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David Vognar

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Inner Peace Solution to the Inner City's Problems

Posted: 08/05/11 09:20 AM ET

Few problems are as intractable as inner-city violence. Though politicians are trying to expand the school day to prevent youth from being lured into gang life, and visionary leaders like former President Bill Clinton are trying to match talented urban entrepreneurs with established CEOs to attract businesses -- and precious jobs -- to the inner city, there has been little progress in slowing the epidemic. It is a contagion that might only become worse if the economy continues to decline. According to a famous study by Merva and Fowles, a 1 percent rise in unemployment resulted in a 6.7 percent increase in homicides, a 3.4 percent increase in violent crimes and a 2.4 percent increase in property crimes. The researchers noticed similar trends with increasing income inequality, which is also on the rise.

With the situation becoming more grave by the day, it is crucial that leaders respond to innovative new data in the field of brain science and psychology to address the psychosocial dimension of inner-city violence. So often we focus on the social aspect and not the psychological aspect, which closely resembles a widespread case of antisocial personality disorder, a mental disorder characterized by law-breaking, impulsivity, reckless disregard for personal safety, violence and lack of empathy.

While reframing the issue in this way might seem too simplistic, and indeed it would be remiss to ignore the broader social constraints that spur destitute young people without a strong social structure or much economic opportunity to violent episodes, doing so offers unique psychological remedies. This is because those with antisocial personality disorder have less frontal lobe functioning and, according to a 2000 study by Dinn and Harris, less gray matter in their frontal lobes. (Gray matter gets its name for the grayish tinge of the tissue, which is opposed to the brain's white matter, where long, myelin-covered axons are found; gray matter is still little understood but thought to be important to higher reasoning.)

While it is troubling that those who propagate violence and seem unable to feel human emotions like empathy have fewer of these cells that are essential to higher-order functioning, it is also relieving, because there are established means of growing more gray matter and thus possibly alleviating the problems associated with antisocial behavior in the inner city.

According to a study released in 2008 by a Harvard neuroscientist, meditation increases gray matter density and blood flow to the frontal lobe. This provides reason to engage those who are at risk of developing antisocial behavior, or who already display antisocial behavior, in a meditation experiment to alter their behavior.

It may not even take long to start noticing effects. According to a 2011 study by the same author, meditating for just 30 minutes a day for eight weeks changed the gray-matter density in the brain compared to a control group. The effects may be even more helpful than simply increasing gray matter in the frontal lobe. Examining the M.R.I. scans, researchers found increased gray matter in the hippocampus, vital for learning and memory, and reductions of gray matter in the amygdala, which is a brain region associated with stress and anxiety.

Where our social policy has failed, it is quite possible that psychological prophylactic or correctives, like a meditation course, may get us somewhere. While caution needs to be the watch word in trying to diagnose our larger social problems away and impute the individual with psychopathology, it would be negligent not to try unorthodox methods that have the potential to help. It just may be that inner-city problems can be solved through cultivating the inner dimension.

As brain science and meditation studies advance further, there will be more quantifiable reasons for pioneering meditation practice among the populations that society shunts aside. Yet already, there are several ways to experiment with meditation in the field of social work. A realistic direct practice is to start an after-school group for at-risk youth within the education system that specifically focuses on meditation and the extended use of mindfulness techniques. Those with discipline problems can be offered the program as an alternative to more punitive options. Meditation sessions can be slotted directly to follow scheduled class time or can be incorporated within the school day, and afterward participants can share the challenges and breakthroughs in their practice. Additionally, leaders can solicit public participation, thereby helping those suffering less severe mental illness to prevent serious developments.

Another venue for this unique method of treatment would be juvenile detention programs. Most modern treatment facilities offer some form of behavioral therapy, which emphasizes meditation principles such as mindfulness and deep breathing, in addition to cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Yet programs seldom offer guided meditation practice with dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT). These programs can be expanded to offer group meditation sessions, more directly taking patients through the at times taxing process of quieting the mind, as opposed to the piecemeal instructions patients currently receive when introduced to DBT.

A more adventurous direct practice would link meditation to prevention even more strongly by starting meditation groups as behavioral and mental health prevention bulwarks in the inner-city, where the real work needs to be done. Linking the meditation groups with classes on Eastern religion could be a big draw for young people and inspire more participation.

Any of these programs could be implemented with a minimal amount of funding; all that is required is a somewhat experienced meditation practitioner and accommodations for comfortable seating. But the benefits for those suffering the effects of antisocial behavior in our nation's ailing communities near the precipice could be life-saving.