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June 30, 2011 / Dr. Toad

Eagleman’s Technique

David Eagleman springs onto the stage a bit like a rock star, and he might as well be one — “downstairs at Town Hall” is now full with 300+ in the audience. I don’t know, maybe Gary Shteyngart gets more people to come to his readings.

Ostensibly, Eagleman is there to tell us about our unconscious selves — the overwhelming bulk of the neural machinery that feels, thinks and makes decisions in ways that are completely inaccessible to the meager varnish on top of it that we think are “us”. But he also has an axe to grind, and it’s against our retributive justice system and incarceration. It is incompatible, he says, with current neuroscience.

Neuroscience was the queen of the day at Town Hall Tuesday night with the double-feature of Tali Sharot and David Eagleman.

So anyway, this stuff I’m writing, am I deciding to write it or am I not? I happen to believe in free will despite cursory training as a first-year philosophy student over a decade ago, and I happen to agree that our best bet at understanding the world is through the application and advancement of the sciences. Are these views incompatible? The short answer is “we don’t know yet” — neuroscience has made enormous progress but there are still plenty of mysteries hidden in the folds of the human brain. But we do know that our brains are essentially us, says Eagleman, in the following way: if your brain changes, you become a different person. If your prefrontal cortex degenerates, you can no longer control your darkest impulses. If your neurotransmitter levels are out of whack, you feel unloved and useless.

Eagleman argues in his book Incognito which he was here to promote, and in his article in this month’s The Atlantic, which is adapted from the book, that we are all — free will or not — almost entirely the product of biology and circumstances not of our choosing during the formative years. And that therefore our justice system should not rely on the premise that people are free rational agents who choose their actions voluntarily and therefore are either culpable or not. Instead, it should focus on what we do with the criminal from now on: are the particular biological and circumstantial forces that shaped his or her brain such that the criminal is likely to strike again? If the crime was a result of poor impulse control in the brain, was it just the prefrontal cortex that was guilty, I mean, impaired? And would a better course of action instead of incarceration be a science-based treatment plan to train the brain of the criminal in better socialization and self-control?

The incarceration rate is a huge problem in the US (#1 in the world), and our prisons are full of mentally ill people and drug addicts — criminals whose behavior is extremely unlikely to change as the result of incarceration, unless it’s for the worse. Eagleman thinks we’d be better served to offer convicted criminals fMRI scanner-based treatment sessions which his lab is developing and which would enable the subjects to retrain their brains even if they don’t consciously know how they’re doing it.

And I have issues with this idea. Why does it ring an alarm in my inaccessible brain? I can’t quite pinpoint it, but I think it has something to do with A Clockwork Orange. Or with the history of sentencing of undesirables to “psychiatric treatments” under repressive regimes in the 20th century. My inaccessible subconscious conjures up these images when I think about the broader idea that the great variety, the great distribution of properties of the human mind, is something to be treated and modified to conform to normalcy. I guess we do that anyway and we have some notion on where to draw the line between healthy variability and essentially brain disease. It seems that being found guilty of a violent crime falls squarely beyond that line. Plus, Eagleman’s technique depends entirely on the will of the subject (patient?) to keep with the task at any moment. And yet, and yet.

What do you think?

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2 Comments

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  1. Nathan Stacey / Jul 2 2011 10:47 am

    I’ve been reading a fair amount of material with respect to neuroscience lately. By no means does that qualifiy me as an experty or even a neophyte. But, it seems that with the large amount of data and insight being produced by these scientists, it would be irresponsible to make hasty decisions as of yet. No, that does not provide a solution to the growing populations of incarcerated individuals.

    I’m curious to know what other countries do with their incarcerated? Is it wrong to put these individuals to work? Sitting in a cell does not provide any rehabilitation, nor does confining these individuals with other like-minded people. By removing them from society and placing them together, aren’t we just perpetuating the same thinking and reinforcing those negative behaviors? If their actions are a result of bad environment, then re-creating that environment seems rather counter productive. And yet we continue to cast these individuals out of sight. It seems almost barbaric. Of course this leads to the inevitable question of funding. How do we pay for rehabilitation, and is it worth it?

    Maybe these neuroscientists can provide a guide for rehabilitative selection, but that still leaves us with bulidings filled with inmates and no clear course of action reiterating the question of, “what do we do with them now.”

  2. betterlivingthroughscience / Jul 5 2011 4:40 am

    Modern Western society is pretty tolerant of a pretty wide variety of variation – I see no problem with using technology (like fMRI, or any other reasonable measure) to try and mitigate the effects of people who step outside the bounds of civil society in a violent manner.

    The ‘medicalisation’ of criminality has been going on since the 19th century – we just suddenly have some new relevant technologies (MRI) which have enabled us to take a leap forward recently. Agreed that the concept of ‘treating’ criminals (how? with drugs? brain surgery? DBS maybe?) is ethically highly suspect though. We live in interesting times.

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