February 8, 2013

A Conscience Seared With a Hot Iron

Ted Bundy in court, 1978-1979.  State Archives of Florida

Ted Bundy in court, 1978–1979. State Archives of Florida



OX NEWS EARLIER TODAY pub­lished this story con­cern­ing research that was done by a Ger­man neu­rol­o­gist by the name of Dr. Ger­hard Roth. Dr. Roth’s research involved study­ing the brains of vio­lent crim­i­nals. He was able to detect what he describes as a “dark patch” in the cen­ter of their brains. Accord­ing to Dr. Roth, these “dark patches” indi­cate a pos­si­ble genetic pre­dis­po­si­tion to vio­lent crime.

Accord­ing to the story, Dr. Roth did not respond to requests from Fox for fur­ther infor­ma­tion on the study. Which is too bad, because a ques­tion imme­di­ately came to my mind, and I won­der whether or not Dr. Roth had con­sid­ered it. I am cer­tain that, as con­trol sub­jects, he stud­ied the brains of indi­vid­u­als who had not com­mit­ted vio­lent crime and found no dark patches. But did Dr. Roth con­sider this sim­ple ques­tion: Was the dark patch he dis­cov­ered in the vio­lent crim­i­nals present before the com­mis­sion of the vio­lent crime, or only after? How is he cer­tain that the dark patches were not the result of a change in the brain of some­one who had already com­mit­ted a crime?

Dr. Steven Galetta, chair­man of the neu­rol­ogy depart­ment at the NYU School of Med­i­cine, who is also quoted in the Fox arti­cle, may have been think­ing of that very ques­tion when he said:

Peo­ple look at the blood flow to one area and say, “Aha, this is the evil patch.” It’s prob­a­bly a lot more com­plex than that. Cer­tain areas are likely impor­tant for cer­tain behav­iors, cer­tain atti­tudes. But it’s prob­a­bly not as sim­ple as X marks the spot for a par­tic­u­lar behavior.

It has been under­stood for some time that the brain can change based on exter­nal stim­uli. Would it be too much to assume that the brain can also change as a result of vio­lent acts which we our­selves com­mit, and that the “dark patches” seen by Dr. Roth are a prod­uct of those changes? For exam­ple, Dr. Roth tested his sub­jects’ response to short films that depicted vio­lent scenes. Here is what he discovered:

When­ever there were bru­tal and squalid scenes, the sub­jects showed no emo­tions. In the areas of the brain where we cre­ate com­pas­sion and sor­row, noth­ing happened.

This makes sense. But did these crim­i­nals lack com­pas­sion and sor­row from the moment of their birth, or is it rather true that—as a defense mech­a­nism against guilt—they learned how to dis­tance them­selves from the evil acts that they had com­mit­ted? One should be care­ful not to write off human sin as merely a genetic predisposition.

Inter­est­ingly, there is a pas­sage in St. Paul’s first let­ter to Tim­o­thy that describes the very sit­u­a­tion that Dr. Roth seems to have uncov­ered. Paul describes peo­ple whose con­science has been “seared with a hot iron” (1 Tim­o­thy 4:2). When I think of this new research that shows “noth­ing hap­pened” in those areas of the brain where com­pas­sion and sor­row are cre­ated, I think of the prophetic force of Paul’s words. I also think that it’s haunt­ingly appro­pri­ate that the apos­tle uses the imagery of being seared with a hot iron to describe what research has now dis­cov­ered to be a “dark patch” in the brain.