Brain on Trial: researcher reevaluates how guilty criminals are, based on their brains

Aug 1, 2011

David Eagleman recounts the crime case: On August 1, 1966, Charles Whitman, a well-liked family man, stabbed his wife and mother to death and then went on a shooting rampage at the University of Texas in Austin, killing 13 people and wounding 32. The night before, he wrote a suicide note, “I don’t really understand myself these days. I am supposed to be an average reasonable and intelligent young man. However, lately… I have been a victim of many unusual and irrational thoughts…. I decided to kill my wife, Kathy, tonight… I love her dearly, and she has been as fine a wife to me as any man could ever hope to have. I cannot rationa[l]ly pinpoint any specific reason for doing this.” Explanation? Whitman had a brain tumor, as an autopsy determined. Eagleman recounts another: a married man suddenly develops an obsession with child pornography and gets a prison sentence after making advances towards his stepdaughter. The night before he goes to prison, he goes to the ER for an excruciating headache—doctors find a massive tumor, remove it, and the pedophilia goes away. As a third example, Eagleman writes, there’s Parkinson’s patients who take pramipexole and become pathological gamblers—the drug mimics dopamine and thereby, in some, throws off the reward system, which draws one to food, drink, sex, etc.

What do these cases tell us? That the biology of our brains often dictates our actions, without our control. That the concepts of free will and personal responsibility are not as black-and-white as we used to think. Eagleman writes, “The legal system… [assumes] that we are ‘practical reasonsers’ but if free will does not exist, blameworthiness needs to be reevaluated, as does our legal system.” He argues that a “forward-thinking legal system informed by scientific insights into the brain will enable us to stop treating prison as a one-size-fits-all solution.” In response, Eagleman and his colleagues have developed a rehabilitation method they call a “prefrontal lobe workout” to help people squelch their short-term desires to allow a reflection period before action. David Eagleman joins Patt to discuss this research that could transform our legal system and notions of guilt and put the “brain on trial.”

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