I’ll admit that I probably talk too much about mouse sex on the Geekend, but please indulge me once more because this one might prove the very creepy connection of sex and violence and may also help us turn off violent behavior in people.
Researchers at CalTech have isolated the neurons in a mouse’s brain that can make mice stop fighting. They have implanted electrodes in the brains of mice that simply strobe light at specific points in the brain. When they strobe the light in a certain way mice, right in the middle of a fight, will simply stop fighting. They can shut the violence off like a switch. By itself, that’s interesting, but there’s more.
They can also make a mouse become violent with the same process. Which means a lot of trouble for cats like this one:
But again, if this was all there was, it would interesting but not terribly a big deal. Here’s the fun part. The strobe effect works almost like a volume knob. And the lowest setting isn’t “non-violent” and the highest setting “violent.” The lowest setting is “sexy.”
On the right setting, the light hitting the same neurons makes the mice “mount” each other. They didn’t care if it was a male or a female mouse. And then in the middle of the sex, the scientists could “turn up the volume” and the mice would go from Brokeback Mountain to Fight Club. And if they fiddled with the knobs some more it could get all 50 Shades of Grey.
It is not surprising that sex and violence are uncomfortably linked. Hollywood proves it every weekend. But it is unsettling to think the same neurons might handle both, because it means there is potential for one to become the other with little warning and the connection is unlikely to be severed just by better civil discourse or changing our entertainment.
But before we get too maudlin about it, there is one interesting finding that might help us “treat” violence. Those neurons are bound to estrogen receptors which means estrogen (more than testosterone) might actually regulate violence in the brain. This might allow us to look at “treating violence” the same way we’d treat some other chemical imbalances. We could potentially turn the volume down on violence with a simple drug that could lower urges to rape or perform any other violence.
We might even be able to create a world-wide “make love, not war” movement through simple chemical changes.
But before we get too ahead of ourselves, let’s take stock of a few things. There’s lots of stuff that work on mice never get to work on humans. More importantly, this only works on male mice. We’re still looking for the same neurons in female mice. They may not even have them (though they probably do). Also, it is one thing to stimulate a neuron directly with an implant. It is another to do the same thing non-invasively.
So that brings up the creepy bonus question: Would we be OK implanting something like this in violent criminals, especially rapists, to keep them from doing it again? Let’s say we offered the choice of a lifetime in jail or brain surgery that “fixes” someone’s violent impulses? Would most people choose the surgery? Before we perfect a drug therapy, this very well might be a choice we’re faced with. What do you think? Comment below.