• Posted: Jan 31, 2011 09:02:45
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Disturbingly often we read in the news stories of violent desperation: woman kills two children; man kills two women; husband kills entire family, turns gun on self; son kills parents; teenager self-mutilates; etc.; etc. The story is always sad, as well as tragic. Control has been lost. Desperation has set in. No choice seems to remain but to strike out, killing, ending torment.
Many point to the easy availability of guns as a contributing factor. Others point to a media landscape that portrays violence as commonplace, focused, inexpensive, emotionally satisfying, effective, and efficient. Still others point to a social culture devoid of institutions that bring people together in a way that allows for the kind of sharing of ideas and resources that can lesson desperation, while still others point to the fragmentation of social media channels allowing people of similar poverty of ideas to reinforce each other's desperation. However, it's unlikely any single one of those explanations tells the entire story. Very likely all of them are at least partially true. But is there a way that society could acquire the ability to foresee the potential for violence in an individual and then take protective or remedial action?
I am here reminded of a rather interesting experiment done with ants, related in a story by NPR's Robert Krulwich. The researcher, E. O. Wilson, was exploring ways ants communicate using their sense of smell. All ants belonging to a particular colony exude a specific scent. An ant walking into the wrong colony will very quickly be dismembered. Similarly, dead ants are immediately removed from the colony. Dead ants are also recognized by smell. Wilson proved that by painting the chemical producing the smell of dead ants, oleic acid, onto several live ants. To his amusement, those painted ants were very quickly set upon and removed from the colony. And the only way they were allowed to return was to remove every trace of that smell from their bodies.
Now, we humans don't necessarily exude specific odors when we become so desperate we might turn to violence, but such a mood is most certainly mediated by a very specific cocktail of hormones, neurotransmitters, and blood chemistry. Perhaps, very low serotonin, and possibly low blood sugar? At this point, the answer is not clear. But, with current advances in biochemical assay diagnostics it may soon be possible to recognize, even at a distance, just how dangerous a mood someone is in. Ever heard of a breathalyzer or a bomb sniffing machine? I'm talking about something along those lines, but with the sensitivity and specificity of a dog able to sense cancer growing in its master. In other words, in the very near future, something akin to what the "mood ring" was suppose to have been may actually come into existence.
The question remains, however, will we as a society be wise enough to use such technology without further alienating and marginalizing just those people we should be trying to help?
Wednesday, January 26th, 2011
47.5 mm 225 mm