April 2001

» About This Issue - Editorial

» Is Nature Violent? - Ernest Callenbach

» Neuropsychology of Violence and its Treatment - Gregg Richardson

» Treating Violent Individuals - Charles Flinton

Editorial - About This Issue

Perspectives on Violence

Based on recorded transcripts of the talks presented at the Eighth AHIMSA Conference, four articles on the theme, Spiritual and Scientific Perspectives on Violence, were published in the January 2001 issue of Ahimsa Voices. Transcripts of three other talks are published in this issue.

From a biologist’s perspective, Ernest Callenbach argues that violence is inherent to most of the species on the earth. However, human species, if we are mindful, are capable of reducing the level of violence and suffering.

Gregg Richardson, a neuropsychologist, and Charles Flinton, a psychotherapist, have contributed highly informative papers on the causes and remedies for violent human behavior. Richardson discusses violence due to brain dysfunction. When the prefrontal cortex is not developed properly, an individual is unable to restrain violent impulses. According to him, a holistic or a large view of the universe helps to reprogram the prefrontal cortex so that a pause is inserted between a violent impulse and the action. This helps the practice of non-violence in everyday life. Flinton agrees that a mental disorder is not always a contributing factor to violent behavior. Many individuals act in violent ways because of social learning. A proper learning process would involve, first, the development of true empathy toward the victim and, next, ability of the perpetrator of violence to pause and reflect on the consequences of a violent act to himself or herself.

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Is Nature Violent?

Ernest Callenbach

I spent about three years writing a little book called Ecology, a Pocket Guide. In the course of that work I had contact with many brilliant biologists, and I hope that my biological perspective will throw light on some of the human moral and social problems that we usually associate with the term, violence.

I want to begin by going back to the very beginnings of life on earth and talk about the tiny microscopic beings, bacteria, that began the chain of life on this planet. It is possible, from a moral perspective, that these are the only “non-violent” beings that are still with us. They are the foundation of life on earth and they are the ones that create life without changing the state of any other life. They absorb nutrients from the environment, and with the aid of sunlight energy, they build their bodies and grow colonies. And, of course, they are infinitely more numerous than us. It is worth remembering that these are the only organisms that can do this. We, who eat other things, whether plants or animals are consumers of living matter. It is only the photosynthetic bacteria who do not consume any other living being, and this is a profound mystery that we must keep in mind when we examine the role of violence among species or among individual members of any species.

The photosynthetic bacteria absorb sunlight and nutrients directly from their surroundings, not living-being nutrients but chemical substances that are floating around. They then transform these nutrients into their living bodies. This is the original magic and mystery of life on earth. We have no idea how it first began. Scientists, of course, are very curious about it, but we don’t know. There are some bacteria that also consume other bacteria and there are microscopic beings classified as protists which are very small. We can’t see them with our eyes. There are also microscopic plants, called algae and microscopic fungi. In fact, floating in the air of this room are the spores of fungi which will land on things and begin to grow. But all life that is not sustained by photosynthesis is either herbivorous or carnivorous, and began with the protists who are wonderful little creatures--some of them have incredibly complicated darts to capture their prey and are very mobile. They get around in their mediums very speedily. You may have seen pictures of the radio laria who float in the ocean and create incredibly beautiful and intricate shells for themselves. It is worth paying attention to the fact that bacteria consumption by other bacteria or the remnants thereof is probably the origin of sex because it enables bacteria to transmit genetic information in an additional way by simply absorbing it through cell walls. Not only there is a direct transmission of DNA through cell walls but also it happens through the ingestion of other bacteria and incorporation of their DNA material into the eating bacteria.

