Peace Talks Radio Host Suzanne Kryder talks with Dr. Lise Eliot of the Chicago Medical School and author of “Pink Brain Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow into Troublesome Gaps – and What We Can Do About It
Suzanne Kryder: My question is if males commit most of the violence in the U.S., how much of this violence can be attributed to boys’ brains?
Lise Eliot: Well that’s an interesting question and if you look at who’s committing the murders or the violence, it’s not boys. You asked me about boys’ brains. It’s going to be adult males who are committing most of the violence, so how do we get from a boy’s brain to an adult male brain is really the question that I’m interested in.
I set out early in my research to find out what’s the difference between male brains and female brains and have come up really kind of frustrated. There aren’t gross differences. I teach medical students brain anatomy and when we pull brains out of a bucket, you cannot tell if it’s a human male or human female’s brain. We know men have larger brains than women, but they also have larger bodies and kidneys and hearts and so on, so that certainly isn’t explaining anything about violence.
Kryder: What I’m hearing you say is the boys start out as boys, but they become men, so is there something about boys’ brains that make them violent men?
Eliot: All behavior is committed by our brains, so obviously if two people behave in a different way, it’s because there’s something different about their brain, but the best evidence I can tell you is that most of these individual differences in things like violence are much more due to nurture than they are to nature. Yes, men commit more violent crimes than women, but most men are not violent.
I read a statistic when I was researching my book; Pink Brain, Blue Brain that even in WWII where you had massive conscription of men, very few of them were natural-born killers. They have to be trained to be violent. Most people, male or female, are not inclined to kill another human being.
I think that most children start out peace-loving. Yes they’re selfish. Yes they’re aggressive. Boys and girls both hit, bite and kick a lot when they’re toddlers and much of what they learn growing up is what we call civilization; civilizing our children. I think girls simply learn that lesson more effectively than boys, one because they see fewer role models of female aggression, two because they end up being smaller and less strong and so they’re less physically threatening. Also boys have this conflicting message when they’re growing up. Yes, we want them to be gentlemen. Yes, we want them to use their words and love thy neighbor, but at the same time, turn on the TV; what is rewarded in the male universe? It is precisely aggression and victory and physical violence that is giving males status in a way that it doesn’t give females status.
Kryder: Let’s talk about aggression because in your book Dr. Eliot, Pink Brain Blue Brain, you write that skills like aggression, empathy, risk-taking and even competitiveness are heavily shaped by learning, so tell me, at what age are those skills shaped because really you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, right?
Eliot: That’s right and every type of learning, the earlier you start, the more effective it is. I always come back to the example of language. Each of us speaks at least one language fluently and it’s the language you were exposed to from birth. You don’t remember when you first learned English, but by the time you were three, it feels innate. It feels like we’ve been speaking this language forever, but of course it was learned. It was learned by the language that you were immersed in and so we need whatever inner personal values we’re trying to instill in children, we need to start from the get-go. I think most children do have that experience. There certainly are abused children and we’re really challenged with overcoming difficulties that began in early childhood, but most children are raised by one or two loving parents and they are exposed to examples of sensitivity and loving and care-giving. I think we need to be more vigilant when they leave the home. That’s where things start getting dicey and certainly the media that they’re exposed to present all kinds of models of aggression and anti-social behavior that may be working against the models we’re trying to set at home.
Kryder: If you believe it’s more nurture than nature, how do you define nurture and nature?
Eliot: Nature could pretty much be boiled down to genes and hormones when you’re talking about gender differences. Males and females have all the same chromosomes. Forty-five of our forty-six chromosomes are identical and it’s just the last chromosome, the sex chromosome, X or Y that differs between males and females. Genetically we’re actually not very different. Hormonally it’s a different story. Both males and females have all the same hormones; testosterone, estrogen, progesterone, but we have different quantities of those. Males have something like ten to twenty times higher testosterone levels and that has been linked tangentially to aggression. It’s interesting; it’s not a direct relationship. If you give an injection of testosterone, it doesn’t turn somebody into a raging bull, but we do know that animals of all species that are exposure to prenatal testosterone do have a change in behavior. It does make boys a little bit more physically active and more prone to physical aggression, but it’s a small statistical effect. It is not a black and white male/female difference.
