Trauma and the Brain

October 10, 2023 at 9:31 AM
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Trauma and the Brain

by Arezoo Hajighorbani and Jim Stellar

The field of neuroscience has provided profound insights into the human brain and its capacity for change. An example is the work of Dan Reisel from University College London on the concept of restorative justice about which we have written a previous blog. He advocates for the rehabilitation of criminals by utilizing our understanding of brain plasticity. Instead of merely imprisoning offenders, Reisel suggests exploring the possibility of helping their brains rewire for moral growth. This essay delves into Reisel’s research on psychopaths, brain plasticity, the impact of stress on brain development, restorative justice programs, and an alternative approach to rehabilitation through language learning. Furthermore, we will consider the significance of family values in the rehabilitation process.

The study of psychopaths:

Dan Reisel’s 2018 TED talk involved studying the brains of psychopathic inmates in London’s most dangerous Wormwood Scrubs prison. These individuals were characterized by committing unspeakable acts of evil and displayed a distinct lack of empathy. Through his research, Reisel discovered that a number of these inmates had deficits in the amygdala, a crucial brain processing center for emotions, along with other brain areas. The amygdala’s proper functioning is thought to be essential for experiencing empathy, as it links emotions with memories, learning, and senses. The absence of this emotional connection rendered these psychopaths more aggressive and immoral, as their brains lacked the ability to process emotions effectively.

In the past, the notion that the brain could change after a certain age was widely contested. However, groundbreaking research some time ago by Fernando Nottebohm and others revealed the presence of neurogenesis, the birth of new brain cells, in adult mammalian brains. This discovery challenged the belief that the brain’s abilities are fixed and opened new possibilities for brain plasticity, the ability of the brain to form new connections and adapt to experiences.

While the brain possesses the capacity for change, it is sensitive to stress and its impact on brain development. Stress hormones and glucocorticoids suppress the growth of new brain cells, limiting the brain’s potential for growth and adaptability. As a result, providing a healthy and supportive environment is crucial, particularly for individuals with stressed amygdala, such as the psychopathic inmates studied by Reisel.

In response to the challenges faced by psychopaths and other criminals, Reisel proposed restorative justice programs. These programs involve face-to-face encounters between offenders and their victims, allowing the perpetrators to take responsibility for their actions. While this approach may seem unconventional, it holds the potential to facilitate moral growth in criminals by fostering empathy and accountability, and maybe even produce health in the amygdala. But it is not the only way.

Emotions, Brain Plasticity, and Other forms of Rehabilitation

Restorative Justice itself has long been discussed and that discussion continues today as an important concept. It basically involves having the offender meet the victim and have a conversation where both parties learn and grow. It was famously practiced in South Africa after the end of the apartheid government. However, it seems to us that the required moral behavior is developed at a young age, as children learn from their families and caregivers. The absence of positive behavioral imitation in the household may even hinder the effectiveness of restorative justice programs when that moral behavior is needed later in life. Therefore, it is vital to emphasize the role of family values in nurturing moral growth from early childhood.

The synergy between brain plasticity and rehabilitation finds its nexus in the realm of emotions. Emotions are not ephemeral reactions but intricate interplays within the brain. They encompass complex interactions among various brain regions, and these interactions are malleable, subject to alteration through experience and learning. This is where the concept of brain plasticity comes into play. For example, Antonio Damaiso’s ideas about the somatic marker hypothesis illuminates that emotions are not mere fleeting reactions; they are the amalgamation of bodily and brain responses to stimuli and they contribute to our decisions.These emotional responses are intricately linked to past experiences and memories and, in essence, guide our choices and decisions by helping us anticipate the emotional consequences of our actions.

We give three examples below of other approaches, besides restorative justice, that could also produce results.

‘If-Then’ Training: The fundamental premise of ‘If-Then training‘ lies in creating conditional statements, where ‘If’ signifies the emotional trigger or situation, and ‘Then’ represents the predetermined response or coping strategy. By implementing ‘If-Then training,’ individuals exhibiting psychopathic traits can learn to anticipate and manage their emotional responses. This process is a pivotal step in enhancing decision-making and improving social interactions. It furnishes a structured approach to emotional self-regulation, fostering the consideration of emotional consequences in their actions. In the context of rehabilitating individuals with psychopathic tendencies, comprehending the interplay between emotions and brain plasticity assumes paramount importance. Many psychopaths grapple with deficits in effectively processing emotions, particularly in the domain of empathy. Their brains may not naturally respond to emotional stimuli in the same way as non-psychopathic individuals.

Learning a New Language to Foster Empathy: Learning a new language embarks one on a journey of understanding different cultural perspectives and communication styles. This immersive process can stimulate empathy by encouraging individuals to perceive the world from diverse viewpoints. Given that empathy is often deficient in psychopaths, any progress in this area is valuable where rehabilitation programs can incorporate therapeutic techniques that elicit emotional responses, particularly empathy, in individuals with psychopathic traits. By repeatedly exposing them to situations that evoke empathy, these individuals may commence the formation of new neural (amygdala) connections, thereby enhancing their capacity to empathize with others in different cultures. We note that one of us  experienced this effect personally by learning English as a second language.

Understanding Family values and Criminal Behavior Reisel’s journey into understanding criminal behavior starts with studying psychopathic inmates. As stated, he finds that many of them have a deficit in their amygdala, a crucial brain region for processing emotions, forming memories, and learning. This deficiency leads to a lack of empathy and morality, making rehabilitation challenging. He contrasts this effect with the moral behavior naturally observed in children, highlighting how early experiences and family values shape an individual’s sense of right and wrong. While one cannot go back in time to adjust the family values experiences in adults, exploring their origins and using that information to change their adult behavior could have a similar impact as the above two ideas. The point is that many ways of restoring empathetic function and possibly amygdala health could be explored.


Reisel suggests restorative justice programs as an alternative or maybe a complement to conventional incarceration. By engaging inmates in face-to-face encounters with their victims, they are encouraged to take responsibility for their actions. While such programs have shown positive results in certain cases, it’s essential to consider individual differences and traumatic backgrounds. Family values and early childhood experiences can significantly influence a person’s moral development, making it important to address these issues in conjunction with restorative justice initiatives such as adult engagement with if-then thinking and foreign language learning.

While the amygdala is a focus of this thinking, it is also part of a larger operation where emotional processes (like risk) are represented in higher cortical brain areas. So the study of the neuroscience of building back an empathetic response here has the same cortical-limbic or cognitive-emotional integration as we often write about in this blog series on the issue of growth in college from learning from experience.

Reflection on going to a public university, growing-up issues, and moving past graduation?

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