Incognito (Law and Crime Series Book 2)
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This tumor, called a glioblastoma, had blossomed from beneath a structure called the thalamus, impinged on the hypothalamus, and compressed a third region called the amygdala. The amygdala is involved in emotional regulation, especially of fear and aggression. By the late s, researchers had discovered that damage to the amygdala caused emotional and social disturbances. Female monkeys with amygdala damage often neglected or physically abused their infants.
In humans, activity in the amygdala increases when people are shown threatening faces, are put into frightening situations, or experience social phobias. As we develop better technologies for probing the brain, we detect more problems, and link them more easily to aberrant behavior. He developed an interest in child pornography—and not just a little interest, but an overwhelming one. He poured his time into child-pornography Web sites and magazines. He also solicited prostitution at a massage parlor, something he said he had never previously done.
He worked to hide his acts, but subtle sexual advances toward his prepubescent stepdaughter alarmed his wife, who soon discovered his collection of child pornography. He was removed from his house, found guilty of child molestation, and sentenced to rehabilitation in lieu of prison. In the rehabilitation program, he made inappropriate sexual advances toward the staff and other clients, and was expelled and routed toward prison.
At the same time, Alex was complaining of worsening headaches. He underwent a brain scan, which revealed a massive tumor in his orbitofrontal cortex.
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Neurosurgeons removed the tumor. The year after the brain surgery, his pedophilic behavior began to return. The neuroradiologist discovered that a portion of the tumor had been missed in the surgery and was regrowing—and Alex went back under the knife. After the removal of the remaining tumor, his behavior again returned to normal. When your biology changes, so can your decision-making and your desires. Although acting on such drives is popularly thought to be a free choice, the most cursory examination of the evidence demonstrates the limits of that assumption. When the frontal lobes are compromised, people become disinhibited, and startling behaviors can emerge.
Disinhibition is commonly seen in patients with frontotemporal dementia, a tragic disease in which the frontal and temporal lobes degenerate. With the loss of that brain tissue, patients lose the ability to control their hidden impulses. To the frustration of their loved ones, these patients violate social norms in endless ways: shoplifting in front of store managers, removing their clothes in public, running stop signs, breaking out in song at inappropriate times, eating food scraps found in public trash cans, being physically aggressive or sexually transgressive.
Changes in the balance of brain chemistry, even small ones, can also cause large and unexpected changes in behavior.
When patients were given a drug called pramipexole, some of them turned into gamblers. And not just casual gamblers, but pathological gamblers. These were people who had never gambled much before, and now they were flying off to Vegas. Some patients became consumed with Internet poker, racking up unpayable credit-card bills. For several, the new addiction reached beyond gambling, to compulsive eating, excessive alcohol consumption, and hypersexuality. What was going on?
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Pramipexole works by impersonating dopamine. But it turns out that dopamine is a chemical doing double duty in the brain. Along with its role in motor commands, it also mediates the reward systems, guiding a person toward food, drink, mates, and other things useful for survival.
Physicians now watch for these behavioral changes as a possible side effect of drugs like pramipexole. Luckily, the negative effects of the drug are reversible—the physician simply lowers the dosage, and the compulsive gambling goes away. The lesson from all these stories is the same: human behavior cannot be separated from human biology.
Does it affect the sentence you would find appropriate for him, had he survived that day? As our understanding of the human brain improves, juries are increasingly challenged with these sorts of questions. I submit that this is the wrong question to be asking. The choices we make are inseparably yoked to our neural circuitry, and therefore we have no meaningful way to tease the two apart.
The more we learn, the more the seemingly simple concept of blameworthiness becomes complicated, and the more the foundations of our legal system are strained. The upshot is that we can build a legal system more deeply informed by science, in which we will continue to take criminals off the streets, but we will customize sentencing, leverage new opportunities for rehabilitation, and structure better incentives for good behavior.
