What makes us violent? KCRW looks at the science and the stories

Written by

Why do we hurt each other? Are some people fated to act violently, no matter what their life experiences? Can a person with a violent past change?

On April 25, KCRW convened a panel to discuss these questions. We brought together:

  • James Fallon, a neuroscientist who studies the brains of psychopaths;
  • Gail Wyatt, a clinical psychologist who has done pioneering research on sexual violence;
  • and Skipp Townsend, a South Los Angeles gang intervention worker who leads support groups for ex-felons and domestic violence victims.

Dr. Michael Wilkes, host of KCRW’s Second Opinion, moderated the panel. The discussion ranged from the biological to the historical to the deeply personal. Take a listen.

Can violent people change? Can we change their neuroanatomy? “In the present state of the science and rehabilitation, the answer’s no. Once you’ve rung the bell early on and made these epigenetic changes, which look permanent, you can keep letting a psychopath or person with one of these personality disorders, you let them out and the next night they’re doing the same thing.” — James Fallon

“I don’t want to waste another little life because we didn’t take the time to look under that violence and see the anger, and under that anger, the sadness. It’s the sadness you’ve got to get to before that child can heal and find another way.” — Gail Wyatt

“People come to me and say they need jobs, they need careers, can I help them out, and I tell them no. Let’s talk about how you can be a better person. I’d rather have someone who was a bad son, I want them to grow up to be a good father. If they worked at McDonald’s and they were a bad burger-flipper, I don’t want to help them be a bad carpenter or a bad electrician. I want to help them be a better person. So what we deal with is how to make the person whole… The people that I deal with, most of them are formerly incarcerated. Most of them are rape victims. Most of them are homicide suspects. And they don’t know how to deal with their past. So what they do is they cover it up with drugs and alcohol, and they’re expected to go back into society and be decent people when they don’t know that process.” — Skipp Townsend