A response to Channel 4’s “What makes a murderer?” - are there implications for working with young people?
Trigger warning: article and program discuss a murder, the experience of being placed in care and psychopathology
I'd like to start with the elephant in the room; the impact of John Massey’s acts are just not featured. We are given his description of the events leading up to the shooting of a nightclub bouncer and some of the detail of how he says the murder was committed, but anyone trying to examine this program’s content from a morality “balancing-act” perspective will be deeply frustrated. This decision on the part of the program-makers may well be to protect the family and friends of the victim, or it may be to try and avoid moral judgement altogether and recognise this as simply a presentation on the neuroscience of an individual who committed multiple crimes. If the subject is indeed a psychopath (as those involved strongly suggest), the viewer is in a way being asked to mirror a similar perspective to this type of personality - at least in the sense of being dispassionate about the fear, grief and loss of the many individuals who will have been affected by Massey’s actions.
During the program, Professor Adrian Raine and Dr. Vicky Thakordas-Desai performed a number of tests, including MRI scans of the subject’s brain, and found the following:
1. John Massey was born with a type of serotonin-transporter gene that means low levels of this neurotransmitter (which contributes to feelings of happiness and well-being) are available.
2. His amygdala is shrunken on one side of his brain, which means he has a reduced response to threat (he experiences less fear and stress).
3. His striata, which anticipate reward, are enlarged to the point of being in the top 1% of the population. This encourages a predisposition to risk-taking.
4. His insula, which help us recognise emotion in others, functions poorly when viewing fear, leading to a lack of empathy for others’ distress.
So what has any of this got to do with young people? Well, I'm currently in the business of educating incarcerated young offenders aged 15-17 and 2018 data from England and Wales shows that “violence against the person” accounted for the sentencing of 41% of the youth custody population. We are in the process of embedding a trauma-informed, therapeutic education policy based on current research of the brain as it is affected by developmental trauma and PTSD/CPTSD. Our systems are being designed around an over-stimulated stress-response system, difficulties with emotional regulation, poor relationship-building, re-enactment of trauma and the effect that all of this has on the ability to engage the executive functioning areas of our brain that are necessary to learn. But here's the spanner in the works… John Massey doesn't fit into these categories. Whether he ever did is up for debate, but he wouldn't have done at 16 years old, and he doesn't now. Our education policy doesn't match his brain. Which raises some interesting questions - how would we do that? Is it even possible? And is it both a useful and just investment of our time to do so?
I distinctly remember having a conversation with a 12 year old where I described how we had a “watchtower with a guard” in our brains that was there to look out for danger (the amygdala), and how my guard was sitting in a deck-chair reading a magazine, because they didn't feel needed right then. He interrupted me and said, “Why would you only have one guard? You need at least four, so they can face in different directions. In fact, put a ring of ten, all facing outwards. And outside the tower, you need an army.” This young person had perfectly described what it feels like to have an amygdala that senses threat often and indiscriminately, making them “hyper vigilant” to perceived danger. Put this in a classroom context, their stress-response system can go off every time someone walks past the room, flashes a light, drops a book, stands up, moves close to them or changes the tone of their voice. The least threatening cue in that environment is the maths problem on the board, so that is the last thing their brains will attend to and any sensory information will distract them from it. The best way I can describe my experience of working with traumatised young people is that they are subconsciously scared all the time. In this sense, they are the complete opposite of John Massey.
All of this poses a massive challenge to prison education. Statistically, we are more likely to find a young John there than in a mainstream classroom. The C4 program states that about 1% of the general population has a psychopathic personality but in murderers that base-rate is 25% (no source provided) and a tragic consequence of the rise in knife crime is that we have also had a rise in the number of young people serving life sentences. We are also far more likely to find traumatised young people in this classroom, who have experienced huge adversity, for starters, 39% of incarcerated young offenders in the UK have been through, or are still in, the care system. Investigations into the American juvenile justice system found that more than 82% reported exposure to multiple traumatic events (Costello 2002). Therefore, within the same classroom, you may be more likely to have the extreme ends of the continuum… from someone living in a state of complete hypervigilance to someone who feels almost no fear at all. One whose amygdala fires so often they lose their capacity to concentrate versus one who is capable of using a high level of focus to manipulate everything towards an anticipated personal reward. Essentially, it is the difference between a brain that is struggling to regulate itself and form trusting attachments and one that is regulated but unempathetic, seeks to manipulate for personal gain and has no emotional interest in relationships. Now might be a good time to remind ourselves that the teachers in these environments are required to have no further qualifications or specialist training than regular teachers in any mainstream school.
So if we start to recognise the extreme differences in the brain structure and function of various young people, it becomes easier to understand why their thoughts and actions are so deeply affected. There is now plenty of information regarding developmental trauma and how wide-ranging the effects can be; from aggression, problems with boundaries and substance abuse to poor concentration, lack of sustained curiosity and learning difficulties (see Cook’s domains of impairment, 2005). In addition, it helps explain why there is a continual debate within the education community about the “intent” of anti-social behaviour. We variously interpret actions as a marker of extreme distress due to adverse experience, or calculated misbehaviour due to a lack of punitive boundaries. Is the validity of our own analysis something we can measure? Absolutely not, it is fundamentally biased, including by our own emotional response to the situation and/or young person. But that is where academic and clinical research can be helpful. The history of school disengagement and exclusion found in our prison cohort tells us we have to do something differently.
So, for the moment, we will be continuing to develop our trauma-informed approach to teaching and learning in a prison classroom environment, whilst measuring the impact against a control group in the hope that our findings may be useful to others. We will be basing our interventions on approaches that have proven useful in therapeutic settings. And until there is some valid research that shows success in changing the brains that are similar to James Massey (which we will do our best to transpose across to a classroom setting), I guess we will just have to manage as best we can. You might want to wish us luck...
Youth Justice Statistics 2017/18 England and Wales, Youth Justice Board/Ministry of Justice
Prison: the facts, Bromley Briefings 2019, Prison Reform Trust
Cook, A. et al., (2005), Complex Trauma in Children and Adolescents, Psychiatric Annals, 35(5):390-98