Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Free Will and Criminal Behavior

The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist's Quest for What Makes Us Human

For some time I have been pondering the existence of “free will.” The more one learns about the brain and its functions and its complexities, the easier it is to believe that our thought processes can all be derived from chemical and electrical activity in our brains. What we refer to as free will could be just a response to the inevitable progression of these physical impulses. One of the reasons I chose to read The Tell-Tale Brain by V.S.Ramachandran was to find some insight and confirmation. Ramachandran provided plenty of insight, but chose to punt when it came to confirmation. When he gets around to discussing free will it is as an aspect of our conscious brain with the properties:

“You have a sense of being able to consciously choose between alternative courses of action with the full knowledge that you could have chosen otherwise.”

He says that we believe we have freedom to chose, not that we actually do have this freedom.

However, the picture of the brain that emerges from his book is one in which the conscious mind is relegated to handling only those functions that the subconscious mind deems to be not critical or time urgent. If a possible threat, such as an animal, appears in your visual space, the analysis and the threat or no threat decision is made for you, and if a fear or flight response is necessary the physiological changes required are set into motion before the conscious mind is allowed to participate. One might say that the book is all about how our unconscious brain is capable of controlling our actions and perceptions.

This leaves one with the feeling that if there is such a thing as free will, it is probably a much smaller component of what we would describe as our “self” than we might have otherwise assumed.

Such considerations are intellectually interesting but probably not resolvable. It is a bit like arguing religion. Free will is an attribute that most humans fervently want to believe in, and rational arguments are not likely to be persuasive.

These thoughts become more than mere intellectual games when we come face-to-face with criminal behavior and the need to deal with it in society. There is a truly excellent article dealing with this topic by David Eagleman in The Atlantic: The Brain on Trial. Eagleman sees advances in our understanding of brain function necessitating changes in the way we view and deal with criminals.

As for free will, he has this to say:

“Free will may exist (it may simply be beyond our current science), but one thing seems clear: if free will does exist, it has little room in which to operate. It can at best be a small factor riding on top of vast neural networks shaped by genes and environment. In fact, free will may end up being so small that we eventually think about bad decision-making in the same way we think about any physical process, such as diabetes or lung disease.”

Eagleman provides these comments as perspective on how to begin considering a response to anti-social behavior.

“Many of us like to believe that all adults possess the same capacity to make sound choices. It’s a charitable idea, but demonstrably wrong. People’s brains are vastly different.”

“Who you even have the possibility to be starts at conception. If you think genes don’t affect how people behave, consider this fact: if you are a carrier of a particular set of genes, the probability that you will commit a violent crime is four times as high as it would be if you lacked those genes. You’re three times as likely to commit robbery, five times as likely to commit aggravated assault, eight times as likely to be arrested for murder, and 13 times as likely to be arrested for a sexual offense. The overwhelming majority of prisoners carry these genes; 98.1 percent of death-row inmates do. These statistics alone indicate that we cannot presume that everyone is coming to the table equally equipped in terms of drives and behaviors.”

“And this feeds into a larger lesson of biology: we are not the ones steering the boat of our behavior, at least not nearly as much as we believe. Who we are runs well below the surface of our conscious access, and the details reach back in time to before our birth, when the meeting of a sperm and an egg granted us certain attributes and not others. Who we can be starts with our molecular blueprints—a series of alien codes written in invisibly small strings of acids—well before we have anything to do with it. Each of us is, in part, a product of our inaccessible, microscopic history. By the way, as regards that dangerous set of genes, you’ve probably heard of them. They are summarized as the Y chromosome. If you’re a carrier, we call you a male.”

“Genes are part of the story, but they’re not the whole story. We are likewise influenced by the environments in which we grow up....And every experience throughout our lives can modify genetic expression—activating certain genes or switching others off—which in turn can inaugurate new behaviors. In this way, genes and environments intertwine.”

“When it comes to nature and nurture, the important point is that we choose neither one. We are each constructed from a genetic blueprint, and then born into a world of circumstances that we cannot control in our most-formative years. The complex interactions of genes and environment mean that all citizens—equal before the law—possess different perspectives, dissimilar personalities, and varied capacities for decision-making. The unique patterns of neurobiology inside each of our heads cannot qualify as choices; these are the cards we’re dealt.”

Eagleman provides a number of examples of criminal behavior that can be attributed to something other than pure volition. He does not argue that these people should be excused for their conduct. People who are dangerous or who otherwise engage in illegal behavior need to be dealt with, and incarceration is still a valid response by society. He sees the functions of sentencing and rehabilitation as the areas in which science and knowledge of brain function can provide more effective and more humane results.

“Instead of debating culpability, we should focus on what to do, moving forward, with an accused lawbreaker. I suggest that the legal system has to become forward-looking, primarily because it can no longer hope to do otherwise. As science complicates the question of culpability, our legal and social policy will need to shift toward a different set of questions: How is a person likely to behave in the future? Are criminal actions likely to be repeated? Can this person be helped toward pro-social behavior? How can incentives be realistically structured to deter crime?”

What sort of things might science be able to provide to influence and change behavioral tendencies? Unfortunately, there is not much available at present. Eagleman points to an increased realization that many of the incarcerated are in fact addicts, mentally ill, or both. In any case, incarceration without adequate treatment is not going to be effective. One fears that there will be over exuberance in defining mental illness and treating it with the current set of drugs. While these may be able to modify symptoms in the short term, there is little evidence that they do anything but harm in the long-term.

More promising are methods that hold promise of changing impulse tendencies by a bio-feedback approach. Eagleman mentions one approach that is being tested that he refers to as “the prefrontal workout.” It is probably more informative to refer to it as cognitive bias modification. Eagleman’s suggestion is to find a signal from brain activity that represents an emotion such as severe anger. The idea is that if the subject can see a representation of the level of his anger, he can learn how to suppress the response. The therapist generates situations in which there will be an anger response and the subject tries to cope with it. It is a promising idea, but it is not ready for prime time yet.

Eagleman has provided a thought-provoking article. Our justice system is based on the notion that all people have free will to chose or chose not to commit a crime. Eagleman has made a valuable contribution if his effort results in more people questioning this notion of equality between individuals.

It would seem that free will and biological research are on a collision course. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

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