Scanning hoodies’ brains: eugenics by the back door?

Is children’s charity Kids Company really planning to send a mobile scanner to examine tearaways’ brains? Yes and no, says the charity’s founder.

Tim Black

Tim Black
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‘Brain scans on teenage street gangs can trace reasons for their life of crime.’

So promised a headline in the UK tabloid the Daily Mail last week. Reading like an excerpt from Brave New World, the report that followed was even more fantastical. A ‘mobile laboratory’, we were told, would test the brains of ‘hoodies’ in England’s inner cities, in an attempt to find what causes said hoodies/gangs (the terms are seemingly interchangeable) to turn violent.

One could imagine how such a story came about. Dreamt up by some rogue academic, and seized upon by a newspaper famous for thinking Genghis Khan a little soft, it fitted the all-too-familiar narrative of morally degenerate youth run amok, writ tragically large in the killings of Gary Newlove, Rhys Jones, Ben Kinsella, and others. It was surprising, then, to find that this scheme – this reported proposal to look for increased neural activity within youngsters’ pre-frontal cortex – was not the product of some crackpot consultancy predictably fastened on to by those redoubtable moral visionaries at the Daily Mail. No, this scheme was being proposed by respected children’s charity Kids Company and supported by a team of researchers from University College London.

Could such esteemed institutions really be delving into the murky realms of what looks dangerously like eugenics? Did a children’s charity renowned, as the Kids Company website states, for its work with ‘vulnerable inner-city children and young people’, really believe that violence amongst youth could be attributed to a type of brain or brain dysfunction – much as nineteenth-century phrenologists believed personality traits, criminal or otherwise, could be derived from the shape of the skull?

Not quite, the founder of Kids Company, Camila Batmanghelidjh, tells spiked.

‘This is not about gangs being scanned’, she says. ‘That is misrepresenting it. It is about children who regulate their emotion and their energies through violence. And it can be violence acted out towards others, or acted out towards themselves – that is, self-harming.’

‘The reporting is very unfortunate’, she continues, ‘and it points to the difficulty we face. Because we’re still in a culture where disturbed children are presented as menaces, they’re thought to be a breed apart’. Given the all-too-eager demonisation of youth today, where a loss of adult authority has been translated into the diminished respect of the amoral young, Batmanghelidjh has a point.

So what was Kids Company actually proposing? Even taking into account the alleged liberties taken by the Daily Mail, surely the emphasis on studying the brains of young people wasn’t a complete fabrication by the tabloid paper? Batmanghelidjh explains the anecdotal origins of the proposed brain-scan research.


Camila Batmanghelidjh,
founder of Kids’ Company.

Over the 13 years since Kids Company was established, the charity discovered that many of the troubled, prone-to-violence kids it encountered struggled to cope with their ‘anger and their energy’, that they behaved ‘very impulsively and explosively’, she says. Because these children and teenagers are often shocked by the way they have behaved, Batmanghelidjh argues that this, at some level, means they are not morally responsible for what they do. It is not a case of them ‘being morally flawed’, she argues, ‘of them choosing to do bad’. ‘That their moral parameters have been altered by the normalisation of violence [in their environment] is not enough to explain the explosive nature of their behaviour.’ In short, she says, ‘the notion of moral responsibility cannot fully explain the ferocious intensity of the violence’. So there must be something else.

Observing that the youngsters in Kids Company’s orbit often have an ‘impaired capacity to calm themselves down’, and difficulties ‘managing their emotions and their energy’, Batmanghelidjh decided to turn to psychology and neurology for answers, ‘logging 500 clinical papers in the process’. It was through this that the team at UCL, led by professor of psychoanalysis Peter Fonagy, became involved. With their help, Kids Company looks set to begin the neurological analysis of youths willing to volunteer themselves.

Batmanghelidjh says that the aim of what has been headlined ‘Brain scans on teenage street gangs’ is to study troubled youngsters’ brains in order to find out how they might have been neurologically affected by abuse and neglect. This would involve a specific study of the pre-frontal cortex, an area associated with inhibition. Researchers expect to find that kids brought up in violent, unstable environments would show excessive activity in this area during periods of stress, indicating an inability to calm down, to escape, if you like, the heat of the moment. In response, Kids Company and the UCL team propose to develop clinical tools to help these young people to overcome their problems. ‘It’s not about absolving the kids of responsibility, it’s about giving them realistic, clinical strategies that will allow them to exercise responsibility’, says Batmanghelidjh. Just simply calling them morally flawed is not helpful; instead Kids Company aims to encourage the kids to look for warning signs of violence, perhaps their upper lip sweating, to which they could respond by ‘going for a run, or getting on a treadmill’.

