Disney’s highly anticipated—and advertised—live action version of Beauty and the Beast, starring Emma Watson, opens at theaters on March 17 and is projected to take in $120 million at the box office.
It’s already clear, based on the response to the original animated version, that audiences are powerfully drawn to this feel-good story of rehabilitation through relationship.
The Beast responds to the Belle’s kindness, and from the perspective of interpersonal neurobiology, we can almost see new synapses forming connections in his brain enabling him to control his more violent impulses. And yet many in that same U.S. audience who flock to watch the story of the Beast’s reform oppose efforts to reform our criminal justice system, prioritizing punishment and isolation of inmates over rehabilitation through relationship.
Brain science has shown that punishment exacerbates the fight, flight or freeze response that is already hypersensitive in children who have suffered trauma. If we apply the same theory to adults, you could consider the possibility that, like the Beast, many in the criminal justice system would respond more positively to kindness, empathy, and relationship than to punishment, aggression, and isolation.
The science of brain development suggests that nurturing the ability to form healthy relationships can heal the brain and help regulate impulses, particularly aggressive impulses that are triggered by a fight or flight response.
The fight, flight or freeze response is our body’s way of dealing with imminent danger. When children are raised in a situation where threats to their safety are the norm, they end up existing in a state of hyper-arousal; they are constantly ready to fight or flee.
Without any form of intervention, this state persists into adulthood. Dr. Patricia Turner explains that while most of us exist in a state where on a scale of 0-10, our normal adrenaline levels are at a 0, adults who suffered childhood trauma exist at a constant state of 5 or 6.
This elevated level of adrenaline means then when confronted with an incident that might take most of us from 0 to 2 on the scale, those in a hyper-aroused state suddenly find themselves at a 7 or 8, their body’s equivalent of “Danger, Will Robinson!” Our brains are hard-wired to make a snap decision between threat and safety and respond accordingly, and for those who suffered childhood trauma, the default is threat.
In the book, Brain Based Parenting, authors Daniel Hughes and Jonathon Baylin report that the brains of adults who have suffered childhood trauma have a compromised executive function, the ability of the “upstairs” receptive brain to regulate the primitive brain’s more aggressive response and stay in control of one’s actions even when flooded with negative feelings.
With traumatized children, scared and sad look like mad. In other words, children often behave aggressively when they are afraid and/or unhappy. When the Beast is lonely and most afraid of being rejected, he responds to Belle in anger.
Dr. Karyn Purvis explains in her book, The Connected Child, that helping children feel that they are in a safe environment lowers the level of the stress hormones in their systems. The lesson for working with those who are incarcerated is that being in a hostile and stressful environment that lends itself to fear and sadness may result in anger and a decreased ability to control impulsive behavior.
We see a similar situation in children who are spanked or even put in time out temporarily.
At a time in our country when we have a record high of 2.2 million people in prison, the latest research in parenting techniques suggests that “time outs” are counter-productive to discipline because they isolate a child instead of offering a child the connection they are desperately seeking.
Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson explain that time-outs tend to make children angrier, more dysregulated, and less able to control themselves. In their book, No Drama Discipline, they explain that in anger, parents often respond to misbehaving children out of their own more primitive, “downstairs” reptilian brain, and in doing so “poke the lizard” in their children’s brains prompting a response in kind.
The antidote they suggest is a “time in” that forges connection and relationship rather than punishment and isolation. By responding with our “upstairs” receptive brain through empathy and nurture, we can activate the child’s “upstairs” relational brain enabling their ability to regulate their own emotions and impulses. Siegel and Bryson simply state, “Connection moves a child from reactivity to receptivity.”
The audience may cheer when the Beast moves from reactivity to receptivity in response to Belle’s empathy, but the response to those who are incarcerated often comes out of our own “downstairs” reptilian brain in a desire for vengeance rather than rehabilitation.
There is cause for empathy, given the tendency for those incarcerated to have backgrounds involving trauma. In the school to prison pipeline, children who experience childhood trauma are more likely to have behavioral issues in school and be suspended. Those same children often end up incarcerated without their trauma issues being addressed or resolved.
Seventy percent of the inmates in the California state prison system were formerly in foster care. If we recognize the fact that there is a high correlation between incarceration and the experience of childhood trauma, one could consider the possibility that like the Beast, many in the criminal justice system would respond more positively to the kindness and relationship building of a trauma informed care approach than to punishment and aggression.
The science of brain development suggests that developing the ability to form healthy attachments can heal the brain and help regulate impulse, particularly violent impulses that are triggered by a hyper-aroused fight or flight response. Neuroplasticity is a fancy way of saying that even in adulthood, our brains are able to change, to be rewired.
Daniel Reisel argues that the brain is capable of extraordinary change, even in case of psychopathic murderers, but that ability of the brain to rewire itself is negatively impacted by a stressful environment, and our prison system is built upon control through fear and isolation.
Alternatively, when we apply the lessons of parenting traumatized children to our criminal justice system, the use of restorative justice focuses on relationship building in a way that is congruent with our understanding of the role of attachment in brain development and health.
To be sure, some will argue that many prisoners have committed horrific crimes and need to be held accountable for what they have done, but the key to effective parenting of children who have suffered trauma combines the maintenance of structure and clear boundaries for children in conjunction with relationship and connection.
Our current model of incarceration may have adequate structure and boundaries, but without fostering human relationship and connection, rehabilitation is not possible. To be sure, given the opportunity for rehabilitation, not all prisoners will respond positively and we do not yet have a large body of evidence for the effectiveness of restorative justice, leading some to think rehabilitation is just a fairy tale, but society pays a huge financial and moral price to build the entire criminal justice system around the lowest common denominator.
Incarceration rates in the U.S. have increased 500 percent in the last 40 years, and we now have the highest incarceration rate in the world. Growth of for profit prison system has undercut efforts to reform the criminal justice system and focus more resources on rehabilitation.
The for profit prison system recently received payback on their investment in President Donald Trump’s presidential campaign through the revoking of former President Barack Obama’s order to phase out the use of for profit prisons in the federal system.
The use of those who are incarcerated to provide corporations with cheap labor further undercuts motivation to change the status quo. As the academy award nominated documentary 13thnotes, the historically racist stereotyping of Black men as beasts helped enable incarceration to replace slavery in this country and led to this drastic increase in numbers through the political rhetoric of the “war on drugs.”
Just as in the Disney movie, Gaston whips the townspeople into a frenzy, those who benefit financially and politically from the current system find it easier to convince the public to turn a blind eye when the prisoner is seen as a beast.
The question for the public who will flock to see the Disney film later this month is whether we want to be the townspeople who follow Gaston (the for profit prisons, the politicians garnering the racist vote, and the corporations exploiting cheap labor while singing “kill the beast”), or do we want to be on the side of Belle and those who believe in the power of empathy and compassion to transform and heal, to bring out what is most human in each of us.