14:36
TED2013

Daniel Reisel: The neuroscience of restorative justice

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Daniel Reisel studies the brains of criminal psychopaths (and mice). And he asks a big question: Instead of warehousing these criminals, shouldn’t we be using what we know about the brain to help them rehabilitate? Put another way: If the brain can grow new neural pathways after an injury … could we help the brain re-grow morality?

- Neuroscientist
Daniel Reisel searches for the psychological and physical roots of human morality. Full bio

I'd like to talk today
00:12
about how we can change our brains
00:14
and our society.
00:16
Meet Joe.
00:19
Joe's 32 years old and a murderer.
00:21
I met Joe 13 years ago on the lifer wing
00:25
at Wormwood Scrubs high-security prison in London.
00:28
I'd like you to imagine this place.
00:31
It looks and feels like it sounds:
00:33
Wormwood Scrubs.
00:37
Built at the end of the Victorian Era
00:39
by the inmates themselves,
00:41
it is where England's most
dangerous prisoners are kept.
00:43
These individuals have committed acts
00:46
of unspeakable evil.
00:48
And I was there to study their brains.
00:50
I was part of a team of researchers
00:54
from University College London,
00:56
on a grant from the U.K. department of health.
00:57
My task was to study a group of inmates
01:00
who had been clinically diagnosed as psychopaths.
01:02
That meant they were the most
01:05
callous and the most aggressive
01:07
of the entire prison population.
01:08
What lay at the root of their behavior?
01:12
Was there a neurological cause for their condition?
01:15
And if there was a neurological cause,
01:19
could we find a cure?
01:22
So I'd like to speak about change, and
especially about emotional change.
01:25
Growing up, I was always intrigued
01:29
by how people change.
01:31
My mother, a clinical psychotherapist,
01:34
would occasionally see patients at home
01:37
in the evening.
01:39
She would shut the door to the living room,
01:41
and I imagined
01:42
magical things happened in that room.
01:44
At the age of five or six
01:47
I would creep up in my pajamas
01:49
and sit outside with my ear glued to the door.
01:51
On more than one occasion, I fell asleep
01:54
and they had to push me out of the way
01:55
at the end of the session.
01:57
And I suppose that's how I found myself
01:59
walking into the secure interview room
02:02
on my first day at Wormwood Scrubs.
02:04
Joe sat across a steel table
02:08
and greeted me with this blank expression.
02:10
The prison warden, looking equally indifferent,
02:14
said, "Any trouble, just press the red buzzer,
02:17
and we'll be around as soon as we can."
02:20
(Laughter)
02:22
I sat down.
02:25
The heavy metal door slammed shut behind me.
02:27
I looked up at the red buzzer
02:30
far behind Joe on the opposite wall.
02:32
(Laughter)
02:34
I looked at Joe.
02:37
Perhaps detecting my concern,
02:39
he leaned forward, and said,
02:41
as reassuringly as he could,
02:42
"Ah, don't worry about the buzzer,
02:44
it doesn't work anyway."
02:46
(Laughter)
02:48
Over the subsequent months,
02:55
we tested Joe and his fellow inmates,
02:57
looking specifically at their ability
03:01
to categorize different images of emotion.
03:03
And we looked at their physical response
03:08
to those emotions.
03:10
So, for example, when most of us look
03:12
at a picture like this of somebody looking sad,
03:13
we instantly have a slight,
03:16
measurable physical response:
03:20
increased heart rate, sweating of the skin.
03:22
Whilst the psychopaths in our study were able
03:25
to describe the pictures accurately,
03:27
they failed to show the emotions required.
03:29
They failed to show a physical response.
03:32
It was as though they knew the words
03:36
but not the music of empathy.
03:38
So we wanted to look closer at this
03:41
to use MRI to image their brains.
03:43
That turned out to be not such an easy task.
03:47
Imagine transporting a collection
03:50
of clinical psychopaths across central London
03:51
in shackles and handcuffs
03:54
in rush hour,
03:56
and in order to place each
of them in an MRI scanner,
03:58
you have to remove all metal objects,
04:02
including shackles and handcuffs,
04:04
and, as I learned, all body piercings.
04:05
After some time, however,
we had a tentative answer.
04:09
These individuals were not just the victims
04:14
of a troubled childhood.
04:16
There was something else.
04:18
People like Joe have a deficit in a brain area
04:21
called the amygdala.
04:25
The amygdala is an almond-shaped organ
04:27
deep within each of the hemispheres of the brain.
04:29
It is thought to be key to the experience of empathy.
04:32
Normally, the more empathic a person is,
04:36
the larger and more active their amygdala is.
04:39
Our population of inmates
04:42
had a deficient amygdala,
04:44
which likely led to their lack of empathy
04:45
and to their immoral behavior.
04:47
So let's take a step back.
04:50
Normally, acquiring moral behavior
04:54
is simply part of growing up,
04:56
