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The Brain and Behavior -- Programmed for Violence?

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In the aftermath of the latest school violence in Colorado, the entire country is once again asking "Why?" Many researchers and educators now believe that some of those answers -- and perhaps some solutions -- might be found in brain research.

Brain GIF In the aftermath of the latest school violence in Colorado, the entire country is once again asking "Why?" Why do some students feel so alienated and so angry? Why do some students express their alienation and anger with such violence? Bad parenting? Defective genes? A lack of counseling? A surplus of guns? A number of theories have been proposed. But many researchers and educators now believe that some of those answers -- and perhaps some solutions -- might be found in brain research.

Eric Jensen, in How Julie's Brain Learns, said: "Our neural history is founded on a dynamic interplay between nature and nurture. ... Many students who have spent too much time in car seats and not enough time on swings, merry-go-rounds, and seesaws ... experience poor school readiness. Exposure to constant threat or early trauma often alters the brain's behavior. ... A lack of early enriching activities may influence brain development. Extended television watching in the early years may create learned helplessness or unduly passive or aggressive behaviors."

In Art for the Brain's Sake, Robert Sylwester referred to his 1997 Educational Leadership article "The Neurobiology of Self-Esteem and Aggression," in which he discussed the neurotransmitter serotonin. He said, "Elevated serotonin levels are associated with high self-esteem and social status, and reduced serotonin levels, with low self-esteem and social status. In motor terms, low serotonin levels cause the irritability that leads to impulsive, uncontrolled, reckless, aggressive, violent, and suicidal behavior."

Ronald Kotulak, in Learning How to Use the Brain, cited a Carnegie Corporation report, Starting Points, when he said, "The first three years of a child's life are vitally important to brain development. Unfortunately, for a growing number of children the period from birth to age three has become a mental wasteland. Society, said the Carnegie report, needs to invest adequate resources in helping these children at this critical period in their lives if we are to stem the growing epidemic of violence." Kotulak added, "There is increasing concern that the lack of proper stimulation may be damaging brains. The same may be true of too much exposure to the wrong kind of stimulation, such as violence."

Jane Healy wrote in New Brains, New Schools?: "The human brain can be changed by what comes into it; early experiences do make a difference in the way that the cells of the brain connect up. A brain that has watched a lot of television or played a lot of Nintendo is going to be differently constructed than a brain that spent the same amount of time reading or engaging in active play. We can't pinpoint it and say, 'This part of the brain isn't there anymore.' But we are sure that it makes a difference. ..."

In other words, those experts and others believe that behavior can be a result of physical changes in the brain. Perhaps future research will help identify -- and prevent -- the changes in the brain that lead to anger, alienation, and violent behavior in some of today's youths.

Article by Linda Starr
Education World®
Copyright © 1999 Education World

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05/17/1999