|Clinician's Digest - Page 4|
The Virtues of Fear
A new study reported in the January American Journal of Psychiatry finds that 3-year-olds whose brains don't easily register fear are likelier to become criminals. A team of researchers, led by Yu Gao of the University of Pennsylvania, assessed 1,795 children by measuring their galvanic skin responses to a series of unpleasant tones. In addition, social workers paid home visits and assessed nine items of social adversity, such as an uneducated parent, teenage mother, overcrowded home, poor health of mother, or separation from parents. Twenty years later, a data search of the cohort's criminal convictions for significant offenses located 137 of the same children as young adults. When they compared their data as 3-year-olds to 274 of the group who didn't have criminal records, the only significant variable was that the criminally inclined lacked a fear response when they were 3. Gao thinks the results point to poor functioning of the amygdala.
Other studies provide indirect confirmation of the interplay between low-functioning amygdalas and later antisocial behavior. For instance, some have shown that children with callous or unemotional traits have hypoactive amygdalas. The amygdala of psychopaths are also less active when contemplating a moral decision than those of others in control groups.
Part of our primitive brain, the amygdala responds to danger before our consciousness recognizes it. It then communicates with the orbitofrontal cortex, which is involved in decision-making and expectations of reward and punishment. If the orbitofrontal cortex doesn't receive accurate information about fear, it seems likely this would impede development of a conscience, which develops in response to a combination of fear and empathy.
Lack of fear may be one of the earliest markers for an antisocial trajectory. A September 2000 study led by Paul Hastings reported in Developmental Psychology finds that preschoolers with identified behavioral problems show the same amount of concern for others as do preschoolers without behavioral problems. But over the next two years, those whose behavioral problems remain the same or increase begin to show significantly less concern for others. The lesson of the Gao and Hastings studies isn't that fear breeds respect for others, but that prosocial behavior should be encouraged. Hastings finds that the behavioral problems dissipated in many of those preschoolers who received nurturing over the next two years.
Both studies point to the importance of providing parents, especially those under financial or social stress, with enough support to tend to their children's development. Between the ages of 3 and 5, says Gao, the amygdala and orbitofrontal cortex can be significantly influenced by good nutrition, exercise, empathic connection, and the kind of cognitive work we've known to be important for centuries. It's especially important to help young children, says Gao, because it's much harder to promote a good conscience in adults.