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.