Sunday, 25 July 2010

Blame it on my brain

Jim Fallon, a neuroscientist from the University of California-Irvine, is fascinated with the brains of psychopaths and murderers - is it because he could have been one? This week I've watched a TED talk given by Dr Fallon and read a couple of articles about his work and discoveries. He'd been studying the minds of murderers for a while when he discovered he had a whole family tree full of them, including the infamous Lizzie Borden. Even worse, his brain scan showed patterns similar to a murderer's and he had the 'killer' gene MAO-A gene (monoamine oxidase A).

So what's the difference between Fallon and a natural-born killer? Most likely, it's that a killer is not born but made. In particular, witnessing some sort of violence or trauma in childhood is likely to spark the critical change from average person to sociopath. As Fallon explain in his TED talk, there are three ingredients involved in the shaping of a murderous personality: environment, experience and genes. This is, in (extremely) simple terms, the basis of neuroconstructivism: that we are not simply products of nature and nurture but that personal experience combines with the other two factors to shape who we become. Or that's how I understand it at the moment, anyway. In the next few months I will attempt to wade my way through the 2 volumes of Mareschal et al's Neuroconstructivism, which may well turn my brain to melted plastic.

But it's something I need to get my head around because neuroconstructivism is basically going to form the theoretical framework for my phd research. Hopefully neuroscientists like Jim Fallon will help me work through some of the concepts that my non-scientific brain is bound to struggle with. But essentially what I want to investigate is what makes us the way we are, what makes us who we are? Why do some people go down one path while others with seemingly the same opportunities and backgrounds go a completely different way? It's what our human stories are all about. And hopefully making the time over the next few years to get my head around the intricacies of what neuroscience can teach us will translate into a unique and compelling creative piece.

Anyway, here's hoping.

Looking into the Mind of a Murderer
A Neuroscientist Uncovers a Dark Secret

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Meat houses and old asylums

This is the week that I officially start my phd but as I don't yet have my library access I've just been tinkering around the edges looking at things that spark my interest. Many of these come from tweets posted from all in the mind's Natasha Mitchell (ABC science journo). This week she tweeted a link to a series of shows she did a couple of years ago about the 'lunatic asylum' at Goodna: Up the Line to Goodna: stories from inside the asylum. Mental health services are still delivered at what is now called The Park at Goodna, west of Brisbane, but Mitchell's series looked at the bad old days of shock therapy, overcrowding, abuse, cruelty and seclusion in dungeons. Her show had stories from former patients and workers as well as some women who, as children of staff, grew up in the grounds of the asylum.

Many of the stories were shocking but some memories, particularly from the women who grew up there, told of a different side. For my purposes, it might be worthwhile for me to drive out there one day and have a look around, get a feel for the buildings, for the scale of them and how they're laid out. I'll also have a look at Mark Finnane's history of the place, if I can get a hold of it, and the memoir of a former patient. In terms of a setting for part of my manuscript, an abandoned lunatic asylum is perfect atmospherically and practically. But I want to get right into the nuts and bolts of the place, make it palpable within the narrative - the horror and violence as well as the warped normality.
But if lunatic asylums have a lot to offer in terms of atmosphere, a house made of meat offers up a whole different range of possibilities. I can't remember who tweeted the link to Inhabit, a blog about the future of design that focuses on sustainability, but I'm forever indebted to them. The blog comments showed the idea of the meat house caused some controversy, but the image of the curved exterior of the pig skin house and the idea of the house being grown from animal flesh had immediate appeal for me. A building grown organically from animal flesh that has the possibility of using sphincter muscles to open and close windows and doors - brilliant!

Friday, 2 July 2010

The brain, behaviour and criminal responsibility in Klass' Dark Angel

Set in a small town in contemporary USA, David Klass' Dark Angel is a psychological thriller that explores notions of good and evil; responsibility and victimhood. It's the first YA novel I've read so far for my research that explicitly mentions recent findings in modern neuroscience and weaves these concepts successfully through the narrative.

Seventeen-year-old Jeff's life is pretty ordinary. He does okay at high school, has an attractive girlfriend and is a solid but not impressive soccer player. But all that changes when his older brother Troy is released from prison. Troy was convicted of manslaughter as a juvenile and, after serving five years, is released on parole into the care of his parents. Jeff knows the average, small-town-teen life he has constructed is about to implode but is unable to persuade his parents to cast Troy aside. And despite Troy's carefully constructed remorseful surface, Jeff's worst fears are realised when the high school soccer star goes missing.

The teen-novel standard school assignment plot device is put to good use in Dark Angel, when the science teacher Mr Tsuyuki sets the class the task of writing a report that explores notions of good versus evil:

"Where does our growing knowledge of the chemical nature of the brain leave us in terms of... the human soul? When we think, are we really making choices or just following chemical pathways? If our behaviour can be reduced to chemical reactions, can we hold people to blame for what they do or don't do?" [p74-75]

Throughout the novel, Klass skilfully allows the narrator Jeff to experience the concepts his teacher describes as the story's action unfolds. In doing so, Klass pulls off the difficult double-act of writing a fast-paced thriller with plenty of action that also offers readers plenty to think about. There's an ill-fated trip to Atlantic City, a school prank gone horribly wrong, arguments with mates, a run in with the ex-girlfriend's father and Troy himself, described in all his complex creepiness and vulnerability. Underscoring this action, Klass poses difficult questions about loyalty to family and friends, the impacts of family secrets and the broad grey area that lies between the extremes of good and evil.

In terms of my research purposes, Klass incorporates trauma and its impact on the brain from a neuroscientific perspective:

"There are psychiatrists and neurologists doing studies on violent lawbreakers, from juvenile delinquents to adult murderers, who are finding that these felons share amazingly similar patterns of abusive childhoods, brain injuries, and psychotic symptoms." [p118]

Although it is the character of Mr Tsuyuki who introduces these concepts in a literal sense into the text, the impact of the questions he poses underlie every piece of action and dialogue in the novel. This is what makes it work well on so many levels: Jeff's story is infused with the fallout of his brother and his violent past and present. And yet, in spite of Tsuyuki's proposal that criminals are created not born, there is no indication within the story that Troy had anything but a loving and supportive childhood; no hint of any trauma that could be seen as a 'cause' for his aberrant behaviour.

In posing more questions than it answers, Klass tests those of his readers that want to be challenged. However, his skillful pacing, authentic dialogue and writing about standard teen fare including sex, illicit drug use, jealousy and friendship, means that those who prefer to read books without digging below the surface action will be entertained while being subtly drawn into the book's darker and more serious side.

A great book, and definitely one to add to the thesis shortlist.