We have to ask, is carnivorousness, that is eating other living beings violent? And here we are down to a very microscopic level of things. Carnivorousness in nature, as we see it in video programs, certainly seems violent. We see the wolf grasp the buffalo by the leg but there is a curious calm about the process. We can see protists doing their carnivorous act if we want to, because we have developed ways of looking at very small things with video cameras. If carnivorousness is violent, it does not necessarily mean that it is bad. If you asked a biologist whether he or she thought it was bad, they would probably laugh at you because they regard life, aside from the bacteria, as a matter of eating and being eaten. Good and bad are categories which we have invented to apply to human affairs in ways that might be useful in regulating them and making them less nasty, and I am highly in favor of classifying things as good or bad. But when we come to the violence of eating and being eaten, I cannot answer these questions for you. I can only suggest ways we can think about these questions. Gary Snyder, the famous poet, put it very tersely. He said, “We are all edible.” He meant all living organisms live by eating other creatures even if we are vegetarian.

I had a couple of carrots before coming up there. Those carrots were once happily growing in some garden somewhere and although I didn’t personally uproot them, I did bite them. I did chew them and my digestion is even now in the process of breaking them down into chemical components which can be used to build my body. I’m a carrot cannibal if you like. I try to eat non-sentient beings mindfully, as the Buddhist would say. Nonetheless, we have to ask ourselves, is eating vegetables a violent act? Yes, I would say, yes, it is. It fulfills Geoffrey Chew’s criteria of suddenly changing the state of that which is eaten. You can’t get much more violent than that really. And some people of course sensing this or knowing it, try to minimize the violence by not eating fellow mammals or even other higher species. But from a strict biological perspective, we have to realize that all species are equal. They are adapted to their environment in the difficult conditions of the planet, and it is ill-fitting of us to condescend to them. When you become a vegetarian I think you do minimize the violence that goes on in maintaining your own existence.

 There are other aspects of violence in living that we might question, being a member of a living species. We compete for food. We compete for reproductive success, and we compete for territory or resources. I think you all realize that most species (there are a few who are relatively parsimonious) create offsprings in incredibly abundant numbers. If you look at the seeds of most plants for example, they produce literally millions of seed. When you look at fish and other species like that, the number of potential new organisms that they can create is astronomical. Not all the seeds can become plants; not all the baby fish can become big fish, not all these baby birds can become full fledged birds; not all the animal offsprings can become full-scale animals. The reason being that we live on a finite planet, and the amount of nutrient material to support living beings is not infinite. If organisms did not die and nutrients were not recycled, the planet would be littered with living beings and their carcasses, and no new life would be possible. The recycling of nutrients that makes life possible to continue on the planet (some people might apply the term wheel of karma) is an eternal, essential cycle without which none of us, neither our ancestors nor our descendants would have had a chance to live.

In evolution, the individual new offspring compete with each other for the chance to survive. In some species of birds, if there are several young ones in the nest, the strongest ones will push the weaker ones off the edge of the nest to the ground to be eaten by some passing carnivore. This is not a rare circumstance. The young compete; even human young compete in ways that are not very nice to watch. Nonetheless, our standard for analyses is what’s for the good of the species rather than the good of the individual, and to look at the species as the important entity, not the individual members of a species. This competition, though sometimes violent, is absolutely necessary. Without it, the species might not survive at all, or would certainly become weaker and would degenerate.

Some species have very violent competition for mates. I was recently up in Canada during the mating season for Elk, and we were warned to be very cautious about both male and female elk because in the mating season they get extremely edgy and are capable of inflicting quite a bit of violence, even death on humans who happen to get in their way. Many herbivores have very dramatic mating display contest. It’s worth noting however that a lot of what we take to be violent behavior among animals like primates beating their chest and making horrendous noises at each other is simply threat or bluff behavior. Some of this is territorial and some of it is about reproduction. Nature, on the whole, does not like strong individual animals to die. This is a great waste to have a mature animal die. A lot of the competition between squirrels and other animals in my backyard, for example, happens in a way that minimizes hurt and certainly minimizes death. I don’t know if it is violent to monopolize a mate in a not too monogamous species like our own.

I don’t know whether it is proper to apply violence in an economic order in which we share scarce resources with each other. In our human society, it is a condition of the capitalist order that we do that. These are questions which, if we hope to become a decent species, we have to think about. We compete for territory more violently and more viciously than any other species. There are some species of ants that have what amount to wars but, in general, we humans are the only ones nasty enough to carry out organized wars. Most other species rely on non-lethal means of competition. My squirrels, for instance, do a lot of chasing but very seldom catch each other. If they do catch each other they might nip each other. But most of these procedures are about mutual readjustment, not elimination of others.