Batmanghelidjh is adamant that this approach, though psychologically focused, is not about ignoring the social or environmental factors behind some young people’s behaviour. ‘No, this type of brain research actually strengthens the social argument. It is saying that the violence of these youngsters is not due to genetics. Genetics simply gives you a framework of genetic possibility. What’s emerging from brain science is that social care conditions [family, community] are the single most dominant force in structuring the brain.’ Furthermore, there is nothing immutable about their brain functioning, she says. ‘What we’ve noticed is that there’s the opportunity to repair the brain [through intense care relationships and clinical treatments]. The brain’s very malleable, and constantly under construction.’

If Batmanghelidjh is keen to suggest that the brains of neglected and abused kids diminished their ability to take responsibility for their actions, she is equally keen to attack the adult world’s irresponsibility. ‘These kids are highly disturbed with a great capacity for violence. But it is nothing they are born with. We created this in them… We are too ready to place all social blame upon the child, and then punish the child.’

Batmanghelidjh is an engaging, eloquent speaker and her compassion for youngsters – including the 13,500 currently involved in Kids Company’s activities – is genuine. But there is a problem here. For all Batmanghelidjh’s sincerity, there is something limited, and indeed limiting, about what is, in effect, a therapeutic intervention. The approach of Kids Company rightly resists the moralisation of social problems that is promoted by commentators and politicians who pontificate about an immoral or amoral underclass; yet in focusing instead on the grey matter between young people’s ears, Kids Company seems, ironically, to be motivated by the same thing that drives others to use the U-word in relation to young tearaways: that is, a sense of social and political exhaustion.

Unable to envision large-scale social solutions to social problems, the therapeutic approach is content – literally – to treat symptoms only. Pathological analysis stands in for social analysis. As a result, it not only reconciles the youngsters themselves to their inner failures or foibles; it also reconciles society to ‘the way things are’ by implying that big social changes are off the agenda and the most we can hope for is to manage individuals’ anger and emotions. So while Batmanghelidjh is happy to attack the ‘perverse street economy’ – drugs, guns, gangs, prostitution – on which some young people rely, there is little sense in her latest initiative of any social vision in which life might offer something more than drugs, guns, gangs and prostitution. Instead, the neglected and abused, whether having damaged brains or not, are simply to be given strategies to cope with their resentment and their unsocialised anger.

In this regard the proposal to treat the emotional states of troubled kids is thoroughly in line with contemporary thinking. From the rampant promotion of wellbeing and ‘happiness’ that so captivated the political class just a few years ago to the underlying obsession with the politics of behaviour in general, people’s inner lives – their feelings and emotional states – are now considered entirely legitimate zones for external intervention. Whether at the Nudge-wielding hands of state, quango or NGO, interior lives are now all-too-easily rendered up for the management of others. Taking a step back, Kids Company’s proposal to categorise the behaviour of specific youngsters according to their brain functioning does not so much evoke the compassion and care of its founder as the harsh regime of a 1950s lunatic asylum, where to behave socially unacceptably was to be mentally deficient. The pictures of electrode-wearing kids that accompanied the tabloid reports about the proposed new scheme do little to dispel such an impression.

It is useful to contrast the impetus of a charity like Kids Company with the approach of the early twentieth-century bourgeois reformers centred around the Fabians and the Labour Party. They did not treat violence or the behaviour of the impoverished in isolation; rather, they saw it as an aspect of poverty-stricken lives, of lives stunted by material privations and diminished aspiration. In a 1912 collection of essays entitled War Against Poverty, future prime minister J Ramsay Macdonald declared: ‘Poverty is nothing but a disease of the state caused by a failure of the machinery of distribution to provide nourishment for everybody entitled to it.’ For MacDonald, neither ‘public nor private charity’ were able to provide a solution to what was fundamentally a social problem, which demanded, then as now, a broad, structural and social solution.

