David Eagleman and The Brain on Trial

Imagine for a second that anything you know about the motivations behind criminal activity. For most of us, myself included, our assessment of burglars, murderers, and other deviants is that they have made a choice to act this way (to break the law).

In a remarkable, provocative piece by David Eagleman, he suggests that criminal activity is ingrained in our brains. In no uncertain terms, Eagleman argues that how the human brain is wired ultimately determines how people will act. There is no such thing as free will.

The piece is long (but a must-read in its entirety). I pull a few significant quotes below.

The piece begins about Charles Whitman, a student at the University of Texas at Austin and a former Marine who killed 16 people and wounded 32 others during a shooting rampage on and around the university’s campus on August 1, 1966. The question was why? Eagleman begins to make his argument here, after Whitman’s suicide:

Whitman’s body was taken to the morgue, his skull was put under the bone saw, and the medical examiner lifted the brain from its vault. He discovered that Whitman’s brain harbored a tumor the diameter of a nickel. This tumor, called a glioblastoma, had blossomed from beneath a structure called the thalamus, impinged on the hypothalamus, and compressed a third region called the amygdala. The amygdala is involved in emotional regulation, especially of fear and aggression. By the late 1800s, researchers had discovered that damage to the amygdala caused emotional and social disturbances. In the 1930s, the researchers Heinrich Klüver and Paul Bucy demonstrated that damage to the amygdala in monkeys led to a constellation of symptoms, including lack of fear, blunting of emotion, and overreaction.

Perhaps the paragraph that tells the whole story of the piece:

When your biology changes, so can your decision-making and your desires. The drives you take for granted (“I’m a heterosexual/homosexual,” “I’m attracted to children/adults,” “I’m aggressive/not aggressive,” and so on) depend on the intricate details of your neural machinery. Although acting on such drives is popularly thought to be a free choice, the most cursory examination of the evidence demonstrates the limits of that assumption.

It is fascinating to learn how changing brain chemistry affects our moods, emotions, and behaviors. A classic example:

Changes in the balance of brain chemistry, even small ones, can also cause large and unexpected changes in behavior. Victims of Parkinson’s disease offer an example. In 2001, families and caretakers of Parkinson’s patients began to notice something strange. When patients were given a drug called pramipexole, some of them turned into gamblers. And not just casual gamblers, but pathological gamblers. These were people who had never gambled much before, and now they were flying off to Vegas. One 68-year-old man amassed losses of more than $200,000 in six months at a series of casinos.

Through the mini stories that Eagleman provides in his piece, he explains the lesson: there is no such thing as free will. Human behavior cannot be separated from our brain chemistry:

The lesson from all these stories is the same: human behavior cannot be separated from human biology. If we like to believe that people make free choices about their behavior (as in, “I don’t gamble, because I’m strong-willed”), cases like Alex the pedophile, the frontotemporal shoplifters, and the gambling Parkinson’s patients may encourage us to examine our views more carefully. Perhaps not everyone is equally “free” to make socially appropriate choices.

Now, it’s a little hard to digest that paragraph above. Cleverly, Eagleman begins to question you, the reader, on how you feel about this hypothesis:

Does the discovery of Charles Whitman’s brain tumor modify your feelings about the senseless murders he committed? Does it affect the sentence you would find appropriate for him, had he survived that day? Does the tumor change the degree to which you consider the killings “his fault”? Couldn’t you just as easily be unlucky enough to develop a tumor and lose control of your behavior?

On the other hand, wouldn’t it be dangerous to conclude that people with a tumor are free of guilt, and that they should be let off the hook for their crimes?

As our understanding of the human brain improves, juries are increasingly challenged with these sorts of questions. When a criminal stands in front of the judge’s bench today, the legal system wants to know whether he is blameworthy. Was it his fault, or his biology’s fault?

At this point, Eagleman counters and perhaps worries that he is going to lose readers. Your ideas are crazy, you might think. But please read on, as Eagleman suggests:

If I seem to be heading in an uncomfortable direction—toward letting criminals off the hook—please read on, because I’m going to show the logic of a new argument, piece by piece. The upshot is that we can build a legal system more deeply informed by science, in which we will continue to take criminals off the streets, but we will customize sentencing, leverage new opportunities for rehabilitation, and structure better incentives for good behavior. 

Some overwhelming statistics about criminal behavior:

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.

But what about the environmental effects? Surely someone growing up on the mean streets of Detroit would become more predisposed to crime than someone growing up in the quiet suburbs of Wichita, Kansas.

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 further espouses on free will, and explains that it doesn’t exist with a striking example of Tourette’s syndrome:

The legal system rests on the assumption that we are “practical reasoners,” a term of art that presumes, at bottom, the existence of free will. The idea is that we use conscious deliberation when deciding how to act—that is, in the absence of external duress, we make free decisions. This concept of the practical reasoner is intuitive but problematic.