Let me also mention that there is a thing called ritual warfare. In a sense, most warfare used to be ritual. You would have knights in armor riding up and down with lots of flags and lots of music and a good deal of praying. Then there would be a certain amount of killing of each other and, finally, they would gallop off back to their palaces. The notion of modern warfare as a total destruction of a society was an American invention in our Civil War when Sherman marched through the South intending to destroy every living thing, at least every human being he could get at. Modern notions of war as being directed at civilian populations are clearly a great departure from ritual warfare. Ritual warfare still exists. By the way, in my novel Ecotopia I stole this idea from a very beautiful film called, Dead Birds, and put it into my story which is a portrait of a sustainable future society. I adopted this ritual warfare because I thought it might be a way to have a safety valve by which people could get rid of aggressive impulses without killing each other. Football and some other violent sports are perhaps similar symbolic ways of being violent without necessarily killing anybody.

Now, I want to summarize by asking a question that tries to bring all these reflections into a nutshell. Can a species on the earth survive without violence? And the answer to that, I think, is pretty clear. Only the photosynthetic bacteria can do it. Along with all the other organisms that are not bacteria, we humans ? as, Buddhist would say ? are caught up in the inevitable cycle of suffering. I think being eaten qualifies as suffering. It is certainly a sudden change of state. Is it a bad thing that we are caught up in this wheel of violence? I would say, no. It is actually what life is, beautiful and terrible, glorious and horrible, all at the same time, all essential to the process. Enlightenment helps us to understand this process, to bare it, and to participate in it mindfully. That’s why when I am about to bite into a carrot, I try to think mindfully of that carrot, and where it came from and how beautiful the carrot probably was and how much in its own ways it enjoyed being a carrot. It is good to be kind to species. Remember the physician’s oath, the Hippocratic oath, that says first do no harm. This is an admirable sentiment not only for physicians but also for all of us..***

Ernest Callenbach is the author of numerous essays and two well known books in ecology: “Ecotopia,” and “Ecology : A Pocket Guide.”

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The Neuropsychology of Violence and its Treatment

Gregg Richardson

I am a neuropsychologist. I work with people whose brains are, for whatever reason--stroke, injury, toxic exposure, Alzheimer’s disease, etc., are no longer able to function normally. Such people are more plentiful now; we are an aging population; there are more toxins in the environment, and young people remain reckless and have more opportunities to hurt themselves at higher speeds. We also have amazing new technologies which allow us to see what the brain is doing while it is doing it and to see, for example, what parts of the brain are active while one is working on a mathematical problem or listening to Chopin’s waltz. Finally, we have computers and the Internet, which allow researchers to share information much more quickly than before. When you put these three factors together--more people with brain damage, better research tools, and faster communication--you can understand why we are learning more about the brain and its relationship to our behavior and experiences than we ever knew, or could have known, before.

One of the areas we are learning more about is violence--violence of thought in terms of anger and aggressive impulses, and violence of behavior in terms of verbal and physical aggression and calculated cruelty. Today, I want to share with you some of what we are learning. I should say early on that I do not want to pit science against spirituality. There are phenomena, behaviors and experiences, that belong to us as human beings. Science has various languages for describing and explaining those, and spiritual traditions have different languages. They don’t always find themselves at odds and there is a good deal of overlap, and I think the language of neuropsychology may come closest to certain traditional spiritual languages (particularly Buddhist and Hindu) in its way of looking at human behavior.

Earlier, Swami Prabuddhananda spoke of gaining the power to resist impulses, and the reason gaining this power is difficult is largely biological. Many lower species have brain structures that we share. The brain structures in the back and toward the spinal chord are designed primarily for survival. They produce responses which, in humans and some higher animals, look emotional but in lower animals simply have to do with survival. One of the most prominent of these is fight or flight response which basically involves getting the blood out into the muscles, shutting down things like digestion, and basically putting all the energy out where it can be used for one of two purposes, both survival-oriented: either fight or run away. In either case, you need to have your strength out where you can use it. 