Kryder: When you say it changes the behavior, what behavior are you talking about?
Eliot: Probably the most familiar behavior in children is what we call “rough and tumble play.” If you’ve ever seen two boys wrestling, that’s a good reflection of this rough and tumble play.
I have a couple of sons and I remember taking them to their older sisters’ soccer game one time and they spent the entire hour rolling down the hill and wrestling and somebody called them a couple of bear cubs which is not really that different. Most mammals do engage in this kind of play. It’s physical play. It looks aggressive, but usually it’s actually a way for children to learn the limits of another person’s tolerance. There is actually a lot of social learning that takes place.
Kryder: If we’re teaching girls to suppress or control their aggression, their risk-taking, what can we do in our culture to teach boys to do that more?
Eliot: The adage about using your words is actually a good one. Children need to be reminded of that, that if they’re frustrated or angry, they’re much better off expressing those feelings through words than through physical deeds. I admit it’s a fine line with boys because I don’t believe in pressing rough and tumble play. I don’t believe that boys need to be trained to keep their hands off of each other all the time in school. Children are very naturally touchy and feely and affectionate and so I think teachers and parents need to be sensitive to this need to have physical contact with your friends, but just making sure it doesn’t cross the line.
That’s been why sports have been so important in civilization. They create an outlet for that natural physicality and aggression that is safe and is valued and is actually good for children’s development, boys and girls.
Kryder: What if kids are not involved in sports? What does the research recommend if a kid is not involved in something like sports?
Eliot: Well, I’d like to see more children physically active even if they’re not involved in organized sports. I think part of the problem in the U.S. is that sports have become a very specialized, very expensive endeavor and so we have more and more kids that aren’t moving at all and then this small handful of elite athletes are getting all this amazing exercise.
There are some [movements] like Mrs. Obama’s movement and the pro football league to get kids moving. The 60 minutes a day campaign is a really good idea. Kids need more trips to the park. They need a lot more recess in school. It’s crazy to expect children to sit still for three or four hours in a classroom without having a good opportunity to run around and get the sillies out and recharge their brains for more learning. We have deprived children of these natural physical opportunities. We’ve deprived children of nature. Just being outside is a great opportunity to be more physically active. It sort of happens automatically; climbing trees. We’ve gotten so worried about injuries and accidents that kids just hear a lot of “no” when it comes to physicality when they need to burn those calories and they need to burn off that energy in order to not only learn better, but to get along better with each other.
Kryder: I don’t know if I’m making this up, but it seems like a lot of the shooters are not very athletic, so I’m wondering perhaps they have unburned aggression. Would you agree?
Eliot: Well, yes. One thing that happens with these athletes is that it’s a very strong social network as well and so I think most of these young shooters have been very socially isolated and that is the source of their depression and these mass shootings are really just an overblown form of suicide. It’s like they’re depressed and they’re going to kill themselves and they’re going to take out as many others as I can because I know I’ll become famous for that reason.
Kryder: Just to be clear, you’re saying aggression is normal but violence is not normal. Is that right?
Eliot: Yes, I think that’s a great way to put it. Aggression is a very normal emotion, but violence deliberately anti-social and I think most people, very, very few people, male or female are naturally violent, but we all have our aggressive moments and we need to learn to restrain them if we want to live in civilized society.
Kryder: Are you saying that if we took all the kids when they’re teenagers and we put them in good places or if we put them in good programs to teach them how to control their emotions and help them be less abused, would that make all the kids, and the boys in particular, normal and non-violent?
Eliot: Well there’s a lot we can do with adolescence and young adults I think to get their brains back on track if they’ve had challenges early on. I think any kind of program for youth has to be very future-oriented and not just clamping down on their current behavior, but developing some hope and a future for them to look forward to and a reason to delay gratification and suppress their more selfish behaviors in the interest of a bright future. I think it’s children who don’t see much of a future ahead of them that don’t see the need to suppress their violence or drugs or any kind of harmful behavior.
