Geekend: Of Mice & Men & Sex & Violence

David Wagner, Managing Editor | 5/9/2014 | 36 comments

David Wagner
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.

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Anand   Geekend: Of Mice & Men & Sex & Violence   5/27/2014 6:43:19 AM
Re: ethical dilemma!
People are always talking of make love not war. It is actually a slogan. Violence and sex are related either directly or indirectly. We would all love to stop war and violence because they are vices in our society which are slowly growing. The scientists' experiments in male rats clearly indicate that with change in certain neurons in our brain violence can be stopped but the only problem is, it might be very unethical to control someone's brain. The idea is good but execution might bring controversies.  
WaqasAltaf   Geekend: Of Mice & Men & Sex & Violence   5/21/2014 1:18:54 PM
Re: No.
Stotheco, yes it will be an excellent tool for crime deterrence however would it mean that it is the end of punishment law ? If some does a crime and gets peace chip fitted, he no longer is a threat to society. I personally think that punishment law should exist so as to threaten other people who are thinking about making a crime.
Broadway   Geekend: Of Mice & Men & Sex & Violence   5/19/2014 10:40:39 PM
Re: ethical dilemma!
@SaneIT, a big problem is that the people who manufacturer those pills also have a say in determining what a problem or illness is. It is no coincidence that a lot of the behavioral issues currently treated with pharmaceuticals used to be considered relatively normal years ago.
SaneIT   Geekend: Of Mice & Men & Sex & Violence   5/19/2014 9:09:47 AM
Re: ethical dilemma!
That is my fear as well.  One more pill.  It will "fix" behavioral problems.  I know that I wouldn't be as well adjusted as I am today if I didn't go through that pubescent roller coaster of hormones so I really wouldn't want to have that messed with.  Sometimes we just need to hold people responsible for their actions rather than finding a biological function to blame.  You can have anger issues and not be violent and you can have depression issues and not become self destructive.  My opinion is that rather than a pill to flatten everyone out we need a support system that better deals with common issues we keep seeing swept under the carpet.
Broadway   Geekend: Of Mice & Men & Sex & Violence   5/17/2014 11:36:30 PM
Re: Fixing brain imbalance seems medically appropriate
As beneficial as a drug might be to someone, you cannot give it to someone who needs it against their will. Just like it is very difficult now to give someone a lobotomy against their will. Our appreciation of civil rights have advanced to this point.
impactnow   Geekend: Of Mice & Men & Sex & Violence   5/17/2014 11:56:46 AM
powerful impacts
There are really many applications this would be beneficial including those with certain mental illnesses that impair their day to day lives. It might also be useful in assisting people with autism. While the thought of scientific manipulation of the brain is initially concerning it can greatly improve the quality of life of many.

kstaron   Geekend: Of Mice & Men & Sex & Violence   5/16/2014 12:43:15 PM
Fixing brain imbalance seems medically appropriate
While I'm not a fan of invasive technology as behavior modification, if you could take a really violent offender who is violent not becasue of a situation but due to a chemical imbalance, wouldn't it be medically appropriate to treat it? Without such treatment the people would be trapped in a mode of behavior that they have no control over. If we could give them back control, they could have a better life. This is of course predicated that the problem was in the brain and the offender couldn't control his own viloent actions as opposed to people who are in control and don't care if they hurt people.
Broadway   Geekend: Of Mice & Men & Sex & Violence   5/16/2014 8:48:53 AM
Re: ethical dilemma!
@saneIT, we already live in a Brave New World when it comes to the hold the pharma industry has on our society. There is a pill for whatever ails you, especially mentally and bahviorally, so I fear that one more pill won't be considered a big deal.
SaneIT   Geekend: Of Mice & Men & Sex & Violence   5/16/2014 7:12:50 AM
Re: ethical dilemma!
I think one of the tougher things to get over with this is that it is not surgical.  People tend to view pharmaceutical solutions in a much better light than cutting on someone.  It may gain traction because it is not doing physical harm in the eyes of the general public but since I spend a good deal of time around pubescent boys coaching and raising one I can tell you that the chemical changes can be just as devastating as physical actions.  I just hope the general public doesn't see this as a kinder gentler method and push it as such.
Ariella   Geekend: Of Mice & Men & Sex & Violence   5/15/2014 9:17:26 AM
Re: ethical dilemma!
@SaneIt yes, that is a difficult call to make. As depicted in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, there was a time when lobotomies were regarded as the cure-all for aggression or anyother problem. JFK's sister gained her own bit of fame for having been subjected to that operation b/c her family found her a bit difficult to manage. 
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