This is an excerpt from reporter Scott Johnson's blog, which focuses on the effects of violence and trauma on the community.
There is a lot of conventional wisdom out there about how violence works. One of the more widespread views, for example, is that we learn violent behavior from our surroundings, our peers and our environments. Video games often get blamed for the proliferation of violent behavior among a certain subset of people, often adolescents, for whom the games are said to be a sort of "how to" manual for learning to be aggressive.
But there is an alternative view for how aggression works in human beings that bears further examination. It comes from a series of studies conducted by a renowned Canadian researcher named Richard Tremblay, who is one of the world's leading authorities on aggression and criminality. I examined some of Tremblay's work for a recent piece in Matter magazine (www.readmatter.com) as an offshoot of my work for the Oakland Tribune and the California Endowment. If you're interested in this intersection between neuroscience and the study of violence, I encourage you to read it.
For about 30 years Tremblay has been conducting one of the largest "longitudinal" studies of violent behavior in human beings ever done. He has been following children from birth well into adulthood.
"I started my career working with adult criminals and juvenile delinquents, trying to understand how they become adult criminals," he told me, "and how their children grow up to become violent offenders."
By looking at these children over a period of many years, and studying them on multiple dimensions, Tremblay was able to assess their levels of aggression both over time and in terms of intensity and scope. What he found surprised me immensely. It turns out that human beings show peak levels of aggression between the ages of 2 and 4. After that, if things go well, aggression begins to decline. If things go poorly, however, it's a different story.
Why is this? Leading up to the age of 4, we are learning to use our muscles and at the same time learning to cope with adversity. We use our muscles most intensively to solve problems at an early age because it works. In other words, being aggressive at that age solves problems. As we get older, we learn other skills -- talking, negotiating, communicating.
"What humans do is not learn not to aggress," Tremblay says. "What appears to be going on is that physical aggression is a natural, normal response to solving a problem as soon as we learn to move our muscles. If children have not learned by the time they've entered school, they're in big trouble, but most children have learned. They continue to use it, but much less often."
This is linked to both the environmental and the biological spheres. Biologically, the failure to learn not to aggress, says Tremblay, is linked to cognitive problems in the brain. That means there's a biological component to the transmission of violence, and thus an argument to be made that treating violence more like a disease makes sense from a fiscal and policy standpoint. Again, see my article in Matter for details on this. But it's also important to consider the environmental aspect.
"It's also related to the environment in the sense that if the environment is violent, it's hard to learn not to do it. So from that perspective, the intergenerational phenomenon of violence is that people who have problems with aggression are individuals who have had problems since they were young and the trouble they get in prevented them from learning other things," Tremblay says. Like effective coping tools that steered them away from biological patterns of aggression, and environmental conditions that trigger aggression.
Aggression is a natural response at some point in our lives. If we're healthy, we learn to temper that response. If not, healthy aggression morphs into unhealthy patterns of violence. The point is, once again, it begins very early in our lives. So-called solutions that target teens exhibiting violent behavior are Band-Aids on festering wounds that have deep roots within our society. It's time to start thinking very differently about violence.
Contact Scott Johnson at 510-208-6429 or firstname.lastname@example.org.