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Violence and the brain


Admission requirements

This course is part of the Minor Violence Studies, and is open to bachelor students from all faculties. Students can also take this course as an elective course. There are no specific admission requirements, but students should be familiar with social science research or should familiarise themselves in preparation for this course.


Why do some parents abuse their children? What makes teenage gang members act out aggressively against others? What drives people to murder others? Is it nurture, or nature that ultimately determines such violent behaviors?

This course will explore the complex neurobiology of violence, and take a whirlwind tour of the multifaceted factors and mechanisms that underlie interpersonal violence. We will discuss the role of the brain one second before a violent act is committed, and how this is shaped by neurobiological mechanisms that were formed in the preceding months and years. We will take a developmental perspective, focusing on the developing brain, early experiences, and the importance of the social context in determining the ways in which we act violently, or respond to violence. We will take an interdisciplinary perspective including Archaeology, Philosophy, Developmental Science, and Neuroscience to discuss the mechanisms that shape violent interpersonal behaviors, including different types of violent behaviors against others (e.g., aggression, abuse, bullying). In doing so, we will detail how and why such behaviors are influenced by our neurobiology (i.e., the brain, HPA axis, hormones), and how they are shaped by the social environment and the social structures surrounding us. We will also learn about the role of affiliation, empathy, and altruism in shaping interpersonal violence. We will discuss the latest scientific perspectives on the neurobiology of violence, and how one can examine the etiology and effects of interpersonal violence.

Course objectives

After completion of the course, students will be able to:

  • Understand and identify the social and neurobiological mechanisms that aid violence.

  • Understand and identify the main theoretical perspectives of how violent experiences and behaviors affect the developing brain, and social functioning.

  • Identify key social and/or developmental influences that make young people vulnerable to act violently towards others, or themselves.

  • Apply contemporary theoretical frameworks on the neurobiology of interpersonal violence.


For the timetable of this course please refer to MyTimetable

Mode of instruction

7 x Weekly quiz from week 2 on Brightspace. We will post a weekly online quiz with 5 questions to promote active learning. Students are encouraged to complete the quiz each week.

8 x 2-hour lectures and guest lecturers. These lectures will form the heart of this course. The lectures will outline the main concepts and illustrate them using examples from clinical and/or research practice. We will benefit from guest lecturers from across a wide range of disciplines, including Archaeology, Philosophy, Developmental Science, and Neuroscience. For these lectures we will utilize a book (The Anatomy of Violence, Raine) + a scientific overview paper (Conduct Disorder Primer, Fairchild), along with online multimedia material with clear relevance to society. The material discussed in the lectures is also part of the exam literature, so attendance is highly necessary.

Assessment method

  • An exam consisting of multiple choice (80% of the final grade) and open questions (20% of the final grade). The exam will be based on the assigned readings, videos, podcasts and materials covered in class. You will be permitted to re-sit the exam if the calculated final grade is lower than 5,5.

  • To pass the course students also have to produce and present a scientific poster (graded 'Pass' or 'Fail'). More details on this assignment will be provided during the course.

Reading list

Mandatory material covered in this course include:

a) Raine, A. (2014/2016). The Anatomy of Violence: The Biological Roots of Crime. Published by Penguin Books Ltd, ISBN 10: 0141046864 / ISBN 13: 9780141046860.

b) Fairchild, G. (2019). Conduct Disorder Primer. Nature Reviews Disease Primers.

c) Multimedia including Podcasts, Video clips and Documentaries on topics related to the lectures will be posted on Brightspace (all freely available online).

d) The lectures will form the heart of this course, but self-study through engagement with the online materials posted on Brightspace is expected.


This course is the responsibility of the Board of Examiners Education and Child Studies. The Course and Examination Regulations of the Bachelor Pedagogische Wetenschappen 2022-2023 apply.
The study advisers of the Institute of Education and Child Studies can be contacted by sending an email to


For questions please contact


This course takes place in The Faculty of Social and Behavioural sciences in Leiden.