Myths about human equality and universal rationality have embedded themselves deeply enough in our opinion-forming classes that conventional wisdom now needs the authority of neuroscience to get a hearing. That’s one thing that comes across in David Eagleman’s Atlantic essay on crime and the brain. That brain damage can lead to a loss of inhibitions and irregular, even criminal behavior is, I would have thought, fairly well known by now. Eagleman, however, warns that the latest advances in neuroscience require a rethinking of our criminal codes. Indeed, “because we did not choose the factors that affected the formation and structure of our brain, the concepts of free will and personal responsibility begin to sprout question marks.”
If you begin with the idea that everyone is the same, and everyone therefore reacts to the same stimuli in the same way, you may be shaken by Eagleman’s claims. But the idea that some people are congenitally more inclined than others to crime or irresponsibility would not have been news to, say, Aristotle. Eagleman’s proposed remedy for such intrinsic lack of self-control also amounts to old wine poured into new skin. Consider:
The basic idea is to give the frontal lobes practice in squelching the short-term brain circuits. To this end, my colleagues Stephen LaConte and Pearl Chiu have begun providing real-time feedback to people during brain scanning. Imagine that you’d like to quit smoking cigarettes. In this experiment, you look at pictures of cigarettes during brain imaging, and the experimenters measure which regions of your brain are involved in the craving. Then they show you the activity in those networks, represented by a vertical bar on a computer screen, while you look at more cigarette pictures. The bar acts as a thermometer for your craving: if your craving networks are revving high, the bar is high; if you’re suppressing your craving, the bar is low. Your job is to make the bar go down. Perhaps you have insight into what you’re doing to resist the craving; perhaps the mechanism is inaccessible. In any case, you try out different mental avenues until the bar begins to slowly sink. When it goes all the way down, that means you’ve successfully recruited frontal circuitry to squelch the activity in the networks involved in impulsive craving. The goal is for the long term to trump the short term. Still looking at pictures of cigarettes, you practice making the bar go down over and over, until you’ve strengthened those frontal circuits. By this method, you’re able to visualize the activity in the parts of your brain that need modulation, and you can witness the effects of different mental approaches you might take.
Take out the technological frippery of “real-time feedback” and what you have is a prescription for building up good habits by the training of, yes, the will. Whether or not “will” is free, that’s one word for the power the frontal lobes exercise. Practice of self-control leads to greater degrees of self-control — what would we do without pop neuroscience?
If some people do lack all possibility of self-control, the policy responses that logically follow are not liberal at all. If criminals are blameless because they are powerless to check their impulses, it follows that they cannot be rehabilitated in conventional ways: barring something like the Ludovico Treatment, the most that can be done is to remove them from society for good, one way or another. There can be no hope of teaching or incentivizing them to forgo crime. Not that attempts by humane, liberal progressives to treat abnormal behavior by surgical or pharmaceutical methods are at all unheard of; the danger of pop neuroscience here is that it leads to medical and penological quackery. But Eagleman seems secure in the faith that whatever the mistakes of icepick era psychosurgery, today we possess really accurate and effective ways to diagnose and treat bad brains. Pfizer can sell us a cure.
It looks to me as if the science actually supports much older approaches to upbringing and punishment. Most people do seem to have a component in their constitutions capable of exercising restraint. Different theories have called it the impartial spectator, reason, frein vital, the superego, but whatever it is, it exercises only a tenuous control over baser impulses, which are not distributed equally among all people. Reinforcing the restraining element in the human constitution through exercise, imitation, and limited coercion is what the social order is all about.
There are hopeless cases, and perhaps science will show that there are far more of them than most of us realize. On the other hand, even sufferers from moderately severe forms of brain deterioration are not necessarily going to shred the social fabric. As Eagleman points out, “Fifty-seven percent of frontotemporal-dementia patients violate social norms.” He cites that datum to show the overwhelming correlation between frontotemporal dementia and abnormal behavior. But what about the other 43 percent? If certain illnesses could be as strongly correlated with kinds of crime, would that justify pre-emptively punishing (or “treating”) 43 out of every 100 such “suspects”? Conventional justice seems to me correct to wait for an actual infraction before meting out a sentence, even if we have an idea of what criminal predispositions certain people might possess.
I’m far from saying that biological science cannot be helpful in understanding crime and refining punishment, but the verbalists who write laws and read the Atlantic ought to tread carefully. They possess so many unsound ideas already about the power of tolerance and reasonableness to turn every sinner into a saint that couching old truths in pop-scientific lingo may be the only way to get them to re-examine their meliorist beliefs. I suspect, however, that their brains have not been accultured to accept traditional truths and, like Eagleman, they will draw all the wrong conclusions.