The existence of free will in human behavior is the subject of an ancient debate. Arguments in support of free will are typically based on direct subjective experience (“I feel like I made the decision to lift my finger just now”). But evaluating free will requires some nuance beyond our immediate intuitions.

Consider a decision to move or speak. It feels as though free will leads you to stick out your tongue, or scrunch up your face, or call someone a name. But free will is not required to play any role in these acts. People with Tourette’s syndrome, for instance, suffer from involuntary movements and vocalizations. A typical Touretter may stick out his tongue, scrunch up his face, or call someone a name—all without choosing to do so.

So what’s the purpose of this essay? What can we conclude? Comparatively speaking, we know so little of our brains, that the field of neuroscience can be said to be in its infancy.

Today, neuroimaging [editor's note: I studied medical imaging both in undergrad at Georgia Tech and at the Brain Imaging Center at California Institute of Technology; I am familiar with the subject matter and for what it's worth, agree with Eagleman's assessment] is a crude technology, unable to explain the details of individual behavior. We can detect only large-scale problems, but within the coming decades, we will be able to detect patterns at unimaginably small levels of the microcircuitry that correlate with behavioral problems. Neuroscience will be better able to say why people are predisposed to act the way they do. As we become more skilled at specifying how behavior results from the microscopic details of the brain, more defense lawyers will point to biological mitigators of guilt, and more juries will place defendants on the not-blameworthy side of the line.

Further conclusions from Eagleman. The wrong question to ask: how can we assign a blameworthiness scale in our legal system? Eagleman explain:

Blameworthiness should be removed from the legal argot. It is a backward-looking concept that demands the impossible task of untangling the hopelessly complex web of genetics and environment that constructs the trajectory of a human life.

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?

Speaking of wrong questions to ask, Eagleman brilliantly defends here:

The important change will be in the way we respond to the vast range of criminal acts. Biological explanation will not exculpate criminals; we will still remove from the streets lawbreakers who prove overaggressive, underempathetic, and poor at controlling their impulses. Consider, for example, that the majority of known serial killers were abused as children. Does this make them less blameworthy? Who cares? It’s the wrong question. The knowledge that they were abused encourages us to support social programs to prevent child abuse, but it does nothing to change the way we deal with the particular serial murderer standing in front of the bench. We still need to keep him off the streets, irrespective of his past misfortunes. The child abuse cannot serve as an excuse to let him go; the judge must keep society safe.

And then we come to the meat of the essay, where Eagleman gives us an idea of a forward-looking legal system:

Beyond customized sentencing, 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. To be clear, I’m not opposed to incarceration, and its purpose is not limited to the removal of dangerous people from the streets. The prospect of incarceration deters many crimes, and time actually spent in prison can steer some people away from further criminal acts upon their release. But that works only for those whose brains function normally. The problem is that prisons have become our de facto mental-health-care institutions—and inflicting punishment on the mentally ill usually has little influence on their future behavior. An encouraging trend is the establishment of mental-health courts around the nation: through such courts, people with mental illnesses can be helped while confined in a tailored environment. Cities such as Richmond, Virginia, are moving in this direction, for reasons of justice as well as cost-effectiveness. Sheriff C. T. Woody, who estimates that nearly 20 percent of Richmond’s prisoners are mentally ill, told CBS News, “The jail isn’t a place for them. They should be in a mental-health facility.” Similarly, many jurisdictions are opening drug courts and developing alternative sentences; they have realized that prisons are not as useful for solving addictions as are meaningful drug-rehabilitation programs.

A forward-thinking legal system will also parlay biological understanding into customized rehabilitation, viewing criminal behavior the way we understand other medical conditions such as epilepsy, schizophrenia, and depression—conditions that now allow the seeking and giving of help. These and other brain disorders find themselves on the not-blameworthy side of the fault line, where they are now recognized as biological, not demonic, issues.

But Eagleman closes spectacularly:

As brain science improves, we will better understand that people exist along continua of capabilities, rather than in simplistic categories. And we will be better able to tailor sentencing and rehabilitation for the individual, rather than maintain the pretense that all brains respond identically to complex challenges and that all people therefore deserve the same punishments. Some people wonder whether it’s unfair to take a scientific approach to sentencing—after all, where’s the humanity in that? But what’s the alternative? As it stands now, ugly people receive longer sentences than attractive people; psychiatrists have no capacity to guess which sex offenders will reoffend; and our prisons are overcrowded with drug addicts and the mentally ill, both of whom could be better helped by rehabilitation. So is current sentencing really superior to a scientifically informed approach?

