Perspectives On Violence:

James W Prescott, Ph.D.

James Prescott is a developmental neuropsychologist and cross-cultural psychologist who received his doctorate in psychology from McGill University, Montreal, P.Q. Canada. He served as Assistant Head, Psychology Branch, Office of Naval Research (1963-1966); as Health Scientist Administrator, Developmental Behavioral Biology Program, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, NIH (1966 -1980); and President, Maryland Psychological Association (1970-1971). He was the recipient of the "Outstanding Contributons to Psychology Award," Maryland Psychological Association (1977); and the Cine Golden Eagle Award, for his contributions, as Scientific Director, of the award winning Time-Life film, "Rock A Bye Baby" (1971). Dr. Prescott has given expert testimony on the origins of human violence, particularly domestic violence, before the Senate of Canada, the U.S. Congress and many other legislative and professional organizations.

Excerpts from: The Origins of Human Love and Violence

The beginning of my quest to understand the origins of human love and violence was partly rooted in my doctoral training in developmental neuropsychology and psychophysiology at McGill University, where I was made acutely aware of the extraordinary importance that the early sensory-social environment has upon brain development and behavior. The pioneering studies at McGill in the 1950s and 1960s documented that social isolation rearing of puppies results in not only aberrant adult emotional-social behaviors but also in abnormal brain development and functioning. These and related behavioral studies involving the effects of sensory deprivation and the social isolation rearing of infra-human primates by psychologists Austin Riesen at Yerkes Primate Center in Atlanta, Georgia and of the Harlows at the University of Wisconsin provided a theoretical and experimental frame of reference for the brain studies which I initiated on isolation reared (maternal-socially deprived) monkeys at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), National Institutes of Health (NIH). (Meizack and Thompson,1956; Thompson and Scott,1956; Meizack and Scott, 1957; Hebb, 1958; Harlow, 1958; Riesen,1961,1966; Meizack and Burns,1965; Mitchell,1968; Mason, 1968; Sackett 1970ab; and Mason and Berkson, 1975).

Other significant scientific work that influenced the theoretical and experimental programs of the Developmental Behavioral Biology Program, NICHD on the effects of "maternal social deprivation" was that of Cannon (1939); Cannon and Rosenbleuth (1949); Dow and Moruzzi (1958); Essman (1971); Heath (1968); Hebb (1958); Hunt (1961); the Berkeley Group: Krech, Rosenzweig, Bennett (1960) and Rosenzweig, Krech, Bennett and Diamond (1968); Levine (1974); MacLean (1962,1973); Mark and Ervin (1970); Money, Wolff and Annecillo (1972); Selye (1956); Sharpless (1969); Wiesel and Hubel (1963); Ainsworth (1967); Appley and Trumbull (1967); Barry, Bacon and Child (1967); Bowlby (1952, 1969 and 1973); Cairns (1966); Casler (1961); Spitz (1965); Textor (1967); Whiting and Child (1953); Yarrow (1961); Zubek (1969) and many others. From a different theoretical perspective, Francoeur (1965,1982, 1992) and Francoeur and Rami (1979) are spiritual co-travelers on this journey of understanding the nature of human love and violence.

In 1966, I joined the newly formed NICHD where I created the Developmental Behavioral Biology Program (NICHD) to establish basic research programs on brain-behavioral development. During my tenure at the NICHD (1966-1980), I formulated a novel developmental brain-behavioral theory of emotional-social regulation to explain the pathological depression and violence that results from maternal-social deprivation or the social isolation rearing of infant animals. This theory involved the cerebellar-limbic-frontal lobe complex where I proposed that the cerebellum has a major role in the regulation of sensory-limbic (emotional) brain activity which also integrates (or not) this activity with higher brain processes (frontal-temporal cortex). I established a number of basic research programs to evaluate this theory and with other scientists documented that the failure of "mother love" results in developmental brain dysfunction and damage which underlies the depression, stereotypical movement disorders (e.g. rocking behaviors and self-mutilation), hyper-reactivity to sensory stimulation, particularly touch with, paradoxically, impaired pain perception; social alienation, rage and pathological violence against other animals that have been commonly described in isolation reared monkeys and in other isolation reared animals.

It is of historical significance that both Harry Harlow (1964) and Rene Spitz (1965) denied that maternal-social deprivation involved sensory deprivation and prior to my reformulation of this issue no one had suspected that the abnormal emotional-social behaviors observed in the isolation reared or maternal-socially deprived monkeys was due to abnormal brain development and function.

