Neuroscientist and fiction writer David Eagleman gives a stimulating talk discussing the thorny intersection of neuroscience and law. Its starting point is a question man has debated for centuries: Is the mind separate from the brain? Eagleman, like most neuroscientists and philosophers, posits that it is not. That is, we are our brain. And the ‘mind’ – our emotions, thoughts, beliefs, desires – are simply what the brain does. It’s the basic idea that the brain, consisting of the multifarious neural networks and synaptic relationships therein, gives rise to mind. Eagleman and others advance this a philosophical step further by maintaining we do not truly have free will or, rather, we do not have it to the extent we think we do. Given all the available evidence, he asserts our behavior depends exclusively on our neural chemistry, not on the nebulously independent “mind.”
He points to several forms of evidence in support of these contentions. It has been demonstrated, for instance, that brain tumors affect who you are in very manifest ways, such as drastically changing your personality. In one case he tells of how a wife urged her husband to see a physician after he became involved in pedophilia. A tumor was found in his brain, which was removed, and his pedophiliac behavior ceased. However, the tumor was not fully resected and when it grew back, the man again began gravitating to pedophilia. Following another rescission, his behavior halted once again.
There are many similar cases with the same basic structure, but then there are also those individuals suspected of abnormal brain activity that cannot be observed via neuroscientific methods, such as serial or spree killers who died before they were caught. These individuals’ brains cannot be studied and are thus unable to provide key insights into their brain makeup.
This raises some intriguing, and predictably polarizing, legal questions and concerns. Should we abrogate the universal reasonableness standard upheld by modern law, or should we acknowledge the possibility that there might not be a “universal man” (i.e., not all brains are equal)? Should “criminals” who engage in outward manifestations of their ‘abnormalized’ neural biology be subject to the same consequences as those with more common neural architecture? Should we continue to employ jail sentencing as a “one-size-fits-all” approach, or should we use this biological information to innovate more effective rehabilitation programs? Should our legal systems emphasize deterrence and recovery over punishment and confinement?
Instead of giving us precise answers to these questions, he explains how the field of neuroscience is some 20 years behind the field of genetics and the present technology is still insufficiently powerful to answer these types of questions. fMRI technology is in its nascent stages and is mostly limited to measuring emotional responses and triggers. We still have a ways to go before neuroscience can be relied upon by jurors and the institution of law, but the current information brings to the surface some important considerations for the future.