Human behaviour is a complex topic that has continued to remain unfound in its entirety. A human being may act in a certain way without themselves and others knowing why that particular individual acted in such a manner. In Brain on Trial, David Eagleman tries to explain the relationship that exists between neuroscience and criminal acts, and how this information can be used to build a better society with a justice system that is not ignorant of the facts of advances in brain science. This information can better equip those in the justice system to understand better why crimes occur and may recur, and help in determining the actual punishment to be meted against those who break the law.
In the past, it was difficult to determine the state in which an individual was when committing crimes of a grave nature like murder, arson, child molestation among others. In many cases, the jury listened to the witnesses’ accounts of what took place and drew a conclusion from that point.
However, lately there have been developments in the study of brain science that have proven that some individuals have committed some of these crimes oblivious of their knowledge at the particular moment of committing the crime, largely due to them suffering from one kind of brain disorder or the other that may not have been previously undiagnosed.
In some cases, the people committing these crimes become aware of their lack of control over their emotions and actions. An example is the story of Charles Whitman, who in August 1966 shot and killed 13 people among them an expectant woman and her boyfriend and wounded 32 others. Upon investigation, Whitman was found to have killed his mother and wife on the morning of the shooting.
It is illustrated that Whitman was aware of changes in his brain that he felt were pushing him towards wanting to commit heinous crimes of murder. Whitman even visited a doctor once, but no solution was given to him for his violent impulses that overcame his will. However, after the police shot him down after his rampage, an autopsy report indicated a tumour in his brain, to prove his concerns as raised in a suicide note he had typed before he went on his shooting spree.
Such a mental condition as the one Whitman suffered exhibits itself when one is faced with frightening situations or experience some form of social phobia.
Cases such as Whitman’s have become so common, as juries have become more aware of the fact that brain activity may have a bearing on criminal acts. It is common to see a jury ordering a mental evaluation of a suspect during trial and use it to determine the outcome of the case. Many brain problems have been connected to aberrant behaviour.
Biological changes bring about responsive changes in humans, especially in the brain. This affects the process of decision-making and indents it towards irrational human behaviour. There are many hidden desires and drives that are not detected behind the neural machinery of socialization. Once a vital part of the brain like the frontal or temporal lobes or the amygdala, which is essentially involved in regulation of emotion are affected in the slightest, human beings become disinhibited and startling behaviour begins to emerge as they can no longer control their hidden impulses.
Some of this behaviour may vary from aggressive sexual behaviour to gambling, murder (as exhibited earlier In Whitman’s case), overeating, drug addiction, public nudity, bursting into a song in inappropriate areas and even robbery. The list is endless.
Many times those who suffer these mental conditions end up being arrested and charged in courts of law, where they try to explain to the judge and jury why they performed those acts for which they were arrested. At this point, the offenders and their lawyers may not be in possession of information that may shed light on the changes in the balance of their brain chemistry.
In some instances, human behaviour is determined by the set of genes they carry. Studies have shown a particular type of genes increase an individual’s probability to commit violent crimes like robbery, aggravated assault, murder and sexual offense. Such genes are overwhelmingly carried by prisoners.
The argument placed herein is that there is a need to have a judicial system that understands better the fact that human beings do not have the same capacity to make sensible decisions. Some factors that affect human behaviour are beyond the control of humans in as far as biology is concerned. The more it becomes evident that human choices are very difficult to detach from their neural circuitry, the more the foundations of the judicial system are precariously strained.
Likewise, human behaviour is likely to be influenced by the environment in which an individual grows up. Issues such as maternal stress, substance abuse by others during pregnancy and low birth weight can have a bearing on how a child will turn out to be as an adult. During growth of a child, physical abuse, neglect, and head injury can instigate mental development issues. Exposure to substances such as lead can cause brain damage and make children less intelligent or even more aggressive and impulsive, behaviour which is commonly associated with criminal behaviour.
There is a need to create a legal system that is aware of the science behind criminal behaviour, and that, which is more willing to use the basis of science to keep the streets free of criminals and get credible and meaningful ways of meting out punishment to criminals. There should be a clear comprehension that there is very little if any ‘free will’ when human actions are examined scientifically.
The judicial system should be remodelled to accommodate the customization of sentencing and provide opportunity for rehabilitation, and offer incentives for good behaviour in the society.
The legal system is slowly adopting methods of dealing with discoveries in neuroscience as a way of making better judgement and dealing with crime in a more humane and cost-effective manner as opposed to allocating huge sums of money in the budget for prisons while some cases only require medicine to find a lasting solution. This is in sharp contrast with the common approach of ’toughening up’ psychiatric patients through torture, pleading or deprivation. These methods have been proven to be medically fruitless and only make the conditions of the patients worse. This is due to the fact that psychiatric disorders are largely based in the biological details of the brain.
It is imperative to have a judicial system that is sensitive to the fact that many types of behaviour that is considered bad by the society have a basic biological explanation, as proven by technology in cases of schizophrenia, epilepsy and other disorders. There should be a close working relationship between medical experts and the courts, to limit situations where an individual is forced to serve time in prison for crimes committed either unconsciously or beyond the control of the offender due to brain problems.
EAGLEMAN, DAVID. "The Brain On Trial." The Atlantic Jul. - Aug. 2011: 112-123. Print.