The problem with the fight or flight response is that, in humans, it also gets wrapped up with emotion. For example, it can turn into anger. Fear can turn into anger very easily, and fear is generally acknowledged to underlie anger. Fear can cause you to put aside all your well-learned programs and act on impulse when you are confronted with something that is threatening or, to be more precise, something that you perceive as threatening. It doesn’t matter whether something is actually dangerous, but if you perceive it to be dangerous, you will either want to fight it or run away. And, if you do not have the opportunity to run away or if you have been taught that it is shameful to run away, you will stay and fight. Further, if you get too much eye contact or the other person is wearing the wrong garment or has crossed over a certain geographical line, you will feel obliged to put up a fight to maintain your honor and the honor of your ancestors, etc. The point is that feelings of fear go very deep and last for generations. They are a major source of violence in the world and are produced by old brain structures, the emotional structures. They are deep inside and they get us to respond in ways that once helped us survive but which now often leads to needless violence.

Humans and most higher animals have a little chunk of tissue right in the front of the brain, called the prefrontal cortex. Its size, distinguishes us from the rest of the animal kingdom, and gives us far more control over our behavior. But this prefrontal cortex is not functional at birth. We’re not born with it. It grows gradually and establishes connections with older parts of the brain all through childhood and adolescence, even in the late twenties. In some people it doesn’t develop much at all and it doesn’t get connected with the rest of the brain very much; such people have little control over their behavior and don’t get much training in the restraint of violence. 

If the prefrontal cortex has developed properly, i.e., if the machinery is in place and programmed well and given enough power, it is a very effective peacemaker. This is not always the case; intoxication will put it to sleep. Anxiety will also put it to sleep, as will fatigue. If it is asleep, it can’t talk back to violent impulses, and that’s basically what happens when we are tired, anxious or drunk. So, what is the role of spirituality? Any good spiritual or religious system programs you such that when a violent impulse comes up, you pause for a moment and think about the consequences and decide if violence is the best answer. If the prefrontal cortex is operating properly, it talks back to the part of your brain that wants to fight or wants to kill the person you are angry at. “No, that is not appropriate…it is not appropriate at all or it is not appropriate in this company, or it is not appropriate at this time, or at this place.” “NO! That’s what the prefrontal cortex says.” And that’s how we discipline children at a very early age and some individuals at a very old age. No! That is not the right thing to do. And that’s how we inhibit ourselves or others from violent behavior. We’ve all experienced this in moments when we are angry and we step back and say, “no, no, no.” We count or breathe deeply or do whatever we do. That is the way of inserting extra time into the impulse-act in sequence. We use it when we train our dogs or horses. We experience this every time when we go to our dentist. The idea of having a needle stuck into the mouth or a tooth pulled out is really not something we want to allow to happen, but there is a part of us that says, “This is a good thing and I should endure this minor discomfort for my own good.”

The first time you meet a person you have been taught to hate or fear, a part of you says, “This is all right. You don’t have to run away. You don’t have to fight it.” If you’re from another culture which says to you, “those people are not us. It is all right to hate those people.” And some of the cultures will go so far as to say, “It is all right to kill those people.” The crusaders said to their followers in the Middle Ages, “If you kill those people, you will have a special place in Heaven.” Such programming of the prefrontal area basically says, “Don’t inhibit the violence. It’s good and you will get rewarded for it.” If we are going to produce a human race that is capable of inhibiting the violent impulses which are in there for our own survival, we have to teach them by prefrontal reprogramming how to say no to those impulses. Of course, there will always be some individuals who are unable to learn this programming. The wiring in their brain was either defective or was never trained early enough to function well. There is something different about the structure of their brains and they cannot talk back to these older, violent impulses. There is just not enough prefrontal power; the voice isn’t load enough. This very small population makes up the repeat offenders, the violent offenders who appear in every generation in small numbers, and these people simply have to be kept under constant surveillance or even kept away from other people. They will not learn to inhibit violent impulses.