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Discoveries in neuroscience suggest a new way forward for law and order—one that will lead to a more cost-effective, humane, and flexible system than the one we have today. M any of us like to believe that all adults possess the same capacity to make sound choices. Who you even have the possibility to be starts at conception.
Incognito, Vol. 2: Bad Influences
The overwhelming majority of prisoners carry these genes; These statistics alone indicate that we cannot presume that everyone is coming to the table equally equipped in terms of drives and behaviors. And this feeds into a larger lesson of biology: we are not the ones steering the boat of our behavior, at least not nearly as much as we believe. Who we are runs well below the surface of our conscious access, and the details reach back in time to before our birth, when the meeting of a sperm and an egg granted us certain attributes and not others.
Who we can be starts with our molecular blueprints—a series of alien codes written in invisibly small strings of acids—well before we have anything to do with it. Each of us is, in part, a product of our inaccessible, microscopic history.
Incognito Series, Book 7: Undercover Angel by Karen Wiesner -
They are summarized as the Y chromosome. We are likewise influenced by the environments in which we grow up. Substance abuse by a mother during pregnancy, maternal stress, and low birth weight all can influence how a baby will turn out as an adult. As a child grows, neglect, physical abuse, and head injury can impede mental development, as can the physical environment. For example, the major public-health movement to eliminate lead-based paint grew out of an understanding that ingesting lead can cause brain damage, making children less intelligent and, in some cases, more impulsive and aggressive.
And every experience throughout our lives can modify genetic expression—activating certain genes or switching others off—which in turn can inaugurate new behaviors. In this way, genes and environments intertwine. When it comes to nature and nurture, the important point is that we choose neither one. We are each constructed from a genetic blueprint, and then born into a world of circumstances that we cannot control in our most-formative years. The complex interactions of genes and environment mean that all citizens—equal before the law—possess different perspectives, dissimilar personalities, and varied capacities for decision-making.
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. Is it meaningful to say that Alex made bad choices , even though his brain tumor was not his fault? You cannot walk a mile in his shoes. The idea is that we use conscious deliberation when deciding how to act—that is, in the absence of external duress, we make free decisions.
This concept of the practical reasoner is intuitive but problematic. The existence of free will in human behavior is the subject of an ancient debate. But evaluating free will requires some nuance beyond our immediate intuitions. Consider a decision to move or speak. It feels as though free will leads you to stick out your tongue, or scrunch up your face, or call someone a name.
But free will is not required to play any role in these acts.
A typical Touretter may stick out his tongue, scrunch up his face, or call someone a name—all without choosing to do so. First, actions can occur in the absence of free will. He cannot use free will to override or control what subconscious parts of his brain have decided to do. This same phenomenon arises in people with a condition known as chorea, for whom actions of the hands, arms, legs, and face are involuntary, even though they certainly look voluntary: ask such a patient why she is moving her fingers up and down, and she will explain that she has no control over her hand.
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She cannot not do it. Similarly, some split-brain patients who have had the two hemispheres of the brain surgically disconnected develop alien-hand syndrome: while one hand buttons up a shirt, the other hand works to unbutton it. When one hand reaches for a pencil, the other bats it away. Unconscious acts are not limited to unintended shouts or wayward hands; they can be surprisingly sophisticated. Suffering from financial difficulties, marital problems, and a gambling addiction, he made plans to go see his in-laws to talk about his troubles. In the wee hours of May 23, , Kenneth arose from the couch on which he had fallen asleep, but he did not awaken.
He broke in, stabbed his mother-in-law to death, and assaulted his father-in-law, who survived. Afterward, he drove himself to the police station. Moreover, while all parties agreed that Kenneth had undoubtedly committed the murder, they also agreed that he had no motive. His defense attorneys argued that this was a case of killing while sleepwalking, known as homicidal somnambulism. Like your heartbeat, breathing, blinking, and swallowing, even your mental machinery can run on autopilot.