Peace Talks Radio host Suzanne Kryder talks with Dr. Victor La Cerva, author of “Masculine Wisdom”
Kryder: Dr. La Cerva, in your book Masculine Wisdom, you wrote, “We’ve received enormously destructive programming about what men’s wellness is all about.” Where did the programming come from?
La Cerva: Well, the programming came certainly from the people who raised us in our immediate environment and from our families. We go back to those circles again; the family, the community and the larger culture. If you witness thousands and thousands of examples of people resolving conflict by using violence in the media, clearly that’s going to have an effect on your perception of what men do when they have to deal with conflict.
If you experience a father whose anger is out of control, that’s clearly going to have an effect on your perception of how men deal with their emotions, how men treat women and so on.
I think where the conditioning comes from is less important than what it is that we need to do to try to shift it and one of the things that I’ve been involved with for 30 years now, New Mexico Men’s Wellness attempts to bring men together so that they can share with each other through exercises and workshops and sometimes just campouts and how can we forge a healthier version of what it means to be male and then try to model that for the young men that we encounter everywhere.
Kryder: But what about the shooters like New Town and Santa Barbara, Columbine, what’s your theory on why those happened?
La Cerva: Well, I had the privilege to go up and consult after the Columbine shootings with one of the spiritual communities up there and they wanted some help in terms of processing it. The bad news is that I don’t think we’ll ever get to a place where we will prevent such tragedies from occurring. The good news is that we can make progress and have been making progress on identifying young people who are alienated. There’s a bit of a lot of work in the last decade or so on the whole issue of bullying in schools. That’s all consciousness progress. I don’t believe that as long as young people have regular access to firearms and young people experience difficulties that they don’t get appropriate support for from mental health systems from family and community that we’re ever going to eliminate completely these tragedies. I think that the most important thing to do for example is if you’re a gun owner, make sure that your guns are properly secured so that young people don’t have unsupervised access to them. That’s being part of the solution. If you notice that there is a kid at school, because you’re taking your kids to school every day or whatever, who always seems ostracized, left out, find a way to try to include them or talk to your kids about reaching out to them in some way or, if you’re concerned enough, talk to the teacher about what your perception is. Those are ways of trying to be part of the solution.
Kryder: Isn’t that kind of being proscriptive like we should not be alienated? That’s like a judgment. Maybe some people want to be alone. Maybe some people are introverted and like to be quiet.
La Cerva: That’s a good point. The larger perspective is that we know that there are certain warning signs in terms of people acting out in ways that are destructive to themselves or others and most of us, as part of our busyness, tend to ignore those things. How many times have people said, “Oh, I thought he was acting a little weird and gee, it was kind of strange that he was giving away all of his stuff and then two weeks later, we have a suicide that was potentially preventable.
Kryder: What concerns you most about youth suicide?
La Cerva: What concerns me the most about youth suicide is my perception that there is a lot of preventable pain and suffering there for the families; the impact on peers, on siblings. When I was doing a lot of work in the schools, I would go into a classroom of high schoolers and asked them, “How many of you have lost someone close to you within the last year?” I was astounding when I first started asking that very simple question because 75% of the kids would raise their hands; a cousin lost in a car crash or someone dying of a suicide. I think that suicide is a little bit of a reflection back to us about what we’re not doing right in society. If somehow we’re not allowing young people to find a sense of purpose and meaning or we’re allowing them to drift off in their alienation.
I agree with what you said before, that teenagers, to a certain extent, isolate themselves. It’s part of defining themselves. Cutting themselves off from others is part of defining themselves, but when that alienation gets to drift away and they don’t feel connected to anything; to themselves, to something they love, to their family, to a vision for themselves of the future, the essence of it has to do with connection and disconnection.
Kryder: Dr. LaCerva, you have mentioned what parents can do; help praise boys differently. What can teachers do to help raise boys to be non-violent?
La Cerva: Well, one of the important things that teachers can do, which they don’t like to hear because they’ve already got so much on their plates to deal with, boys tend to act out when they’ve got issues going on. That’s the nature. Girls tend to be more depressed and withdrawn. They’ll be a C student when really they could be an A student, but the boys are more likely to get themselves suspended or kicked out of school or have to see the principal or something like that.
