Anger in the fMRI scanner: are violent offenders angrier than other people?
On Thursday 15 June, the leading scientific journal Scientific Reports published the article Anger provocation in violent offenders leads to emotion dysregulation based on the PhD study conducted by Franca Tonnaer, which was carried out under the supervision of Arnoud Arntz and Maaike Cima at Maastricht University's Faculty of Psychology and Neuroscience. The study was conducted in collaboration with De Rooyse Wissel, a forensic psychiatry centre in Oostrum. Franca Tonnaer wanted to investigate why people without a history of violence are capable of controlling their anger and why violent offenders are not. As part of her study, she compared the brain responses of violent offenders and non-offenders with the help of fMRI anger provocation and regulation tasks. Interestingly, the brain responses showed that the violent offenders from the forensic psychiatric centre were constantly being triggered to regulate their anger, but that the relevant part of the brain failed them when anger regulation was actually necessary. This is a new and important insight for the treatment of violent offenders.
Forensic psychiatric centre
During her study at De Rooyse Wissel, Franca Tonnaer was fascinated by themes like risk assessment and recidivism risk, and wanted to discover how patients with violent pasts deal with anger and aggression. To study this using an fMRI scanner, she sought the participation of sixteen male patients with a history of violence (attempted murder, murder, manslaughter, violent property crime, assault and domestic abuse) and eighteen men with no history of violence. The match was based on age, education and hand dominance (left-handedness or right-handedness, which influences brain orientation). The patients from the forensic psychiatric centre were on leave from the clinic, as the procedure would otherwise have been far too complicated and the safety measures far too numerous to proceed safely with the study. Everyone participated in the study voluntarily in exchange for a minor financial compensation.
Angry, happy, neutral
As part of the study, the participants were presented with three scenarios and were given two different instructions. One scenario consisted of stories that provoked an anger response, the second consisted of stories that provoked a happy response, and the third consisted of neutral stories. The participants were given two successive instructions for each scenario: to focus entirely on the emotions of the story (provocation) or to distract themselves from the story (regulation). The stories were read in fifteen-second increments, to allow the emotions to build up slowly. A good example of an 'angry' story was that of an employee who is bullied by a colleague at work. The employer doesn't believe the employee, causing him to lose his standing at work, get into an accident on the motorway after the offending colleague bullies him in a passing car, and ultimately being convicted by the police. Examples of the 'happy' stories are winning the lottery and going on holiday. Not much happens in the neutral stories.
Previous studies on this topic tended to focus on frustration, sadism or emotions, which is what makes Tonnaer's approach so unique. 'Our research found that the region of the brain responsible for identifying regulation is extremely active in violent offenders when they are instructed to focus entirely on their emotions and their anger,' says Tonnaer. 'But when we ask them to regulate that emotion, they can't. Overregulation may play a role, which exhausts the relevant brain region. One conclusion that can be drawn from this is that treatment should focus on teaching violent offenders when to apply emotional regulation, instead of training them to regulate their emotions constantly.' Tonnaer's research also revealed that the group of violent offenders felt considerably angrier during the provocative stories than the control group. This wasn’t the case during the happy and neutral stories.
This publication is a precursor to the research that will be conducted at the recently founded Centre for Integrative Neuroscience (CIN). At CIN, leading researchers from the faculties of FHML, FPN and SBE work together in the field of cognitive neuroscience.