We Are Who We Are…Or Are We?

in Opinion
November 7th, 2012

One of the things people have not been able to understand, both morally and biologically, is what drives criminal behavior. When people hear about shootings on the news, such as the one in Colorado at the movie premier of The Dark Night Rises, a question that commonly runs through people’s minds, is “Why on earth would someone do that?”  People seem to ask this question with the assumption that the person is at fault for what they have done. However, can we certainly blame the individual for what they did? David Eagleman, author of Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain and neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine, attempts to unveil the mysteries that surround this question.

In the United States, people are innocent until proven guilty.  Often, it seems as though a person’s fate is predicated on the motives and intentions behind the criminal act.  At first glance, it is easy to blame someone like The Dark Night Rises shooter for his actions. People would say, “Of course he knew what he was doing.”  A criminal is generally aware of the differences between right and wrong; however, it is possible that he may be influenced by a mental health issue, with an inability to control his impulses.  As Eagleman discusses:

“Biological processes describe most or, some would argue, all of what is going on in our brains.  Given the steering power of our genetics, childhood experiences, environmental toxins, hormones, neurotransmitters, and neural circuitry, enough of our decisions are beyond our explicit control that we are arguably not the ones in charge.”

This statement delves into the question of whether or not culpability is the correct question to be asking in our justice system.  Neuroscientists have studied the many different ways in which small changes in the brain can affect our behavior.  Drugs, for example, act on receptors in the brain, triggering or inhibiting certain chemicals that often cause behavioral or emotional changes. In another case, damage to or chemical changes in a specific cortical area, such as the orbitofrontal cortex, makes it difficult to realistically interpret a social situation, which can cause rash decisions.  These are basic examples of how changes to our brain are significant enough to change how we act.

How can we now apply this neuroscience to the evaluation of criminal behavior? How do we know that all criminals are at fault for their behavior? How do we know that the shooter does not have damage to the brain, and how do we know that the damage did not impact his or her decisions?  Asking these questions is crucial for reforming how criminal cases are managed in terms of punishment and treatment. It can be argued that culpability is not the correct question to be asking in courts because it is not necessarily just to blame someone for a crime over which they had no control. As Eagleman states, “The more we discover about the circuitry of the brain, the more the answers tip away from accusations of indulgence, lack of motivation, and poor discipline — and move toward the details of the biology”.  Neuroscience is an emerging field with research applicable to all of human life. It is the mere beginning of discovering how decisions are made, what drives human behavior, and how much freedom humans have in controlling their own behavior.


Incognito by David Eagleman

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