For those of us who are relatively normal and whose children are born relatively normal, just as we toilet train other functions of their anatomy, we must train their prefrontal cortexes. We must teach them how to control the machine they have, whether we do it through religion or science or good family environment. We must teach them to say no to perfectly normal angry and violent impulses that they’re going to experience all their lives. Culture has an influence too but family has an enormous influence. Let me inject a little spiritually here. Even if one is born into a comfortable life with a healthy body and a kind disposition and has good teachers, things can go wrong. We often see a type of dementia (not Alzheimer’s) where the frontal areas are affected first. These people become inappropriate; they say things that they shouldn’t in public; they become violent or sexually aroused in public. We had one old man in a nursing home where I worked. Every evening, he started walking across the hall into the room of a very nice elderly woman who was bedridden, and taking his clothes off he tried to get in the bed with her. He was not a sex offender; he was not a violent man.  The part of him that once said this is inappropriate, just wasn’t working. His overseer, his prefrontal cortex was asleep, and all one could do was go in and say, “No, no, no, this isn’t your room. Go back to your own bed.” The next night it would happen again. We also see this sort of behavior in younger people who have suffered a damage to the fronts of their brains. They’re unable to inhibit the impulses which the rest of us know to be inappropriate.

There is another thing that can go wrong. Between impulse and action, there is normally a little space in which the prefrontal voice can jump in and say, “No, no, no.” What if you don’t intervene, if the impulse arises and the person doesn’t inhibit it? Then you will act out the violent impulse, and it will become harder to inhibit the impulse for violence next time. The more practice you have at violent activity or violent speech, the better you get at it. Hence, the importance of teaching people early on not to practice violence. As Swami Prabuddhananda said, “you lose the health of your mind when you practice violence;” that is exactly what happens. Every rehearsal of violence makes you better at it, and every rehearsal of inhibition of violent impulses makes you better at that. So, starting the practice of ahimsa or non-violence at any point is a good thing. The longer you practice non-violence the better you get. One of the best ways to reprogram the prefrontal cortex, which happens to people who have spiritual experience (with or without training) is through a larger vision of the world and finding one’s place in it. Having the larger picture not only enables us to make use of the prefrontal, “no”, but also brings to us the opportunity to practice that an angry impulse is really very insignificant in relation to the larger picture.

People who have had profound religious experiences report that it is very difficult to behave in ways that would contradict the larger view. They don’t want to lose the feeling of that larger presence. There is in fact an area of the brain which, when stimulated, will give you a sense of divine presence. You may look at that as a way of writing off religious experience, but I tend to look at it as if we’ve been given a little spot inside that tunes us into something that feels spiritual. If it is not, you just have to get by through belief or through imagination. So, the larger view, whether it is religious-- Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, cultural, or experiential--gives a very good prefrontal program for helping you inhibit angry impulses.

How do we strengthen this program? Getting over tribalism is important. The unity Swami Prabuddhandanda spoke about is important. It is hard to get people to the point where they see everyone around them as self or belonging to one family. It’s what happens ideally in a melting pot society. This is what happens in an educational community like Berkeley; in an educational environment people tend to look at themselves in terms of a community of learners with more similarities than differences, and therefore look down on violence.

In the large world, however, we have to be more careful. We need to identify those who have long-standing, probably genetic disorders of the brain or those who have acquired it through some kind of brain damage, and to monitor these people. Some will need constant surveillance. Others will need to be isolated, but it’s a very small population. We need to learn to recognize these people accurately, and not just lock up everybody. There are too many people in prisons who shouldn’t be there. We need to be careful whom we put away or whom we put into these schools for criminality. We also need to recognize who will benefit from anger management techniques. Most of us can learn to expand that little moment between impulse and action. We can learn to stop, to count to ten or breathe deeply and to strengthen the voice that says, “No, no, let this go. Let this impulse die down. Let these feelings go away.” We can actually learn to do it well with practice.

