Afternoon InquisitionScienceSkepticism

AI: The Brain and The Law?

Recently, Dr. David Eagleman from Baylor College of Medicine, spoke at an event that many of the Houston area skeptics attended, and I thought the subject of his talk would make for a good discussion here on Skepchick.

Eagleman studies questions at the interface of law and neuroscience, including ideas like:

  • Is it a legitimate defense to claim that a brain tumor ‘made you do it’?
  • Do the brains of minors have the same decision-making and impulse control as adult brains – and how does that change punishment?
  • Can novel technologies such as brain imaging be leveraged for rehabilitation?
  • How should juries assess responsibility, given that most behaviors are driven by systems of the brain that we cannot control?

As our understanding of the brain progresses — as we learn more about how strongly our behavior is controlled by mental processes that may be beyond our conscious control — it seems our ideas of legal culpability for certain offenses are less clear cut than we may have originally thought. To summarize it simply, the insanity plea appears to be even more nuanced than we imagined.

Eagleman contends that explaining behaviors (criminal behaviors in this case) does not necessarily lead to exculpation, but it would allow us to apply more rational sentencing. And it would allow us to better customize rehabilitation endeavors. You can see a high level summary of Eagleman’s approach in the following video:

Of course, this could impact greatly the manner in which we draft laws, and the manner in which we enforce those laws. But let’s open the floor, and start the conversation.

Do you have any personal experience with behavioral changes due to brain anomalies? What are your thoughts on what the advancements in neuroscience mean for criminal culpability? Based on the latest research, in what direction should the legal system go? What challenges would lawmakers face? Any other thoughts?

The Afternoon Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Skepchick community. Look for it to appear Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays, and Sundays at 3pm ET.

Sam Ogden

Sam Ogden is a writer, beach bum, and songwriter living in Houston, Texas, but he may be found scratching himself at many points across the globe. Follow him on Twitter @SamOgden

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  1. Well, step one would be to take the prison systems back from those who bought them; then we can consider more fair treatment of prisoners.
    As for culpability I see it as a very complicated issue but I don’t think “I couldn’t help myself” should be a automatic out. But on the other hand, if there is a physical or psychological reason for a behavior it shouldn’t be automatically ruled out either. What would help in all these situations however would be to treat criminals as people instead of as numbers.
    That and do away with the bogus “war in drugs” that is really a war on drug users in favor of treating them as people (again) effected by drugs. JMO

  2. As always, very deep questions , Sam.

    It would be great if ANY regard was paid to peer reviewed scientific research when drafting laws.

    It would be great if a bibliography of papers consulted was attached to the law as an appendix, so that when new data was published, the law would automatically come up for review.

    Don’t know if this would be feasible though, as most laws would then be in a permanent state of review.

    Yet in science that is exactly what we do, and we still manage to function and improve.

    I suspect that most laws are not made with much regard for science, rational thought or even reality but rather are pulled out of some politician’s arse for stunt value and vote catching ability.

    I do not agree that MOST behaviours are driven by brain systems beyond our control, though SOME may be – you would want to have very good replicated data to prove that.

    Finally I am VERY suspicious of some cutting edge research – see the recent “Measuring Skulls” thread.

    Whether the tool is a pair of calipers or magnetic resonance imaging, we need to be very careful to avoid pseudoscience and the tragic errors of the past.

  3. I think it points towards what any thinking person who has paid attention to prison conditions, recidivism rates, and the lack of effect on crime statistics has been saying for years: punishment doesn’t work.

    We need to work away from a system based on vengeance and punishment (as satisfying as that can be on an individual level) and towards a system focused on rehabilitation, support, and humane treatment. For some, this would still mean a permanent or near-permanent detention, but for others there could be more sensible, rational options.

    A big step towards this would be working to make this sort of research better known, not to excuse behavior but to emphasize the “there, but for the grace of god, go I” nature of accidents of birth. Criminals aren’t inhuman, they are damaged (and often irresponsible, cruel, or destructive). We need to rid ourselves of the notion that it’s an acceptable punishment for someone to be put in an overcrowded rape-chamber for pretty much any infraction. I don’t really know how we even begin to do such a thing though in our blinders-on “CRIMINALS BAD” culture of “individual responsibility” though.

    Emphasis of individual responsibility is good, and I can see the folks who focus on it bristling as I type, but criminals in this system would still be responsible for participating in their rehabilitation and improving their behavior, it just wouldn’t be in the one-size-fits-all punitive prison system.

    For some reason there’s a huge part of the population that sees this as some sort of touchy-feely cushy treatment rather than a sensible solution to an obvious problem, and I don’t really know how that can change. I think it’s a fundamental problem with critical thinking and analyzing evidence that permeates our entire culture.

    That’s a pretty big hurdle to overcome.

  4. “Do you have any personal experience with behavioral changes due to brain anomalies?”

    I watched my dad succumb to dementia. He went from designing cancer drugs to thinking the queen was out to kill him. Never before has the link between human hardware and the software come into stark relief. During this time he was somewhat violent and came darn close to breaking my finger once. What I loved about my dad was all but gone about 18 months before his heart stopped.

    “Based on the latest research, in what direction should the legal system go?”

    I think it is doing about as well as it can. I have no doubt there is something diagnosable about many/most of the people in prison. If your sick brain makes you hurt people then we send your sick brain to jail and your body has to go along for the ride. I think it is sad that this scoops up a lot of people with obvious mental deficiencies, but I have yet to hear a better solution. I know the legal system has the notion of “mens rea”: the guilty mind. I don’t think the legal profession should be put in the position of mind reading. Actions speak louder.

    One difference is if we can demonstrably fix whatever it is that makes you criminal such as a brain tumor then I think a strong case for leniency can be made.

  5. While having this conversation, it is important to point out that every citizen of the modern world has over ten years of specialized training with their special brain. The more specialization their training needs, the more they get. During this time, the state acts as the the role of a parent to children – punishments are less severe and tailored to behavior outcomes.

    This system does not support itself financially. Some people make a choice to not overcome their brain. Some people are unable to make that choice. Either way, those people need to be excluded from socitey in a cost effective, humane, way. If a perso has not responded well to 12 years of treatment while their brain was more flexible and able to resopond to treatment, I question if continued treatment would be wise.

  6. I have watched two relatives suffer from degenerative neurological conditions and the radical changes in their personality were terrible to have to watch. I also though, have a more personal experience with behavioral changes because of neurological anomalies. I have epilepsy. It normally manifests as tonic-clonic seizures, but it has at times caused some temporary alterations to my behavior. I usually know that I’m not behaving normally, but I can’t tell what is different. All I know when it is happening is that I feel very wrong and that I’m not reacting to things the way I should, but I don’t know how I should be reacting and I can’t do anything to change how I am behaving. It feels like I’m trapped in someone else’s mind. Extraordinarily unnerving.

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