[Paleopsych] Guardian: I'm not guilty - but my brain is

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I'm not guilty - but my brain is

    A leading neuroscientist caused a sensation by claiming crimes are the
    result of brain abnormalities. Laura Spinney investigates a slanging
    match between scientists and philosophers
    Laura Spinney
    Thursday August 12, 2004

    Last month, the case against Patrizia Reggiani was reopened in Italy.
    She is serving a 26-year jail sentence for having ordered the killing
    of her husband, the fashion supremo Maurizio Gucci. At the first trial
    in 1998, expert witnesses dismissed her lawyers' claims that surgery
    for a brain tumour had changed her personality. The new trial has been
    granted because her lawyers believe that brain imaging techniques
    developed since then will reveal damage that was previously
    undetectable, and strengthen their case for an acquittal.

    The idea that someone should not be punished if their abnormal neural
    make-up leaves them no choice but to break the law is contentious but
    not new. However, one prominent neuroscientist has sparked a storm by
    picking it up and turning it round. Writing in the Frankfurter
    Allgemeine Zeitung, one of Germany's leading newspapers, Wolf Singer
    argued that crime itself should be taken as evidence of brain
    abnormality, even if no abnormality can be found, and criminals
    treated as incapable of having acted otherwise.

    His claims have brought howls of outrage from academics across the
    sciences and humanities. But Singer counters that the idea is nothing
    but a natural extension of the thesis that free will is an illusion -
    a theory that he feels is supported by decades of work in

    The head of the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research in Frankfurt,
    Singer is best known for his work on the so-called binding problem of
    perception. This is the conundrum of how we perceive an object as an
    integrated whole, when we know that the brain processes the various
    elements of it - colours, angles, and so on - separately. His group
    was among the first to suggest, and then demonstrate, that the answer
    lay in the synchronisation encoding the separate features. He has
    since extrapolated those ideas to the process by which we make
    decisions, which has led him to question whether we are really the
    free-acting agents we imagine ourselves to be.

    His argument goes like this. Neurobiology tells us that there is no
    centre in the brain where actions are planned and decisions made.
    Decisions emerge from a collection of dynamic systems that run in
    parallel and are underpinned by nerve cells that talk to each other -
    the brain. If you look back in evolution to say, the sea slug Aplysia,
    you see that the building blocks of this brain have not changed. The
    amino acids, the nerve cells, the signalling pathways and largely the
    genes, are the same. "It's the same material [in humans], just more
    complex," says Singer. "So the same rules must govern what humans do.
    Unavoidable conclusion."

    He argues that the human brain has to be complex to compute all the
    myriad variables that influence each decision we make - genetic
    factors, socially learned factors, momentary triggers including
    commands and wishes, to name a few. And because it considers most of
    those variables at a subconscious level, we are not aware of all the
    factors that make us behave in a certain way, just as we are not aware
    of all the elements of an object that are processed separately by our
    visual brains. As humans, however, we are able to extract some of
    those factors and make them the focus of attention; that is, render
    them conscious. And with our behaviour, as with the world we see, we
    yearn to build a coherent picture. So we might justify our decisions
    in ways that have nothing to do with our real, subconscious

    The most striking example of this is hypnotism. Singer himself learned
    how to hypnotise while a student at Cambridge University. At a party,
    he instructed a Royal Air Force pilot to remove the bulb from a light
    fitting and place it in a flowerpot, on hearing the word Germany. The
    pilot did so in mid-conversation, much to the amusement of the
    onlookers. They were amateurs, they didn't debrief him properly. And
    when they told him what he had done, because he had no recollection of
    doing it, he was extremely disturbed.

    According to Singer, what the pilot did is explained by the structure
    of his brain and its inherent weakness, if you see it as a weakness to
    be susceptible to hypnotism. The same goes for a murderer or a thief,
    he says. We live in a society where people whose behaviour is
    considered to deviate from the norm - as determined arbitrarily by
    that society - answer to the justice system. But the way they are
    treated by that system is, he believes, inconsistent.