Neuroscience is beginning to touch on questions that were once only in the domain of philosophers and psychologists, questions about how people make decisions and the degree to which those decisions are truly “free.” These are not idle questions. Ultimately, they will shape the future of legal theory and create a more biologically informed jurisprudence.

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I’ve highlighted the major sections of the essay, but of course, I encourage you to read the whole thing. It will change your perspective on how you view and think about criminality and our legal system. If for some chance it did not change your course of thinking, why not? Shout out in the comments.

Perfection vs. Excellence

Too many people I meet strive for perfection. I wonder what kind of mentality you must possess to strive for perfection in your work and life endeavours.

Here’s some food for thought: rather than strive for perfection in what you do, strive for excellence. This is one of my core philosophies, and I tend to invoke the mantra in almost everything I do. Anything worth doing is worth doing well. The “well” in this case is with excellence.

Here’s some food for thought, if you’re still undecided. Once you reach perfection, what does that entail? It means you can’t better yourself next time. You’ve reached your pinnacle (if that is even possible). But if you strive for excellence in everything you do, you’ll learn and adapt to how can you improve. For what is life, if we don’t learn from our mistakes?

And this is another great way to put it:

Life is full of ups and downs. Let’s stop looking for perfection, and start to explore options.

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What about you? What is one of your core philosophies? Do you seek excellence or perfection?

Jose Antonio Vargas: My Life as an Undocumented Citizen

In the lastest issue of New York Times Magazine, writer Jose Antonio Vargas (who wrote the sublime piece on Mark Zuckerberg last year) bares it all and reveals the incredible story of how he arrived to America and has been living here as an illegal immigrant.

This paragraph sets the stage, and thumps the heart:

One day when I was 16, I rode my bike to the nearby D.M.V. office to get my driver’s permit. Some of my friends already had their licenses, so I figured it was time. But when I handed the clerk my green card as proof of U.S. residency, she flipped it around, examining it. “This is fake,” she whispered. “Don’t come back here again.”

His approach to life is one of fear and hesitation:

On the surface, I’ve created a good life. I’ve lived the American dream…But I am still an undocumented immigrant. And that means living a different kind of reality. It means going about my day in fear of being found out. It means rarely trusting people, even those closest to me, with who I really am. It means keeping my family photos in a shoebox rather than displaying them on shelves in my home, so friends don’t ask about them. It means reluctantly, even painfully, doing things I know are wrong and unlawful. And it has meant relying on a sort of 21st-century underground railroad of supporters, people who took an interest in my future and took risks for me…

I can relate to the challenge of learning the language, English, as Vargas explains here (I used to watch Home Improvement as well):

My first challenge was the language. Though I learned English in the Philippines, I wanted to lose my accent. During high school, I spent hours at a time watching television (especially “Frasier,” “Home Improvement” and reruns of “The Golden Girls”) and movies (from “Goodfellas” to “Anne of Green Gables”), pausing the VHS to try to copy how various characters enunciated their words. At the local library, I read magazines, books and newspapers — anything to learn how to write better. Kathy Dewar, my high-school English teacher, introduced me to journalism. From the moment I wrote my first article for the student paper, I convinced myself that having my name in print — writing in English, interviewing Americans — validated my presence here.

Again and again, Vargas reiterates how difficult the deception was:

For more than a decade of getting part-time and full-time jobs, employers have rarely asked to check my original Social Security card. When they did, I showed the photocopied version, which they accepted. Over time, I also began checking the citizenship box on my federal I-9 employment eligibility forms. (Claiming full citizenship was actually easier than declaring permanent resident “green card” status, which would have required me to provide an alien registration number.)

This deceit never got easier. The more I did it, the more I felt like an impostor, the more guilt I carried — and the more I worried that I would get caught. But I kept doing it. I needed to live and survive on my own, and I decided this was the way.

So why come forward like this? Vargas explains:

So I’ve decided to come forward, own up to what I’ve done, and tell my story to the best of my recollection. I’ve reached out to former bosses­ and employers and apologized for misleading them — a mix of humiliation and liberation coming with each disclosure. All the people mentioned in this article gave me permission to use their names. I’ve also talked to family and friends about my situation and am working with legal counsel to review my options. I don’t know what the consequences will be of telling my story.

Good for him. I imagine a tremendous burden has been lifted. Earlier I wrote about liberation. I think Vargas feels so liberated now. Let’s hope he gets the chance to stay in America and continue doing great work in journalism. You should read his entire remarkable story, in which he reveals his progression from his work on a high school newspaper  to work at the Huffington Post and Washington Post, to where he stands today. Amazing.

 

The Origin of Cyberspace

William Gibson, the author of Neuromancer, is credited with coining the term cyberspace.

