evil is when the brain takes comfort, satisfaction or pleasure in the suffering of others.
Sociopaths do not “snap” under pressure. Rather, in the convergence of motive, means and opportunity, their violence “blooms” after years of subliminal cultivation. It is difficult to demonstrate this effect in a statistical manner, because we are dealing with a small subset of vulnerable children. We do know, however, how to cultivate greatness, including great violence. This is what we are doing, inadvertently, by the culture we have permitted to surround our children. Advertisers are brilliant at persuading our subconscious and our unconscious minds. Under the rubric of complete freedom of speech and freedom of commerce, we cultivate people who are not disgusted by violence. We all become desensitized.
Out of that a small group, well-cultivated sociopaths can bloom. My immigrant patients who have come here from Bhutan, Nepal or elsewhere have told me that as wonderful as our nation is, our social culture is “insane.” In the sense that we permit our Constitution to be used as a “suicide pact” of cultural self-destruction, we do seem irrational.
They also say that we are somewhat perverse in our acceptance of brutality. Under the definition that perversion is “a deliberate and obstinate desire to behave in a way that is unreasonable or unacceptable,” their characterization seems right on point.
Gun control misses the core of the problem. There will still be knives, arson, explosives made from fertilizer and many more ways to kill. It is not a matter of restricting the freedom of adults. It is more a matter of restricting violent exposure to our children, to avoid the utter desensitization and distortion of their brain circuitry.
Otherwise, we will inadvertently promote a growing cultural catastrophe unmatched by most industrialized countries. We restrict transfats, corn syrup, tobacco and liquor advertisements. We designate smoke-free zones and endorse social stigmas on unacceptable behaviors, but we allow violent games in pizza restaurants, nearly unlimited violent television commercials and promote cage fighting for all children to see. Their brains are created to absorb what is around them. Neurologically, we are reaping what we have sown. If we do not want to be the Florence of fighting and the Vienna of violence, we will have to take steps to cultivate citizens of serenity instead.
Dr. Jim Filiano is an associate professor of pediatric neurology at Children’s Hospital at Dartmouth.