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The Nature of Human Violence

Analysing violence in all its complexities

Professor Gwen Adshead explores one of humanity's most destructive behaviours

AN uncomfortable, delicate topic at the best of times, the perpetuity of human violence is an issue all too real in today's society. Enduring, destructive, and certainly unavoidable. Blessed are those who have entirely circumvented it's damaging impact through a lifetime; a number far too small. Undoubtedly, a most highly anticipated Gresham College free lecture awaited the thoughts and ears of those sitting in the Weston theatre at the Museum of London only a few nights ago. It's topic was most certainly human violence.
     Gwen Adshead, visiting Professor of Psychiatry, was very open and frank about the sensitive issue of violence in this, her first of three lectures this year as part of the Gresham College free series. However, she made no qualms about directly presenting the information and perspective she had on violence, involving her close research, work and beliefs. Adshead particularly focused on her exploration of today's conceptualisations of violence, using criminological, penal and psychological perspectives. What stands out most, she noted, was that violence appears to be falling around the world. What had to be determined was why. The second issue of note was whether or not all forms of violence are the same. An intriguing question. Finally, the relationship between violence and mental disorder must also be considered. Is it normal? Or rather something unnatural that cannot be controlled in the end.
     Professor Adshead's initial focus was on violence in a more general way, particularly how we understand it. The two main facets she specifically chose to look at were homicide and suicide. Grim points of discussion to say the least, but reality in today's world nevertheless. That directly links to how we perceive violence. As people, we are appalled and frightened by the suffering that it brings, the deliberate infliction of pain. Yet, it also interests us. Many point to our keen regards for violent sports, aggressive fighting championships or automotive collision sports such as Nascar racing. Of course we do not condone violence, but it is still something that captivates our attention from the first moment we know of its existence. But is it normal? Adshead's definitive answer is yes.
     She traces her explanation to the high rates and volume of violence in the world, from ancient history to today. However, different countries do have different rates. It is not the same throughout the world. First world countries tend to have much lower rates, for many obvious reasons and some not so much. What strikes the audience the most is that of the ten leading causes of death that the Professor listed, homicide and suicide are prominent - as is unintentional violence. The other point she considered is how violence affected different age groups. Homicides generally tend to occur with under-15 year olds and extends to later life, whereas suicides begin after the age of 10 and are more common.
     Yet for all the negativity and morbidity surrounding such statistics, the fact is that violence rates seem to be decreasing - particularly for young men - but not women, oddly enough. Female violence is still far lower than the male equivalent but the rate has not changed in recent years. In all global cultures around the world, 80% of violence perpetration is made up of men. Except between the ages of 10-14. How did that happen? Overall it seems that the young are the perpetrators and victims. Nevertheless, something has been changing in the United States and across Europe with the falling rates over the years. Why? These questions all point to the other main point of Adshead's lecture: The study of human violence is a complex, multi-faceted enigma that is not simple to explain or even understand fully.
     Other big influences in the perpetration of violence include ethnicity, income inequality, culture and masculinity. Professor Adshead also produced an astonishing diagram outlining the use of different weapons that most commonly assist in the conducting of violence. Not surprisingly, firearms stand out particularly, but as do cutting/piercing weapons. Groups of homicides exist as well. There are three different motivational groups since violence is not all the same when you look at it in detail: Criminal relational (gang related, intimidation), socio-political, and killing others for what they represent. There are naturally different meanings and communications with each and it is important to understand the meaning behind every homicide and whether the perpetrator communicated what they wanted to. As Adshead put it, "Has the job been done?" What's frightening is that violence and murder can be done by nice people as well, not just psychopaths, drug dealers and inebriated individuals. For example, the medical staff who committed euthanasia - murdered for all intents and purposes - on countless patients in the 1930s were all competent, intelligent, middle-class people. Understanding violence is thus intensely complicated.
     The final focus of the evening revolved around Professor Adshead's central study involving her experience and research with a group of Florida juvenile offenders and her attempts to comprehend the reasons why they became violent men. She asked them about their childhood adversity and found a startling but understandable result: the more types of childhood adversity each offender had (four or more) directly increased their chances of becoming more vulnerable to violence and risk. From a medical perspective, it is the neural pathways (frontal lobes) or the social brain with its sense of responsibility and choice that are most affected when subjected to childhood adversity. The earlier the child is affected, the more chance they will have of developing poor drinking habits, violence and a penchant for drug use - eventually dying early. These are isolated children who experience physical abuse, neglect, watching their mothers treated violently, among other dreadful experiences. What struck the audience deeply was the fascinating image of a brain scan shown by Adshead, revealing two brains side by side. One was normal sized and healthy, while the second displayed a brain that had been abused. The temporal lobes had clearly not been developed. Neglect is the most toxic thing you can do to a brain. According to Adshead, 40% of the penal inmates were abused or neglected.
     Ultimately, each act of violence is complex. There are many questions that certainly require much thought and further study. Why do politics affect the need to commit violence? Or why is gender important? We need to look at it all systematically and with a multifactorial approach in order to understand it better; then be able to do more in the long run. On the bright side, while fielding questions after the lecture, Professor Adshead did touch on the fact that it is possible for peoples brains to change and improve for the better as they get older. This, again, depends on the severity of the psychological damage, among many other factors.


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