By LINI S. KADABA
[ On Dec. 14, 2012, Jeremy Richman’s 6-year-old daughter, Avielle, was killed during the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre — one of 20 children and six adult staff members gunned down. ]
The brain, by all accounts, is the least understood of all the human organs …
“That usually surprises people,” says neuroscientist Jeremy Richman, who recently spoke at Albright College on the necessity of brain science research.
The 48-year-old CEO and cofounder of the Avielle Foundation aims to change that. His Newtown, Conn., nonprofit funds scientific investigation of the brain — home of memories, feelings and behaviors — with a focus on the causes of violence and ways of prevention, including the cultivation of compassion.
The topic is personal.
On Dec. 14, 2012, Richman’s 6-year-old daughter, Avielle, was killed during the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre — one of 20 children and six adult staff members gunned down by Adam Lanza, 20, who reportedly suffered from significant mental health issues.
“It changed our whole life perspective and purpose,” says Richman, who’s also a lecturer at Yale University’s School of Medicine. Within 48 hours, the then pharmaceutical researcher — and his wife Jennifer Hensel, a medical writer — decided they had to do something, had to act, he says.
That something played to their science backgrounds. The research that the foundation supports focuses on risk factors that lead to violence and protective factors that counter violence and foster compassion.
“That became our mission pretty much from the day we had Avielle’s service,” he says.
Keith Feigenson, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychology at Albright, applauds the foundation’s mission. “I think it’s an incredibly noble and needed piece of work that they’re doing,” he says.
The way the brain, made up of a 100 billion neurons, works is “exponentially more complicated than many other organs,” Feigenson notes. While much is known about the purpose of the heart or lungs, “we still don’t know even basic processes of the brain … It’s currently, I wouldn’t say the Wild West, but certainly a frontier in terms of what we know in the science and what we still need to figure out.”
Right now, psychiatric abnormalities are mainly diagnosed through symptoms. Adding an understanding of the brain’s role “is a huge piece of the puzzle that’s underexplored,” he says.
Since Sandy Hook, Richman has learned that half of the world’s children — one billion people — are victims of violence. In the United States, a violent crime occurs every 27 seconds; a homicide, every 37 minutes, he often says in his many talks around the country and world.
“We’ve become a country, a world, adept at reacting to violence,” he says in a main point of his Albright talk, “The Science of Violence and Compassion: Being Human(e).”
Instead, Richman argues for a scientific — even public health — approach. “We’ve never approached violence as something we can study, look at in a medical fashion, something that we can prevent, intervene in or cure.
“Violence,” he says, “is a disease.”
Like any other disease — think diabetes or cancer — the focus should be on risk factors, such as biochemical or structural problems, and protective factors, which include fostering compassion, Richman says.
Attracting funding for scientific study, however, is a hurdle because few think of violence in the way he describes. “It’s a huge unmet need,” Richman says.
To date, the foundation has raised more than $1 million and funded more than $250,000 in initial research with the goal of supporting “paradigm-shifting studies.”
Its first award in 2016 supported longitudinal studies at Duke University on how genetic and environmental risks — also called nature and nurture — lead to abnormal behavior and psychiatric disorders.
Another, at the University of Michigan’s Mind Lab, examined what in the brain leads to violent behaviors and what leads to resilient, satisfied behaviors through studies of twins who are raised in the same household but differ in behaviors. One twin, for example, may have an aggressive antisocial disorder. The Avielle Foundation-supported pilot study led to two National Institute of Health grants for more than $7 million.
While the cause and cure for violence might be years away, some risk factors are already clear. Adverse childhood experiences, such as abuse for example, can lead to an increased risk of self-harm or harm to others, Richman says, citing research. Traumatic brain injuries also can affect the ability to regulate emotions and violence, he says.
In addition, the foundation wants to educate and engage communities “so the invisible world of mental [illness] can become the visible world of brain health.”
“We need to bring down barriers of shame and stigma that keep people from getting help,” Richman says. “The brain is just like any other organ, like kidneys, the heart. It can be healthy, or it can be unhealthy … It might need some tune-up.”
Safeguards, Richman says, include learning to name and tame emotions and to control impulses. Something as simple as getting enough sleep can prove powerful, he adds.
“This is a skill set that you can derive,” Richman says. “You can work on it and build it.”
Perhaps most important in caring for the brain is building compassion — that ability to feel another’s suffering and empathize but also to find ways to alleviate it, he says.
Imagination, according to Richman, is the key. People often say to Richman and his wife that they “can’t imagine” what they are going through with the heart-breaking loss of their daughter from a mass shooting.
“Yet, the fact is, everyone can imagine being in their shoes, as hard and as horrifying as that may be,” says the foundation’s website.
Imagining is a form of empathy that connects us to another’s pain, Richman says, and he hopes that type of empathy will inspire action to prevent the anguish he and his wife experienced from happening to anyone else.
“You need to actively pursue the anti-version of violence,” he says. “That’s compassion. It gives people hope and paves a path to being humane.”