I think one of the most important things that teachers can do is to educate themselves in terms of ADHD and PTSD. Many young boys in our educational system are actually suffering from PTSD because of what they’re experiencing on the home front. One way to understand PTSD is to think about allergies. When you’re body gets a foreign protein in your nose, in your eyes, in your throat, what does it try to do? It tries to dilute that protein to make things better. Over time, your body’s protective response becomes what hassles you, what causes all your symptoms of itchy eyes and running nose and asthma. The initial response was good. It was meant to protect, but then, over time, with repeated stimulation, your body goes a bit haywire and overreacts. PTSD is similar. People experience dramatic difficult circumstances that their bodies then react to to try to protect them by making them more alert, making them pay more attention in a new environment, etc. Over time, with that repeated simulation, actual changes in the brain occur so that that initial protective response becomes a debilitating response.
With kids who are acting out, part of why they’re acting out is because they’re always looking around; is it safe? What was that noise? They’re on hyper alert because of the drunk dad who comes home and they have to really be paying attention to his every moment because they never know when he’s going to become violent.
So one of the things the teachers can do is to really educate themselves about ADHD and PTSD and the distinctions between them and do the best they can within their system to realize that the kid who’s acting out, particularly in grammar school, is really a cry for help.
Kryder: Okay, I’m a teacher, I have a kid who has PTSD, what do I actually do when he acts out?
La Cerva: One of the things within the school system and as parents is the whole notion of a time out and a time out is about helping you calm down and muscle your own resources so that you can be in a better place. Time out is not about punishment.
There has been some very interesting work with a short term group, resources within schools that has been validated, but unfortunately has not been replicated which is often one of the problems that we have. People come up with these great ideas, they show that they work, but then we don’t replicate them everywhere. Short term, six weeks, put kids in a group so that they can talk about what’s actually going on in their lives. That reduces their PTSD symptoms and makes them able to be more present in the school situation.
I think being a fair witness is something that every teacher can do. When a kid is acting out and you have a sense of what’s going on on the home front, you can be the fair witness; “What’s happening to you isn’t right. It isn’t fair. It’s not your fault. Things are going to get better.” When you’re managing 25 or 30 kids, to have the time and energy to focus that kind of caring, loving attention on one person is a huge challenge.
Kryder: It’s really hard to be teachers. They’re not mental health counselors.
La Cerva: Exactly, so that’s where we come back to who can be the positive allies. Maybe it’s the coach who can really help this kid out and not the teacher if the kid is involved in sports or some kind of after school something. Maybe it’s the grandfather or cousin who is healthy. Maybe it’s getting them into a Boys and Girls Club or Big Brothers Big Sisters, something else because all the evidence shows that kids who survived very difficult circumstances growing up, one of the cornerstones of resiliency is that they have access to at least one older, caring adult who can show them a different reality than the craziness that they’re experiencing from what I often call the “unholy triad” of mental illness, substance abuse and violence in the home.
Peace Talks Radio host Suzanne Kryder talks with Dr. Joseph Marshall, author of “Street Soldier” and executive director of San Francisco’s Omega Boys Club
Suzanne Kryder: Tell me a story about the Omega Boys Club and what you’ve done that’s really worked.
Joseph Marshall: I was a former teacher and educator and administrator here in San Francisco for years and figured if my kids could survive my rigorous instruction that everything would turn out fine because I was a very demanding instructor. And despite the fact that the kids did very well with me when they were in the sixth, seventh and eighth grade, unfortunately something seemed to happen to them when they got away from me. I literally ended up going to the funerals of my former students who were killed in some sort of drug or gang-related violence.
I felt that the best thing to do was to keep them with me. When you’re a teacher and the kids move on, you never see them again unless you bump into them at the shopping mall some years later, but I felt that I needed to have a continued presence in their lives, so I started this organization, now almost 27 years ago, actually more than 27 years ago. And I told them very simply, “I want to help you stay out of trouble. I want to help keep you alive and free.” Alive and free and educated because I believe in education. I said, “Would you like to be part of something like this? No sports. You can get that at the local Boys and Girls Club or at the YMCA. I want to talk about the serious issues that you’re not talking to anybody else about that’s imperiling your life and your freedom.”