In another piece, the Labour Party leader-to-be George Lansbury argued for more than material welfare: ‘It is essential to arouse in the minds of the workers a detestation of their poverty and a determination to demand such conditions of life as will enable them to bring up their children with chances as bright as those of the children of the rich.’

Of course, there was a powerful paternalism to some of these Fabian/Labour visions – and the end result of such reformist thinking was, partly, the welfare state, which is experienced by many people today, not as something liberating, but as an interventionist and ambition-sapping machine. Yet this should not invalidate the transformative impulse of earlier schemes for tackling poverty. The drive, underpinned by an increasingly vocal labour movement, to transform the outer world, to ameliorate social problems, is now striking by its absence in the proposals of Kids Company and other charities and political outfits. There is too much of an emphasis on the inner life, on emotions, on brain matter. Where meeting moral, physical and mental needs once dominated the reformist mindset, now it is enough, apparently, to satisfy emotional requirements – to help the less well-off to recognise when their upper lip is sweating and when they might have another turn.

What Oscar Wilde said of some of the philanthropic interventions of the nineteenth century applies even more thoroughly to the therapeutic interventions of the twenty-first century: ‘Their remedies do not cure the disease: they merely prolong it.’

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

A DUMB IDEA

Psychology lecturer Stuart Derbyshire on the futility of studying youngsters’ brains.

Every so often a story comes along that seems so ridiculous that you have to check it is not April Fools Day. Given it is July, I’m guessing the Daily Mail was really not joking and researchers at University College London (UCL) actually think they can trace the reasons for teen violence using brain scanning.

Apparently, the researchers believe that violent teenagers are violent because their brains have been damaged by years of abuse and neglect. Consequently they cannot inhibit violent responses. The researchers aim to demonstrate this by scanning the prefrontal cortex of delinquent kids while the kids look at pictures of angry faces. A larger response will indicate a greater effort at inhibition because the prefrontal cortex is responsible for inhibiting behaviour.

What could possibly be the point of such research? Presumably the way to prevent teenage violence is to provide teenagers with better options than kicking the shit out of someone. Maybe provide them with somewhere decent to live, give them a useful education or a good job. I fail to see how scanning their brains will facilitate those kinds of changes.

Perhaps the researchers hope that parents will volunteer their children for brain scans so that the kids with ‘violent brains’ can be selected out and sent to a ‘brain reprogramming camp’. Or perhaps they hope that surgeons will be able to take out the violent bits and add non-violent bits.

The researchers do suggest that demonstrating an ‘abnormal’ brain reaction will ‘change the natural argument that these children are morally flawed’. Except it won’t. We already know that only some teenagers are violent and most are not. It is obviously the case that there is something different in the brains of violent teenagers because everything is mediated through the brain. But that does not explain why someone is violent. Someone may be violent because they have learned that they must fight to survive. Others might be violent because they have seen violence throughout their lives and have been raised to believe that violence is a useful response to stress. Alternatively they may be violent because they like it. A brain scan won’t help you decide between those alternatives.

But this isn’t just another story about wacky researchers doing bad science. This is a story about wacky researchers proposing bad science. The researchers at UCL have not scanned a single teenager and they do not, as yet, even have the money to scan teenagers. Presumably somebody instructed the UCL press office to press release an idea. Typically scientists float their ideas over coffee with colleagues or through more formal seminars. Ideas that survive those conversations might then be submitted for formal peer review by research journals or grant-awarding bodies. That would be followed by actual research yielding data that might be of interest to the press and a broader audience. Bypassing that process and going straight to the Daily Mail is distinctly odd. But then again, this whole idea stinks anyway.

Stuart Derbyshire is senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Birmingham.

Previously on spiked

Frank Furedi felt that therapy culture was one the greatest threats to public health. Mick Hume explained why knife crime cuts us to the quick. Brendan O’Neill thought it was time to cut the crap in discussions about Britain’s ‘knife culture’. Rob Lyons said claims that Peckham, in South London, is a ‘war zone’ were wide off the mark. Frank Furedi argued that the real problem today is not that ‘yoofs’ are running riot, but that grown-ups lack the confidence to engage with them. Or read more at spiked issue Anti-social behaviour.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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