    If some abnormality is found in a person's brain, the doctor's report
    is submitted as mitigating evidence and the defendant may be treated
    more leniently. If nothing is discovered, they are not. Take the case
    of the British man who terrorised 200 officials because he thought
    they intended to have him sectioned under the Mental Health Act.
    Psychiatrists found no sign of a mitigating mental illness, and he was
    jailed for life. But, says Singer, if a person does something
    antisocial, the reason for it is in the brain. The underlying cause
    may be a twist in a gene, or a tiny hormonal imbalance that cannot be
    detected with current technology. "It could have multiple reasons," he
    says. "But these reasons must all manifest themselves in brain

    In practice, he says, the change in thinking he advocates wouldn't
    change the way we treat criminals all that much. People considered a
    danger to society should be kept away from society, re-educated as far
    as possible and in cases where this is not possible, simply kept away,
    as they already are. But he would like to see the courts place less
    burden on psychiatrists, who are not capable of identifying all the
    subtle structural changes that lead individuals to behave as they do.
    "As long as we can't identify all the causes, which we cannot and will
    probably never be able to do, we should grant that for everybody there
    is a neurobiological reason for being abnormal," he says.

    He does not argue that a criminal should not be held responsible for
    their crime. After all, if a person is not responsible for their own
    brain, who is? Neither does he argue that we should do away with
    concepts of good and evil. "We judge our fellow men as either
    conforming to our rules or breaking them," he says. "We need to
    continue to assign values to our behaviour, because there is no other
    way to organise society." However, he does argue that when people
    commit crimes, they are not acting independently of the nerve cells
    and amino acids that make up their brains, and that behave according
    to certain deterministic principles.

    One important implication of his argument is that treatment meted out
    to offenders should be less about revenge and punishment, and more
    about assessing their risk of re-offending, given the brain they have.
    Of course, this already happens. If a woman has been driven to a crime
    of passion after severe provocation, having otherwise lived an
    exemplary life, she is considered less of a danger to society than a
    man who has frequently abducted teenage girls, raped and murdered
    them. Another corollary of Singer's ideas that he recognises will be
    harder for people to swallow, is that the consequences of a crime
    should be considered less important than they are, since an individual
    can only control his own actions and not those of others. For example,
    a driver seen running a red light should be treated the same way
    whether or not he hit the child who, unseen from the wheel, stepped
    into the road at the same moment.

    "Breathtaking," is how Ted Honderich, a philosopher at University
    College London, scathingly describes Singer's foray into traditional
    philosophical territory. Honderich says philosophers have discussed
    different definitions of freedom for centuries, one of which is
    perfectly compatible with the sort of determinism Singer describes.
    That is, if free action is defined as action caused by your character
    - whatever hereditary and environmental influences contributed to that
    character - then you are free even if your brain does resemble that of
    a slug.

    And although the discussion might appear to have degenerated into a
    slanging match between scientists and philosophers, neuroscientists
    have also criticised Singer. "We don't know enough to make such
    conclusions," says Cornelius Weiller, an expert in brain imaging at
    Hamburg University. Singer is right, he says, that there is no
    homunculus in the brain, making our decisions for us. But the question
    remains, how do all those parallel computations become integrated, and
    how does the self feel that "I" made the decision? Science has yet to
    answer the binding problem of decision-making.

    In response to the accusation that he is rehashing old ideas, Singer
    points out that the German newspaper debate got under way without him,
    and he was merely responding. So the more interesting question,
    perhaps, is why the public is interested again now. One reason, he
    thinks, is that people look at their societies, see that the
    totalitarian ones failed, and realise that the most complex are
    self-organising and impossible to steer or control. "You free yourself
    from authorities, including the gods, but you find yourself part of an
    evolving system," he says. "Now you realise that you don't really have
    influence on the dynamics of the systems in which you are. I think
    this gives a feeling of helplessness."

    Further reading

    · Keiner kann anders, als er ist, by Wolf Singer, Frankfurter
    Allgemeine Zeitung, January 8 2004 (in German only; his original

    · How Free Are You? The Determinism Problem, by Ted Honderich (Oxford
    University Press, 2002) ISBN 0199251975

    · The Volitional Brain: Towards a Neuroscience of Free Will, by
    Benjamin Libet (ed) et al (Imprint Academic, 2000) ISBN 0907845509

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