So I began to have conversations with young people. A lot of the young people that I work with don’t have what I had which is an intact family; great parents who provided that kind of guidance, so I literally became their parent, in this case, their father and began a process of undoing all of that programming that was getting them put in prison or six feet under in a grave.
I also made a commitment that if they would stick with this, they could pick a college when they graduated from high school and I would find the money, which wasn’t a very smart thing to say because I didn’t have any money. But little by little as people pitched in to help, my young men and women began to graduate and go to college. Now I’ve got almost 200 college graduates, 50 others on their way to college degrees, but the big thing is keeping them alive and free so that can happen.
I came up with what I call “The Alive and Free Prescription;” a guaranteed way in a world full of violence to keep them alive and free and that’s pretty much what I give the young people.
Kryder: Dr. Marshall, tell us the most important part of that prescription.
Marshall: First they have to change the way they think. Most youth programs are what I call opportunity and good intention programs. They want to give young people an opportunity and that’s the way I actually operated when I first started. I love helping young people. If they say they want a job or opportunities at that job, and want an education.
My moment of enlightenment, my turning point came when I had this young man who was a former gang member was when I asked him what he wanted to do (because it took a lot of courage to get out of the gang) and he said he wanted to go to college. I prepared him academically. I gave him a few scholarships and he went to college and sold drugs on the college campus. That was a real eye-opener for me. I gave him what he wanted, which was an opportunity, and he had the good intentions to succeed, he really did, but I hadn’t changed the way he thought inside. I hadn’t changed his inside. He had a thought process and he took that thought process with him wherever he went.
I’m going to give you another example. I met a young man when I was speaking in jail, and I do a lot of work inside the juvenile institutions and I said, “How many times have you been to jail?” He said, “18.” I said, “What did you say when you got out the first time?” “I’m never coming back.” I said, “What happened? What would it take for you not to come back?” “I need a job.” So he went out and got a job, but when I went back, he was back in jail. I said, “What happened?” He said, “Yeah, I got a job, but I still got caught up.” Then I looked at him and I said, “Here’s the problem: you’re going to jail, but you’re just doing time, you’re not changing. You’re not changing the way you think. When you get out of here and go back, you still think the same way, so you have to begin to change your thought process and your thought process is deprogramming of the thought process that they think is necessary for survival that’s actually imperiling their life and their freedom.” He really didn’t understand why he was coming back and forth to jail all the time. He just thought he had bad luck. No! He still believed in not being a punk, getting his respect, getting his money on and doing what he had to do. All that was part of his thinking process and until his thinking process changed, he would be in and out of jail and eventually he would never get out of jail again.
Kryder: How do you get to their thinking process? How do you spend that much time with them to change their thinking process?
Marshall: Oh, we have conversations. Again, it all begins with “do you want to stay alive and free.” See, they’ve been told that if you do certain things, you will survive, so they believe they’ve acquired a survival skill. Well, they haven’t acquired a survival skill. It’s misnamed. They’ve acquired a way to die and go to prison, a death and incarceration skill. That’s what they learn. Somebody has told them that this is a way to survive. That’s the first thing I show them; obviously you’re not surviving. I’ve had scenarios where guys have been taught not to snitch. They just get programmed a certain way. All I do is talk about that programming. We begin to have conversations. But I know what I’m up against. I’m up against something that’s almost like a virus in a computer. Computers are great instruments, but the worst thing you can get is a virus and then once it gets that virus, it can’t do anything good at all. In fact, you get warned about this virus being passed to another computer. These young people are like this. They get this thinking in their head that’s like a virus and I am the one who comes in and deprograms this thinking. When your computer gets a virus, you call somebody in to get rid of the virus. In our case, what we do is send young people to jail and they’re there with other infected people, so they never really get this thing out of them and I know that’s the way they think. Knowing something is pretty easy. You go in and start dealing directly with it and then you show them how the way they think leads to risk-taking behaviors; carrying a gun, selling drugs, all of those things that they think are necessary for survival and so it’s a challenge. It’s a challenge, but I’m just like a medical doctor in essence. I know the medicine is the right medicine to take.