like learning to speak.
04:59
At the age of six months, virtually every one of us
05:01
is able to differentiate between
animate and inanimate objects.
05:04
At the age of 12 months,
05:08
most children are able to imitate
05:11
the purposeful actions of others.
05:14
So for example, your mother raises her hands
05:16
to stretch, and you imitate her behavior.
05:18
At first, this isn't perfect.
05:21
I remember my cousin Sasha,
05:24
two years old at the time,
05:26
looking through a picture book
05:28
and licking one finger and flicking
the page with the other hand,
05:30
licking one finger and flicking
the page with the other hand.
05:33
(Laughter)
05:35
Bit by bit, we build the foundations
of the social brain
05:37
so that by the time we're three, four years old,
05:41
most children, not all,
05:46
have acquired the ability to understand
05:47
the intentions of others,
05:49
another prerequisite for empathy.
05:51
The fact that this developmental progression
05:54
is universal,
05:57
irrespective of where you live in the world
05:58
or which culture you inhabit,
06:00
strongly suggests that the foundations
06:03
of moral behavior are inborn.
06:05
If you doubt this,
06:08
try, as I've done, to renege on a promise you've made
06:11
to a four-year-old.
06:14
You will find that the mind of a four-year old
06:16
is not naïve in the slightest.
06:18
It is more akin to a Swiss army knife
06:20
with fixed mental modules
06:23
finely honed during development
06:25
and a sharp sense of fairness.
06:27
The early years are crucial.
06:30
There seems to be a window of opportunity,
06:33
after which mastering moral questions
06:35
becomes more difficult,
06:38
like adults learning a foreign language.
06:39
That's not to say it's impossible.
06:43
A recent, wonderful study from Stanford University
06:45
showed that people who have played
06:48
a virtual reality game in which they took on
06:51
the role of a good and helpful superhero
06:53
actually became more caring and helpful
06:56
towards others afterwards.
06:58
Now I'm not suggesting
07:00
we endow criminals with superpowers,
07:02
but I am suggesting that we need to find ways
07:05
to get Joe and people like him
07:09
to change their brains and their behavior,
07:11
for their benefit
07:13
and for the benefit of the rest of us.
07:15
So can brains change?
07:18
For over 100 years,
07:22
neuroanatomists and later neuroscientists
07:24
held the view that after initial
development in childhood,
07:28
no new brain cells could grow
07:31
in the adult human brain.
07:34
The brain could only change
07:35
within certain set limits.
07:37
That was the dogma.
07:39
But then, in the 1990s,
07:41
studies starting showing,
07:43
following the lead of Elizabeth
Gould at Princeton and others,
07:45
studies started showing the
evidence of neurogenesis,
07:47
the birth of new brain cells
07:51
in the adult mammalian brain,
07:53
first in the olfactory bulb,
07:56
which is responsible for our sense of smell,
07:57
then in the hippocampus
07:59
involving short-term memory,
08:01
and finally in the amygdala itself.
08:04
In order to understand
08:07
how this process works,
08:09
I left the psychopaths and joined a lab in Oxford
08:11
specializing in learning and development.
08:13
Instead of psychopaths, I studied mice,
08:17
because the same pattern of brain responses
08:20
appears across many different
species of social animals.
08:23
So if you rear a mouse in a standard cage,
08:27
a shoebox, essentially, with cotton wool,
08:31
alone and without much stimulation,
08:34
not only does it not thrive,
08:35
but it will often develop strange,
08:37
repetitive behaviors.
08:39
This naturally sociable animal
08:40
will lose its ability to bond with other mice,
08:43
even becoming aggressive when introduced to them.
08:45
However, mice reared in what we called
08:50
an enriched environment,
08:52
a large habitation with other mice
08:53
with wheels and ladders and areas to explore,
08:55
demonstrate neurogenesis,
08:59
the birth of new brain cells,
09:00
and as we showed, they also perform better
09:03
on a range of learning and memory tasks.
09:05
Now, they don't develop morality to the point of
09:08
carrying the shopping bags of little old mice
09:10
across the street,
09:12
but their improved environment results in healthy,
09:14
sociable behavior.
09:17
Mice reared in a standard cage, by contrast,
09:19
not dissimilar, you might say, from a prison cell,
09:22
have dramatically lower levels of new neurons
09:24
in the brain.
09:27
It is now clear that the amygdala of mammals,
09:29
including primates like us,
09:32
can show neurogenesis.
09:33
In some areas of the brain,
09:36
more than 20 percent of cells are newly formed.
09:37
We're just beginning to understand
09:41
what exact function these cells have,
09:43
but what it implies is that the brain is capable
09:45
of extraordinary change way into adulthood.
09:48
However, our brains are also
09:53
exquisitely sensitive to stress in our environment.
09:55
Stress hormones, glucocorticoids,
09:59