My doctoral dissertation was about unusual experiences of awareness. If you aren’t aware that the practice of non-violence can work, then you won’t see it working, so we need to develop an eye for where non-violence does actually work. We need to become more aware of the area of the cortex which Freud called the Sueprego, and which Carl Whitaker once said is soluble in alcohol. How true? We need to make sure that it’s working, that it’s properly programmed and that it has enough power to inhibit those impulses which are best kept inhibited. If you’re drunk, too anxious or too tired, it may not do its job and the impulses will have their way. We need to understand this neuropsychological view of human behavior because it explains so much so well. We need to strengthen the ability to control our impulses and to teach others to do the same, i.e. modeling non-violence in every day life. And we should be willing to accept that human behavior, including our own, will never be perfect. We will never totally eliminate violence, but we can work toward this goal individually. There will always be violent people and violent acts, and we need to accept this in order to deal with it realistically. As hard as we work to reduce violence, to reduce the sense of otherness, to help others develop the larger view, we will still at times wring our hands at the amount of suffering we are capable of inflicting upon one another.***

Greg Richardson is a neuropsychologist, and currently is the President of AHIMSA

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Treating Violent Individuals

Charles Flinton

I am a clinical and forensic psychologist, and I work with State and Federal counties in San Francisco. I also have a private practice and work in a forensic clinic. My private practice consists of a wide range of clientele, including both the perpetrators and victims of violence and sexual abuse. I also work with clients with relational problems, anxiety disorders, anger management difficulties, and impulse control disorders. Impulse control disorders are characterized by a failure to resist urges, or drives, or engage in behavior that is harmful to oneself or others. 

The clinic that I work in, is called SHARP which stands for Social Habilitation and Relapse Prevention. The clientele at SHARP is mostly comprised of individuals who are adjudicated, or court ordered, to participate in psychological treatment. Many of our clients are transitioning into, or out of, state and federal prison facilities. Although we work with a wide range of criminal behaviors, we specialize in the assessment and treatment of violent and sexual offenders.

I was invited here today to discuss the nuts and bolts of treating violent offenders. Simply put, I was asked, “What works and what doesn’t work when treating violent offenders?” Unfortunately the answer to this question is not so simple.  There are many people in the field that believe that violent and sexual offenders are untreatable. It is true that there is a high rate of re-offense for individuals who act out assaultively, and in terms of reducing violence we are in the early stages of understanding what works and what doesn’t. Even in terms of predicting violence, we don’t have a specific psychological profile of who will act violently. The most reliable method of determining if someone will act violently is whether or not they have done it before.  However, violence is a difficult problem to study because it is quite pervasive, and its causes and solutions are complex. 

The US Department of Justice reports that there were over 2.5 million incidents of serious violent crime in 1999; this is down from over 4 million incidents in 1994. Serious violent crime covers robbery, aggravated assault, rape, or homicide. However, a true definition of violence would be much broader than this. A national survey, a few years ago, included incidents of pushing, hitting, and kicking. This survey found that about 15 million people, that’s about 8% of the US population, experienced nonfatal violent assaults. That same survey found that many of these 15 million people were victims of violence on numerous occasions, accounting for almost 73 million incidents of nonfatal violence.

Even though the national rate of violent crime has gone down in the past few years it doesn’t mean that it is going away. The population of our prison system has grown dramatically which means that we are simply keeping violent offenders out of sight and out of the statistics pool. Incarcerating violent offenders may be necessary in order to protect the general public, because clinically, we have been only moderately successful in treating the problem. This is evidenced by the high rate of violent and sexual offenders.

The treatment of violence is difficult because violence itself is not a mental disorder and when we look at individual offenders we find that the reasons for their violent behavior are extremely diverse. Therefore, a single treatment plan or intervention will not eliminate all aggressive behavior. Treatment plans and interventions need to be individualized. So, in the search for a successful intervention, I am not only interested in the overt behavior of violent individuals, but also the underlying contributors and precipitants. When I assess someone, I try to learn all of the circumstances that lead up to the violent offense, and try to identify what predisposing characteristics the offender brought to the situation to cause the violence to manifest.  These characteristics are often linked to a mental health condition, or a belief system that is self-defeating and harmful. 

