Tackling the roots of violence

Back in the early 70's, I got a job at Alice Springs Hospital delivering babies and removing appendices. It must have been infectious, because I've found myself returning to the Red Centre ever since. On my January visit, I learned that a young Aboriginal patient had killed his wife, and this had generated much anguished public discussion, some of it fuelled by the new NT Country Liberal Party Government, abusing their Labor predecessors for not having provided sufficient police.

While there is no doubt that a highly visible police presence can reduce violence in an inflamed community, the problem of recurring violence has more fundamental roots. In essence, violence is a failure of empathy. But if failure of empathy is a large component of violence, what can we do to develop empathy?

Getting the right genes is not a bad start. Being female usually comes with empathy circuits that are likely to be better developed than the male ones. Three areas of the brain are involved; the mirror neurone sites (how we perceive others), the insula (how we experience ourselves), and the cingulate gyrus (how we compare the two). Child psychiatrist Dan Siegel calls these the "resonance circuitry" and reminds us they also help us do "mindfulness" (awareness of self-process) and empathy.

But genetic card deals notwithstanding, there is an enormous lot in the environment that helps develop empathy; a peaceful pregnancy, good accurately empathic nurturance. We know that a range of nurturance failures (neglect, physical and sexual abuse, poor emotional atunement) produce a range of brain changes and failures of development that result in poor empathy. The brain and hormonal system that manage our arousal levels is usually called the HPA Axis. If that's impaired, we are easily upset, feel miserable a lot of the time, needs alcohol or drugs to dull the pain, have attentions problems and do badly at school even if we are very bright, have poor impulse control and lash out at ourselves or others. There are also physical consequences like weight problems, proneness to cardiovascular disease and diabetes. But even worse, because bad nurturance actually affects a range of genes responsible for brain health, these modifications can be passed on to our children. (This process is called "epigenetics").

This trans-generational cascade of misery is something that we have been seeing in some Aboriginal communities for decades, and goes some way towards explaining the high levels of violence and distress (not that this is confined only to Aboriginal communities). The biggest help we could give is providing safety and support for young mothers during pregnancy and those vital early years of nurturance. This is actually quite a delicate task, and requires well developed empathy skills on part of the supporters. But we are not likely to see its impact on the coming generations for 10 to 20 years (at least in ways that can be picked up by government statistics). It therefore makes it difficult for politicians with their narrow "next election" horizons to offer much support. It's much easier to blame the previous mob for not providing enough police.

Prof Leon Petchkovsky is a local psychiatrist, brain imaging researcher and Jungian psychoanalyst. He is also an Adjunct Professor with the University of Queensland.


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