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Was Jerry Sandusky Really Hard-Wired to Be a Pedophile -- Couldn't He Have Stopped Himself?

Brain biology may determine whether a person is a pedophile, but does it determine whether that person chooses to act on those impulses?
 
 
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The following article first appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

If you're a neuroscientist, one of your heroes is almost certainly the 2nd century Roman physician Galen. In his time, the prevailing wisdom was that the "mind" — language, memory, emotions — was centered in the heart, while the brain was some sort of useless packing material inside the skull. Galen's experience as team physician for the gladiators led him to conclude otherwise.

Galen noted that when someone came in with a brain injury — like, say, a trident embedded in his head — other things often didn't work right. Depending on which part of the brain was damaged, the man might have a paralyzed limb or he might have lost sensation or the power of speech. His memory might be impaired or his personality altered. From studying these unfortunate warriors, Galen drew a shocking conclusion: The mind resides in the brain.

From that insight came others, including one that we're still grappling with today: the notion that behavior is a brain function and that abnormal behavior comes from an abnormal brain.

In the centuries since Galen, understanding of the brain has grown tremendously. In recent years, it's gotten a huge boost from increasingly fancy tools: functional brain imaging, neurogenetics, manipulation of neural stem cells, brain/computer interfaces. And all the information that has come from these new measurement tools and approaches keeps underlining Galen's key point — that the full range of behavior is anchored in the functioning of the brain.

This knowledge has helped us understand the brain, but it has also required us to think in new and inflammatory ways about free will and how much of it we really have. And that in turn has raised questions about everything from our own everyday foibles to terrible criminal acts.

Consider the case of Jerry Sandusky and his nightmarish behavior. In the aftermath of his conviction came a brave, important opinion piece on CNN. Writing under the provocative heading of "Do pedophiles deserve sympathy?," James Cantor of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Toronto explained how there tend to be neurobiological differences between pedophiles and everyone else. The disorder, he noted, runs in families at a higher than chance level, raising the specter of the involvement of genes that influence brain function. Moreover, pedophiles have higher-than-expected rates of brain injuries during early childhood. And particularly complex findings suggest that many pedophiles experienced in-utero abnormalities in hormones that help regulate the development of the brain.

Does this raise the possibility that the neurobiological die is cast — possibly even before birth — and that some people are destined to be pedophiles? Precisely. As Cantor concludes: "One cannot choose to not be a pedophile."

Uh oh. Does this mean that a child molester may not be able to control his behavior? Is Sandusky-as-monster actually Sandusky-as-broken-nervous-system? Cantor denies Sandusky that biological out: "One cannot choose to not be a pedophile, but one can choose to not be a child molester." In other words, even if one has neurobiologically based abnormal urges, it is a criminal act to give in to them.

So, how does that work? In Cantor's view, a pedophile has sexual urges that are "biological" and cannot be changed. But there are also things he can control, character traits such as self-discipline, motivation and virtue. And those things can be mustered to resist the urge to act on his pedophilic desires.

That reasoning can be carried over to all sorts of things. A person might have a family predisposition toward alcoholism but makes a decision whether to take that first drink. A person might have a plain face but makes a decision about whether to get that massive, hideous nose ring.

 
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