Dr Warwick Raverty A comment on Arson, arseholes and the law

Excellent and thought provoking article John.
I await part 2 with eager anticipation. The problem of arsonists and their psychopathology is part of a wider problem – namely that about 2% of male human beings and about a quarter that level of females apparently are born with an inabilty to feel empathy. Martin Bryant is just one notorious example and I remember the TV interview with the Justice Dept criminal psychiatrist who assessed Martin before during and after his trial. The interviewer asked the obvious question, ‘Why do we allow such tragedies happen so often?’ I found the psychiatrist’s answer quite chilling. It was, ‘The question is not why they happen so often, but why they don’t happen more often?’ The psychiatrist went on to present the statistics on low/non-empathic people that I have quoted (from memory) above and went on to say that if you ‘locked up’ everyone who was assessed as having low empathy, or a tendency towards cruelty, you would deny liberty to about half a million Australian men, women and children, 99.999% of whom would never commit a serious crime. There is apparently no sound way at present of picking out which non-empathic individuals are going to present a real risk to other people, or property. The psychiatrist went on to say that because the empathy centre in the brain is important in developing and maintaining healthy relationships (it enables you to pick up the emotional ‘vibes’ of someone who you are talking to), people born without one, or with one that doesn’t function well, tend to seem ‘a bit strange’ to normal empathic people and get marginalized as a result. Normal people tend to feel uncomfortable talking to them. Unempathic people apparently often end up in jobs where interaction with other people is minimal – drovers and boundary riders were given as examples. A life of relative solitude in the bush felling large trees with a chain saw and loading them onto a powerful trucks also probably has a natural attraction to men who have difficulty maintaining healthy interpersonal relationships as demonstrated by the recent sledgehammer attack on the protesters’ car in the Florentine Valley.

Tellingly, during the same interview following Martin Bryant’s conviction, or a few days later, the ABC played archival footage of Martin Bryant interviewed in Hobart when he was 8 or 9 years old. Martin had been found by police lighting fires on a day of total fire ban and had been cautioned and put on TV as an example to other children. After some footage of the devastation of the 1967 Hobart fires, the interviewer (in typically naive 1970s fashion!) finished up by saying to young Martin something along the lines of, ‘So you can see what terrible damage fire can cause! And now the police have spoken to you, I guess you won’t want to play with matches anymore’? Martin looked defiantly at the interviewer and said, ‘I will if I want to!’ The interview ended at that point with the interviewer lost for words.

I am not suggesting that every child that plays with matches will turn into a mass murderer. Far from it – playing with matches and some fascination with fire is probably a normal part of the development of most children, as you say in your article. What I am suggesting is that there is a strong link between genetically-determined low levels of empathy and arson. I expect that other forms of cruelty, such as bullying, physical and mental abuse of children (and adults), right through to abduction, rape and murder are also much more common in individuals afflicted in this way. My reading of history also leads me to suspect strongly that the ability to feel empathy can be ‘destroyed’ (either temporarily or permanently) in genetically normal people by severe mental and physical abuse in childhood, or situations of extreme stress in adults, such as often occur in riots and warfare. The attack on the protesters’ car in the Florentine Valley is yet another facet of the same problem. I know personally one very ‘macho’ forest industry senior executive with an anger management problem who is married to a very timid woman who he subjects to extreme verbal abuse on an almost daily basis. Low empathy individuals are not limited to low paid jobs. Repressed anger coupled with low levels of empathy is a very broad, complex and little understood topic and there are few drugs capable of suppressing feelings of empathy more efficiently than alcohol. Astute readers of TT will see plenty of other albeit milder, but nevertheless telling examples in some of the more aggressive and disrespectful posts on these pages.

One possible light on the horizon, however, appeared only last week, reported on National Geographic News (http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2008/11/081107-bully-brain.html ). This report describes brain scans done by Professor Lahey at the University of Chicago on adolescent boys who displayed aggressive conduct disorder (chronic bullying behaviour). In summary, Professor Lahey was able to see the pleasure centres of the boys’ brains being stimulated when they were shown videos of people in pain, whereas showing a control sample of ‘normal’ adolescent boys the same videos resulted in mild stimulation of the pain centres of their own brains as they imagined the suffering depicted on the videos. The conclusion of the article is worth quoting in full:

“I am not surprised that scientists who are working on this and doing brain imaging are finding more and more,” said Marlene Snyder of Clemson University’s Institute on Family and Neighborhood Life and the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program. “I think we’re just at the beginning of pioneering understanding how the brain works,” she said. “The more we know about this, the more hopeful we can all be in finding meaningful interventions.”

Whether the same aggressive adolescents were assessed as having low empathy the article does not say, but commonsense dictates that no-one who bullies weaker people as a matter of course can have a highly developed sense of empathy. Similarly, no thinking person who starts a fire that has the potential to burn people and animals to death can have a normal sense of empathy. I would therefore bet my shirt that the majority of arsonists can be picked up in advance (probably as adolescents after the childhood fascination with fire has passed) by monitoring their brain patterns while they watch a video of a house on fire. I can foresee the day when all adolescents will be subjected to these and other brain scans, possibly at the time that they apply for their driving learner plates, if not earlier. In this way psychological interventions can be implemented early on. The one thing that recent brain research shows is that many dysfunctional and damaged human brains are capable of self-repair if given sufficient therapy. Moderation of behaviour in people afflicted with Asperger Syndrome is just one example. Screening of adolescent driving licence applicants in this way might even weed out the ones who have difficulty imagining the pain and suffering they could cause if they drive too recklessly.

The suggestion of universal screening may sound a bit ‘George Orwell’, however, just as arson causes great suffering and lives ruined unnecessarily, so do reckless driving, bullying, rape and murder. We as a society need to understand the root genetic and societal causes of all of these ills and not be too faint hearted about looking for new ways of preventing them. Who knows, with such intervention, even wars and corporate greed may one day be much reduced because the politicians and captains of industry with these tendencies will be given corrective therapies as adolescents, or children before they reach adulthood and start unleashing misery on a wider scale!

Warwick Raverty
paperscience@bigpond.com