The Prophetic Brain: Foretelling Your Future

by Megan Bridges

The following article originally appeared in Brainstorm:

The act of fortune telling is an ancient practice. Chinese diviners burnt turtle shells and studied the resulting cracks to make a host of predictions, including future crop conditions and weather forecasts, and ancient Greeks read animal entrails in their divinatory practices. While the modern scientific community regards fortune telling as mere hogwash, brain science is starting to use genetic information, environmental conditions, and brain structure to predict an individual’s future actions. Neuroscientists could become the oracles of our era.

One such scientist is University of Pennsylvania professor and neurocriminologist Adrian Raine. In his controversial research, Dr. Raine proposes that the structure of the brain may provide insight into an individual’s propensity to commit a violent crime. In fact, he argues that future criminal offending can be predicted in children as young as three years. In one experiment, Dr. Raine studied 1,800 three-year-old children from the tropical island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. In his longitudinal study, he followed subjects for 20 years, noting any criminal convictions. He then compared the criminals with the noncriminals and discovered that the former demonstrated a lack of fear as children.*

Although the findings of Dr. Raine’s research are intriguing, the environmental and biological affects on brain and behavior ought to be examined. Child abuse, cigarette smoking and alcohol consumption during pregnancy, and poor nutrition give scientists great predictive power regarding individuals’ outcomes. For example, children of moms who smoked tobacco while pregnant were 2-3 times more likely to be violent criminals by age 20, and pregnant women who consumed just one drink per week birthed children who were 30% more aggressive than their peers. Poor nutrition during prenatal and postnatal development also leads to greater antisocial behaviors in children.

Additionally, genetics, brain structure and function, and testosterone levels have a tremendous influence on behavior. Using EEG to study the electrical activity of prisoners’ brains, Dr. Raine noted that violent criminal offenders demonstrated poor-functioning prefrontal cortexes, the part of the brain associated with the regulation of behavior and emotions. The amygdala, which is responsible for emotions, is also implicated in antisocial tendencies. For example, sociopaths have been shown to have an amygdala 18% smaller than individuals without sociopathy.

While it is extremely enticing to regard the brain as quasi-prophetic, it is necessary to consider the ethical dilemmas and misguided conclusions that can be drawn from related research. The following questions are helpful in understanding the consequences of such work: Could neuroscience research be used to fuel a eugenics movement? Is it possible to reduce antisocial tendencies in adulthood by enriching the brain in childhood? Are brain structure and function reliable predictive measures? Does brain structure lead to violent behavior, or does a violent lifestyle lead to changes in the brain? Dr. Raine explores some of these concerns and more in Radio Times with Marty Moss-Coane.

*The amygdala is critical in fear conditioning.