Neuroscience is the new genetics, the explanation for everything that ails you, and for why you are who you are. Where your brain 'lights up', as caught on fMRI scans, when you're doing some task -- lying, serial killing -- apparently tells the researcher a lot about you. "It wasn't my fault, my brain made me do it," may be a defense soon coming to a criminal court near you.
|fMRI, amygdala in red|
This story was repeated on a BBC Radio 4 program about understanding the criminal brain, and it gave us occasion to muse once again about causation. Neuroscientists are doing a lot of work on what is malfunctioning in the brains of sociopaths. And how can you doubt their word? You can see it on scans.
Serial killers have less activity in their amygdyla, which leads to less empathy, which leads to antisocial behavior. And, according to the show, this aberrant brain activity can be identified in severely misbehaving children, kids, they claim, who are likely to grow up to be criminals. (Will this lead to preventive measures taken by the state to lock up or dope up those whose 'brain will make you do it'?)
A school in England is now addressing this problem head-on (so to speak). Armed with fMRI scans of kids with serious behavior problems, the malfunctioning part of the brain identified, the school has developed a method to work with these kids to activate the caring parts of their brains. So, for example, they show them pictures of fearful kids and teach them how to tell how the kid is feeling, both from the face and from body language, clues that the students aren't good at picking up. The hope is that these brains are rewireable, so that the kids will grow up to be contributing members of society.
But there's a kink in this analysis. It is both reductive, and of course reminiscent of claims of behavioral geneticists -- my brain structure, or my genes, made me do it -- and expansive at once. If the criminal (or future criminal) brain is plastic enough to respond to environmental pressures in the form of teaching, and it can in fact remold itself, then that suggests that something malformed it in the first place. And here we're back to the age-old questions of social causation, and then of course ultimate responsibility -- does poor parenting make criminals? Poverty? Bad luck? So, the reductive explanation is not a complete one after all.
The problem is simple, even if the solution, if there is one, isn't. After the 'bad' behavior has occurred, one seeks any tecchie gear that will show why, in a reductionistic way (bad gene, tumor, --- some built-in molecular 'cause'). And even if it's clear that non-technical experiential factors can fix the problem, it is not so easily recognized that such factors may have caused the problem. The random population is not screened to see how many non-sociopaths have the same brain activity patterns, for example.
More importantly, if it is assumed that the technical finding (genotype, fMRI signature) is causal, a likely consequence, if history is any guide, will be to use the same findings 'preventively'. That was the basis of the eugenics movement, and anybody who thinks something of its ilk can't happen again hasn't read any history. Eugenics -- the very term itself! -- was the purportedly benign attempt to improve society through science.
Even if that risk is not taken seriously, we still have serious problems in dealing with this kind of causation and association data, or of putting non-technical facts in the same perspective as we put technical ones: we're too enamored of the latter, in this Age of Science.