Specifically, I redefined "maternal-social deprivation" as a special case of Somatosensory Affectional Deprivation (SAD) and identified somesthetic processes (body touch) and vestibular-cerebellar processes (body movement) as the two critical emotional senses that define the sensory neuropsychological foundations for maternal-infant affectional bonding. Sensory deprivation in the other sensory systems (vision, hearing, smell and taste) do not result in the maternal-social deprivation or SAD syndrome). I proposed and established with other scientists brain studies in isolation reared monkeys (maternal-infant separation) which documented structural and functional brain abnormalities in the limbic-frontal-cerebellar brain system of adult maternally deprived monkeys (loss of mother love) which are directly related--as a causative process--to the depression and pathological violence of these mother deprived monkeys (Prescott, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1975, 1976).

My reconceptualization of the maternal-social deprivation syndrome which involved cerebellar-limbic-frontal lobe brain functions was made possible by the pioneering studies of Mason (1968) and Mason and Berkson (1975) who demonstrated that the isolation rearing of infant monkeys on a "swinging mother" surrogate (vestibular-cerebellar stimulation) prevented the development of the classic maternal-social (SAD) syndrome. This behavioral study opened the "vestibular-cerebellar" gate to brain structures and processes not previously implicated in these emotional-social disorders and represents, in my view, a scientific study of such importance that is matched only by the original contributions of the Harlows. The implications of the Mason and Berkson "swinging mother surrogate" study for human development is profound but, unfortunately, remains unappreciated despite the fact that its dramatic effects can be seen in the Time Life documentary film "Rock a Bye Baby" (Dokecki, 1973) and which has been one of the most successful documentaries of Time Life.

It is important to emphasize that in terms of SAD theory, the different sensory-emotional systems of the body provide the neuropsychological foundations for different psychological states. Specifically, the vestibular-cerebellar sensory system provides the primary neuropsychological foundation for "Basic Trust"; the somesthetic (touch) sensory system provides the primary neuropsychological foundation for "Affection"; and the olfactory (smell) sensory system provides the primary neuropsycholgical foundation for "Intimacy". In normal development these emotional-sensory systems are combined in rich patterns of complex sensory stimulation which results in the development of a "neurointegrative" brain where "Basic Trust", "Affection" and "Intimacy" are integrated with one another to form an emotional brain gestalt that can be called "Love"--long before the infant can understand the spoken or written word which is mediated by the auditory and visual cognitive senses.

All three emotional sensory systems, of course, are involved in the experiencing of "Pleasure" and "Bonding". It is through the emotional senses that the infant knows when it is being loved or rejected and this is particularly true for the congenitally blind or deaf infant/child (Fraiberg and Friedman, 1964; Bowyer and Gillies, (1972); Dokecki, 1973; Prescott, 1976); Smell, as the primitive emotional-sexual brain, has been a long neglected sensory system for understanding human sexuality, intimacy and bonding (Kohl and Francoeur, 1995). The failure to encode the infant's developing brain with the smell of its mother's body through breastfeeding can only have long-term adverse consequences for bonding and for the male-female sexual relationship.

The absence of any one of these three emotional senses in the development of the infant, e.g. failure to breast-feed, removes not only the primary neuropsychological foundation for "Intimacy" (smell, the primitive olfactory sexual brain) but also precludes the formation of the brain gestalt that can only be formed when all of the sensory elements are present. By analogy one cannot form a perception of "triangle" with only two lines. It takes not only three lines but it also requires their combination in specific relationships to one another to form the perceptual gestalt of "triangle". It is my belief that similar sensory-brain processes are at work developmentally in the formation of affectional bonds; "Basic Trust"; "Affection"; and "Intimacy" which have long term developmental consequences for the development and stability of love relationships. Stated differently, Love is a "Brain Gestalt" where, indeed, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

The failure to integrate pleasure into the higher brain centers associated with "Consciousness" (frontal lobes) is the principal neuropsychological condition for the expression of violence, particularly sexual violence. Pleasure that is experienced only at the genital-spinal reflex level or limbic level of brain function does not result in the inhibition of sexually exploitative and violent behaviors. It is at these lower levels of brain processing of sexual pleasure where sado-masochism flourishes (Prescott, 1977; 1990).

A fractured neurobiological/neuropsychological substrate which results from early sensory deprivation results in a "dissociative brain" which translates into dissociative behaviors: depression, alienation, rage, violence and chemical dependencies to self-medicate the effects of SAD.