One good thing about working with young people is that they want to be guided. They really do. They want somebody to come in and tell them [what to do]. Adolescence is a time of confusion anyway, so they’re looking for guidance. They’re looking for people who generally care for no reason at all and they don’t find that. They just don’t find people who really care about them without judgment. The tough thing in doing this is not to have judgment.
If you have an STD, I’ll give you a medical example, when you go into the doctor’s office, the worst thing that the doctor can do is to shame you for having that disease. The doctor isn’t interested in shaming you, he’s interested in treating the infection and the only reason he’ll ask you about your sexual lifestyle is because he wants to make sure that you’re not transmitting the disease to anyone else. So it’s a very clinical way. It’s not a moral way.
One of the reasons we’re successful here is because we don’t moralize. We’re not judgmental. We’re trying to help these young people stay alive and free. We have conversations about the way of thinking that we really see is diseased and infected, so we get them to talk about all these things in a very non-threatening, non-judgmental way. Believe me, that’s even tough for parents to do, especially if they haven’t done it with themselves.
Kryder: At what age should the conversations happen?
Marshall: This conversation needs to start as early as you can possibly have it because this programming (and I do call it programming) starts as soon as boys can hear. The first three words that a boy can hear is “be a man.” That’s the other thing, if parents start to talk about this, it’s going to be hard for them to do because the only way you can talk about something is that you talk about it with yourself first. You pass on what you have inside of you, what you know, so I think it’s going to take a larger conversation that doesn’t depend on parents because the parents are guilty of passing on this way of thinking.
Kryder: What do the conversations do?
Marshall: It gets them to think about what they’re doing; are they inner-driven or outer-driven? Most people do things – they don’t even know why they’re doing the things that they do. They really don’t know why they’re doing things. It may be because of something they see on television, it may be because they’re worried about being teased, they’re trying to live up to an ideal. They’ve never thought about it themselves. The conversations get them to examine themselves. We’re very fragile and we do things because other people are doing them, not because we even want to do them.
Kryder: You don’t have to name names, but tell me one story about how you changed a boy’s thinking from outer to inner.
Marshall: Oh, I’ve got a bunch of stories. I met a young man in the Youth Authority out here with three counts of armed robbery and attempted murder on a police officer who basically believed in material values. He believed in having a bunch of girls. He believed in just a criminal lifestyle. When I met him, he had adopted this whole persona that landed him in jail. He just really thought that was the way that youth should act as a boy, as a man. We asked him, “Do you want to stay alive and do you want to stay free?” “Are you happy?” Nobody had ever approached him like that, but remember this was a fixed way of thinking. He believed in it and it took a long time for that young man to change and we were very patient with him, much like a doctor would be with a medical patient, because we knew that this was a programming, a way of thinking that he had held for his 16 or 17 years of life. And when he was around other people, they reinforced his way of thinking and acting. He took two steps forward and one step back and eventually he began to see what we saw. You can think of somebody like Malcolm X who went into prison and came out another way because of the guidance and tutelage of somebody he met in prison to show him the error of his ways. We do that with young people all the time and we find out what led to that lifestyle was the fact that his mother got on drugs when he was a young boy and he developed all this anger, that anger never got resolved and he turned that anger on himself and on other people. Hurting people hurt people. We had to help him with all of that internalized anger, fear and pain that he was just not hurting himself and hurting others, but it was a process. We were able to do it and the young man eventually went to college and graduated and is a family man. This is something that we know has to be done and we’re not afraid to do it.
The other half of the equation is helping people, young men, not get infected in the first place. If you think of me as a doctor, (I keep using these medical analogies) because that’s the way I see myself, preventative medicine is the way to go. I work with kids in the fourth grade, fifth grade, little boys because they’re pretty sweet, good-natured people. I don’t want them to begin to think this way in the first place, so I do both prevention and I work with young men like the one I described earlier.