released by the brain,
10:01
suppress the growth of these new cells.
10:03
The more stress, the less brain development,
10:06
which in turn causes less adaptability
10:09
and causes higher stress levels.
10:13
This is the interplay between nature and nurture
10:16
in real time in front of our eyes.
10:20
When you think about it,
10:24
it is ironic that our current solution
10:26
for people with stressed amygdalae
10:28
is to place them in an environment
10:30
that actually inhibits any chance of further growth.
10:32
Of course, imprisonment is a necessary part
10:36
of the criminal justice system
10:39
and of protecting society.
10:41
Our research does not suggest
10:43
that criminals should submit their MRI scans
10:44
as evidence in court
10:47
and get off the hook because
they've got a faulty amygdala.
10:48
The evidence is actually the other way.
10:52
Because our brains are capable of change,
10:54
we need to take responsibility for our actions,
10:57
and they need to take responsibility
10:59
for their rehabilitation.
11:01
One way such rehabilitation might work
11:04
is through restorative justice programs.
11:06
Here victims, if they choose to participate,
11:10
and perpetrators meet face to face
11:12
in safe, structured encounters,
11:14
and the perpetrator is encouraged
11:17
to take responsibility for their actions,
11:19
and the victim plays an active role in the process.
11:21
In such a setting, the perpetrator can see,
11:24
perhaps for the first time,
11:27
the victim as a real person
11:29
with thoughts and feelings and a genuine
11:31
emotional response.
11:33
This stimulates the amygdala
11:35
and may be a more effective rehabilitative practice
11:37
than simple incarceration.
11:40
Such programs won't work for everyone,
11:43
but for many, it could be a way
11:45
to break the frozen sea within.
11:48
So what can we do now?
11:52
How can we apply this knowledge?
11:55
I'd like to leave you with
11:57
three lessons that I learned.
12:00
The first thing that I learned was that
12:01
we need to change our mindset.
12:04
Since Wormwood Scrubs was built 130 years ago,
12:05
society has advanced in virtually every aspect,
12:08
in the way we run our schools, our hospitals.
12:11
Yet the moment we speak about prisons,
12:15
it's as though we're back in Dickensian times,
12:17
if not medieval times.
12:20
For too long, I believe,
12:22
we've allowed ourselves to be persuaded
12:24
of the false notion that human
nature cannot change,
12:28
and as a society, it's costing us dearly.
12:31
We know that the brain is
capable of extraordinary change,
12:35
and the best way to achieve that,
12:39
even in adults, is to change and modulate
12:42
our environment.
12:44
The second thing I have learned
12:46
is that we need to create an alliance
12:49
of people who believe that science is integral
12:51
to bringing about social change.
12:55
It's easy enough for a neuroscientist to place
12:57
a high-security inmate in an MRI scanner.
13:00
Well actually, that turns out not to be so easy,
13:02
but ultimately what we want to show
13:05
is whether we're able to
reduce the reoffending rates.
13:07
In order to answer complex questions like that,
13:11
we need people of different backgrounds --
13:14
lab-based scientists and clinicians,
13:17
social workers and policy makers,
13:19
philanthropists and human rights activists —
13:21
to work together.
13:24
Finally, I believe we need
13:26
to change our own amygdalae,
13:27
because this issue goes to the heart
13:29
not just of who Joe is,
13:32
but who we are.
13:34
We need to change our view of Joe
13:35
as someone wholly irredeemable,
13:38
because if we see Joe as wholly irredeemable,
13:42
how is he going to see himself as any different?
13:46
In another decade, Joe will be released
13:50
from Wormwood Scrubs.
13:52
Will he be among the 70 percent of inmates
13:55
who end up reoffending
13:57
and returning to the prison system?
13:59
Wouldn't it be better if, while serving his sentence,
14:02
Joe was able to train his amygdala,
14:04
which would stimulate the growth of new brain cells
14:06
and connections,
14:09
so that he will be able to face the world
14:10
once he gets released?
14:13
Surely, that would be in the interest of all of us.
14:15
(Applause)
14:21
Thank you. (Applause)
14:24

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About the Speaker:

Daniel Reisel - Neuroscientist
Daniel Reisel searches for the psychological and physical roots of human morality.

Why you should listen

Daniel Reisel grew up in Norway but settled in the UK in 1995. He works as a hospital doctor and as a research fellow in epigenetics at University College London. He completed his PhD in Neuroscience in 2005, investigating how learning rewires the brain. Since then, his research has been concerned with the effect of life events on gene function. Daniel is currently training to become an accredited restorative justice facilitator with the UK Restorative Justice Council.

More profile about the speaker
Daniel Reisel | Speaker | TED.com