Let me run through just a few examples of mental conditions commonly associated with violent behavior. Before I do, I want to point out that everyone with these conditions does not act in violent ways. These conditions should be viewed as contributors and not a sole cause:

1) Intermittent Explosive Disorder –  Intermittent Explosive Disorder is a type of impulse control disorder that is characterized by an inability to resist assaultive or aggressive behavior, or the destruction of property.

2) Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder –  Individuals with ADHD have difficulty attending to all of the information in their environment, this often happens when they experience strong emotions. Feeling overwhelmed by the stimuli in their environment they act without properly evaluating the consequences of their behavior. Their ability to problem-solve and manage their impulses may also be impaired.

3) Substance Abuse – Though less true of some types of sexual offenders, many perpetrators of violent crime report either a pattern of substance abuse or admit to being under the influence at the time of the assault. 

4) Brain Dysfunction – This is also quite common and Dr. Richardson discussed this topic in detail. Whether as a consequence of a head injury, or genetics, many violent offenders have been identified as having brain abnormalities that result in an inability to experience empathy, or failure to manage and express their anger appropriately.In addition there are some forms of neurological impairment that greatly contribute to impulsive and random behaviors. 

5) There are also some Personality Disorders that are characterized by mood swings.

A mental disorder is not always a contributing factor to violent behavior. Many individuals act in violent ways because of social learning.  Many offenders report learning violent behavior from their parents or other adult role models when they were children. Many were themselves victimized and assaulted.  The concept of emotional congruence suggests that individuals who are abused and disempowered by others often take on the characteristics of the abuser in an attempt to feel a sense of power themselves. Also, based on a variety of other personal and social experiences, many violent offenders develop distorted beliefs regarding pride, power, and justice that make them prone to act in violent ways. These beliefs often reflect a disconnection from themselves, others, and particularly the consequences of their behavior. 

I recently worked with a man coming out of prison. He was very motivated not to return to prison. He had established a good paying job. He had maintained abstinence from alcohol, reconnected with his children, and was really building a stable lifestyle. He was re-arrested after assaulting a stranger. I had the opportunity to maintain correspondence with him after his arrest. He described making eye contact with the stranger who did not break the eye contact. He took this exchange as a challenge to him and his manhood. His distorted belief about power and identity, let alone the likely possibility that he misinterpreted the eye contact, led him to give up everything he had accomplished. He disconnected from his personal goals, his newfound self-esteem, and the impact of his behavior on his family. In that brief moment his beliefs about power and manhood overrode any awareness of the consequences. Why did he regard the eye contact a challenge? Later, I found out that it is a part of the prison culture that you must not establish and hold eye contact because it implies challenge. So, when the stranger stared at him, he impulsively went back to the belief system he had acquired in prison.

Let me share another example with you. I began working with a client several years ago that had been court ordered to see me because of a long history of violence. He had been through several therapists who ended treatment because either he wasn’t showing up for the treatment or they felt threatened by him.  The first time that he showed up at my office, he walked in the door and directly to the window and began staring out my third floor window, down toward the ground.   So, I went up and stood next to him and looked out the window with him. After a few seconds I said “What’s up?’ He said, “I was wondering what your body would look like down there if I threw you out the window.” I bent over to the window and looked out and said “Its not that far, I think I’ll make it. How about you though?” “What will happen to you if you throw me out the window?” He looked blankly at me for a moment and became flustered and sat down. It was several weeks before he was ready to talk about that interaction in detail, but it became clear that he never stopped to really think about himself or the possibility of going to back to prison. It was clear in the interaction that he didn’t care for me. But he also didn’t care, or even consider, himself. In his search for power and dominance, he forgot the cost. In order to treat violence it is important to assess and address the mental conditions, the attitudes, and belief systems, that contribute to it. In many cases medication management is necessary, and sometimes, effective.