Excerpts from Presentation by Dr. James Prescott Panel on NIH Research on Anti-Social, Aggressive and Violence-Related Behaviors and Their Consequences
Center for Science Policy Studies, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, MD, 9/93

My path to the moral, philosophical, and theological roots of human violence was directed by my scientific studies on the effects of the sensory deprivation of physical (somatosensory) pleasure upon the developing brain and behavior. These studies were a part and parcel of a broad program of systematic research on the origins of violence that I established a quarter century ago at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, as Health Scientist Administrator, Developmental Behavioral Biology Program from 1966-1980.

What we have learned from the programs of research on the developmental origins of violence, NICHD 1966-1980, are the following:

1. The single most important cause of violent behavior, the developmental depression that precedes it, and the later drug/alcohol abuse that is used to treat the emotional pain that underlies the rage of uncontrolled violence is the failure of physical affectional bonding in the maternal-infant relationship; the paternal-child relationship and the failure of adolescent sexual affectional bonding. In short, it is the failure of physical love in human relationships that begins with the failure of that physical love when the infant is not permitted to bond with the body of its mother which then begins the infant's journey of depression, rage, hatred and violence for not being loved. Thus, the peril of infant and child day care centers which impedes, if not prevents, the affectional bonding between mother and her infant/child and, thus, all later affectional bonds.

2. Experimental studies of isolation-reared infant monkeys documented that maternal-infant separation constitutes a specific form of somatosensory affectional deprivation (SAD) that involves the somesthetic (touch) and vestibular-cerebellar (movement) sensory systems and results in a variety of abnormalities of brain development that includes structural, neurochemical and neuroelectrical abnormalities. It is these brain abnormalities that mediate the depression, chronic stimulus seeking behaviors, including self-mutilation, and pathologic violence against other animals that are invariably observed consequent to maternal-social deprivation or isolation rearing.

3. Building upon the insights from these experimental animal studies, I conducted cross-cultural studies on 49 primitive cultures distributed throughout the world and was able to predict with 100% accuracy the peaceful and violent nature of these 49 primitive cultures from two predictor variables: a) the degree of physical affectional bonding in the maternal-infant relationship; and b) whether premarital adolescent sex was permitted or punished. There were 29 peaceful and 20 violent cultures in this study sample. There is no other theory or data base that I am aware of that can provide such a prediction of peaceful or violent behaviors and that can relate such findings to specific sensory processes and brain mechanisms of the individual.

4. It is the neuronal systems of the brain which mediate pleasure that regulate and control depression, violence and drug/alcohol abuse and addiction. This control and regulation is provided through the mechanisms of reciprocal inhibition. When the neuronal pleasure circuits of the brain are damaged by SAD-DNS (Somatosensory Affectional Deprivation/Denervation Supersensitivity) then they cannot perform their normative role of regulation and inhibition of those neuronal circuits that mediate depression and violent behaviors.

5. Depressive and Violent Behaviors cannot be understood nor prevented until we understand the neurobiological and neuropsychological role of physical pleasure that must be integrated into those higher brain structures that mediate consciousness and those transcendental states of human spirituality that we call love. Non-integrated pleasure leads to sexual violence and sado-masochism--a consequence of SAD-DNS.

6. Physical affectional pleasure is not only moral but is morally necessary if we are to become moral and spiritual persons in our common bond with humanity. The understanding of the nature of human love is a proper subject for scientific study and such studies are essential if human violence is to be understood and prevented.

7. A science of pleasure is as essential as a science of pain, depression, violence and drug abuse/addiction. Yet, nowhere in the NIH agenda or protocols for violence research is their any mention of research "on pleasure which is essential for peaceful and harmonious behavior.

8. The enormity of the human existential problems of depression, alienation, rage-hatred, violence and drug abuse/addictions exceed the capabilities of existing institutional structures of our society to solve. These existential phenomena cannot be properly or meaningfully addressed within the confines of a biomedical model of health and disease, as the history of the NIH, NICHD and NIMH attests. Molecular biology, as a mediating mechanism, cannot solve these human existential phenomena.

The reported expenditures on violence research by the NIH, as being less than one percent of the total NIH budget, is also illustrative of the limitations of the NIH with respect to violence and peace research.

New institutional structures are needed for the study of the understanding and prevention of human violence and its converse, the development of human peace and love. A National Science Foundation For Human Development could provide the innovative institutional structure and functional leadership that is needed for such an extraordinary human mission. Significant restructuring of all those federal agencies concerned with human health and behavior is needed, as we prepare to move into the 21st Century to construct a "land of peace".

Editor's Note: A compilation of Dr. Prescott's views, with references and Tables, is available from Touch the Future, 123 Nevada St. #A, Nevada City, CA 95959. Tel. 530 265 8494. For further information, go to:

Dr. Prescott is at 212 Woodsedge Dr., Lansing, NY 14882. Email:

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