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Today's Fearless Three-Year-Old Could be Tomorrows Criminals


It appears that if a three-year-old is frightened, he stands a better chance of not becoming a criminal as an adult, so says a study conducted by Yu Gao, a research associate in the department of criminology at the University of Pennsylvania. His findings were just published in the Nov. 16 online issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry which concluded that poor fear conditioning at the age of 3 can predispose children to break the law.

“There's no 100 percent correspondence between conditioning deficits and crime: Not all poor conditioners will become criminals and not all criminals have the early fear conditioning deficits," Gao says.

Gao and his team wanted to determine if dysfunction of the amygdala, an almond-shaped mass that dwells deep in the brain, is linked to fear conditioning as well as emotions and mental state that can lead to an inherent intrepidness and disregard for the law.

His research began twenty years ago when the team tested almost 1,800 children who were 3 years old from Mauritius, an Indian Ocean island off the coast of southeastern Africa, by exposing them to two sets of sounds, one with a short shrill noise, and the other deeper in pitch and with a pleasant tone, and then measuring the children's physical responses through an electrode attached to their index and middle fingers. Sweating upon hearing the loud noise indicated a sense of fear while no sweat meant the child lacked fear or had poor fear conditioning.

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Twenty years later, Gao used court records and was able to tack down 137 study participants, 131 males and six females who had committed serious crimes involving property, drugs, violence and driving. These individuals had shown an absence of fear during testing at age 3 whereas 274 study participants who had grown to adulthood without a criminal record had displayed typical fear responses.

"Any time you have a 20-year study, that's significant," said Dr. Elissa P. Benedek, an Ann Arbor, Mich.-based psychiatrist who has worked with children and adults for more than 40 years and is a past president of the American Psychiatric Association.

"It's good for putting another link in the chain in terms of what is early brain dysfunction, and what increases the risk for such behaviors as attention-deficit disorder and criminal activity. It's another link back to whatever we all ready know about early brain dysfunction that may cause problems later in life," Benedek added.

So what do the results mean for individuals with fear conditioning deficits and their loved ones, and for society at large? It's a wake-up call about potential problems, said Gao and other experts in the field. To enhance the proper working of the amygdala, which is believed to reduce criminal behavior in later life, enrichment programs are essential.

Written by Tyler Woods Ph.D.
Tucson, Arizona
Exclusive to eMaxHealth