During an assessment, it is also important to determine if the person can be treated psychotherapeutically.
Although unsettling, there is a group of people with a set of characteristics that don’t respond to any known treatment. I am talking about psychopathic individuals. Psychopathy is an acknowledged subgroup of Antisocial Personality Disorder. Individuals who are psychopathic tend to be extremely manipulative, exploitive, and appear to have no capacity for remorse or empathy. Since instilling empathy is a basic tenet of most treatments for assaultive behavior, these individuals tend to use the skills that are taught to them, such as understanding other people’s feelings, to further victimize and exploit. The treatment methods that we are currently aware of, do not work with this population and in many cases it makes them worse. So, what does work? The goal of successful psychotherapeutic treatment ideally would be to teach the violent individual to employ self-prohibitions against aggressive and violent behaviors while simultaneously addressing the personal and social problems that contribute to their violence.

As I mentioned earlier, the rate of violent crime is lower; however, the prison population is the highest it has ever been. Since the rate of re-offence is extremely high, as high as 97% for men under age 25 who have been convicted of rape, we can say with some certainty that prison might stop violent behavior temporarily, but it does not instill self-prohibitions. I would like to point out that prison is a violent place, so whether it limits violence even temporarily is questionable.

So, what is good at instilling self-prohibitions against violent behavior? Punishing violent behavior and negative reinforcement tend to have some effect.  Rewarding good, or non-violent behavior, seems to have a little better outcome than punishing violent behavior.  Some studies have shown rewarding prosocial behavior to be quite effective in the short-run but its ability to promote lasting change is questionable, particularly when rewards are not available. Behavioral interventions like punishment and reward methods tend to work best while in a hospital, in prison, or some other controlled setting. On the street, in every day life, however, these interventions have limited efficacy.

One of the oldest methods of trying to limit antisocial behavior is the, “The golden rule ? Treat others how you yourself want to be treated”. This approach tends to be more effective than punishment or reward. But, as we discussed earlier, feeling connected with themselves and the environment is often quite difficult for many people. Unless you are able to identify how your feelings are effected as a result of some action against you, you cannot know how your actions will impact others. The missing piece to “the golden rule” is a true understanding of one’s own feelings. Only when individuals can identify their own emotional states, they would be able to identify with the feelings of others. When someone truly understands how others feel, not some intellectual understanding of it, but really experiencing what others feel, can one develop true empathy. If, and when, a violent offender gets to this stage in treatment it can be powerful. But, it is not enough.
Many offenders can develop empathy for their victims, and truly express remorse for their behavior, but they cannot stop themselves. An urge or feeling to act in a violent way arises, and they act. The empathy that they experience often comes too late. It comes during or after their violent action. One offender described his impulsive behavior as a reflex similar to recoiling one’s hand from a hot flame. The action comes that quick.

When asked, “Why did you hit her?” Many clients say, “because I was angry”.  Even with further examination some are unable to separate emotion from action. They experience feelings and action as the same thing.  Most people have had violent thoughts – what stops them from acting violently? What stops them is the ability to insert another thought. The thought might be about the consequences to the potential victim, or it might be about the consequences to them. But there is a pause. Inserting this thought is crucial because the thought usually has to do with foresight. So, the most effective method is not only instilling empathy but also foresight.

Do you remember my client who wanted to throw me out the window? He failed to think about the after-effects of his behavior. He even failed to consider the consequences to himself.  I believe that the ability to marry foresight and empathy is one of the most effective ways to connect with oneself and the world.  Being able to anticipate the consequences of one’s behavior and have empathy in advance is probably one of the most effective goals of psychotherapy when treating violent offenders. Inserting that thought between the impulse or feeling, and the action is an effective self-control method, and it is particularly effective when the client learns to apply it to the precipitants of the violence, such as abstaining from substance use, improving communication skills, utilizing self-evaluation, or evaluating the environment.

Before I end, I want to stress that we are in the early stages of learning how to treat the mental health problems and the faulty thinking that contribute to violence. There are many who continue to believe that violent and sexual offenders are untreatable. But I believe that there has been progress. Just as a few decades ago, cancer seemed untreatable; however, over time, successful treatments have been found for some types of cancer. There is still a long way to go in the treatment of cancer but some progress has been made. Similarly, I think that the treatment of violence is still in its early stages but there is hope.

Charles Flinton is a clinical psychotherapist in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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