In the recent issue of Paris Review, he reveals how he came about the term:

Gibson: I was walking around Vancouver, aware of that need, and I remember walking past a video arcade, which was a new sort of business at that time, and seeing kids playing those old-fashioned console-style plywood video games. The games had a very primitive graphic representation of space and perspective. Some of them didn’t even have perspective but were yearning toward perspective and dimensionality. Even in this very primitive form, the kids who were playing them were so physically involved, it seemed to me that what they wanted was to be inside the games, within the notional space of the machine. The real world had disappeared for them—it had completely lost its importance. They were in that notional space, and the machine in front of them was the brave new world.

The only computers I’d ever seen in those days were things the size of the side of a barn. And then one day, I walked by a bus stop and there was an Apple poster. The poster was a photograph of a businessman’s jacketed, neatly cuffed arm holding a life-size representation of a real-life computer that was not much bigger than a laptop is today. Everyone is going to have one of these, I thought, and everyone is going to want to live inside them. And somehow I knew that the notional space behind all of the computer screens would be one single universe.

Interviewer: And you knew at that point you had your arena?

Gibson: I sensed that it would more than meet my requirements, and I knew that there were all sorts of things I could do there that I hadn’t even been able to imagine yet. But what was more important at that point, in terms of my practical needs, was to name it something cool, because it was never going to work unless it had a really good name. So the first thing I did was sit down with a yellow pad and a Sharpie and start scribbling—infospace, dataspace. I think I got cyberspace on the third try, and I thought, Oh, that’s a really weird word. I liked the way it felt in the mouth—I thought it sounded like it meant something while still being essentially hollow… I made up a whole bunch of things that happened in cyberspace, or what you could call cyberspace, and so I filled in my empty neologism. But because the world came along with its real cyberspace, very little of that stuff lasted. What lasted was the neologism

I love how Gibson describes the enlightenment: the feeling in the mouth, as though he is synesthetic.

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Hat tip for this post: Paul Kedrosky.

Related: how Haruki Murakami became a writer

David Foster Wallace: “Frightening Time in America”

A never before published (in the United States) 2006 interview with David Foster Wallace has appeared in The New York Review of Books. I enjoyed getting to know the genius of David Foster Wallace from this fascinating interview.

Two notable quotes. First, DFW on the state of America [emphasis mine]:

Speaking totally as an amateur and not any kind of government expert, I would say America’s now starting to face certain economic realities that we’ve been shielded from for many years. The price of gasoline is slowly becoming closer to what it is in the rest of the world. The awareness that the entire Earth’s climate is affected by all nations, and that the United States as far and away the biggest carbon dioxide producer bears some special responsibility for possible environmental collapse later. Americans are slowly waking up out of a kind of dream of special exemption and special privilege in the world. To use your term, this could result in some kind of volcano and America becoming some kind of nightmarish imperial force trying to take resources from other countries forcibly, or it could result, as I think it does in many countries in cycles, in a kind of slow awakening to the fact that having and consuming and exhausting resources is actually not a very good set of values for living.

So which way it will go? I don’t know. And it’s one reason it’s a very frightening time in America, particularly with the people who’re in power right now—many of us are in the position of being more afraid of our own country and our own government than we are of any supposed enemy somewhere else. For someone like me who grew up in the sixties at the height of the Cold War and whose consciousness was formed by, “we are the good guy and there’s one great looming dark enemy and that’s the Soviet Union,” the idea of waking up to the fact that in today’s world very possibly we are the villain, we are the dark force, to begin to see ourselves a little bit through the eyes of people in other countries—you can imagine how difficult that is for Americans to do. Nevertheless, with a lot of the people that I know that’s slowly starting to happen.

A good exchange between the interviewer, Ostap Karmodi, and DFW here:

OK: What do you think of the modern state of American literature?

DFW: Ugggggghhhhh. Somebody asked me this a couple of weeks ago. I think the truth is that it’s a very exciting period but it’s one that probably people in other countries won’t have as much access to. Because 30 or 40 years ago American literature mainly existed in ten or a dozen giant literary figures, and there are now probably more like 100 or 200 literary figures, all of whom are quite good and quite interesting, but none really of the stature and international reputation of, say, a Saul Bellow or a William Faulkner or an Ernest Hemingway.

The Great Hamster of Alsace and France’s Folly

The Court of Justice in Luxembourg, the European Union’s highest court, ruled Thursday that France had failed to protect the Great Hamster of Alsace, sometimes known as the European hamster, the last wild hamster species in Western Europe.

This from a short (but awesome) New York Times piece on why France is being punished.

So that’s your trivia of the week:

The Great Hamster, which can grow up to 10 inches long, has a brown-and-white face, white paws and a black belly. There are thought to be about 800 left in France, with burrows in Alsace along the Rhine. That is an improvement: the number had dropped to fewer than 200 four years ago, according to figures from the European Commission, which brought the lawsuit in 2009.

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Hat tip: Michelle Legro.