My brain made me do it

Gerontologist and all-round skeptic Raymond Tallis has written an article for The Times where he laments the rise of ‘neurolaw’ where brain scan evidence is used in court in an attempt to show that the accused was not responsible for their actions.

Tallis cites the example of the trial of Bobby Joe Long where his lawyers tried to argue (unsuccessfully as it turned out) that he wasn’t responsible for his crimes because brain scan evidence showed that he had an overactive amygdala (supposedly suggesting increased aggression) and underactive frontal lobes (supposedly suggesting reduced ability to inhibit aggression).

This, Tallis argues, is hardly evidence for diminished responsibility because it assumes that our brain is some sort of separate ‘alien force’ that is somehow not ‘us’, when we generally think of the brain as being synonymous with the self.

However, he goes on to cite the example of an epileptic seizure and argues that this is an example where we definitely can’t say the person is responsible for twitching or losing consciousness.

Tallis aims to make a clear cut distinction between these different sorts of action and how we attribute responsibility for them, but he is perhaps relying on the extremes when reality can be full of grey areas.

Each of us has a propensity or threshold for violence, so some people will have aggressive urges more easily than others.

One way of looking at the question is ‘how responsible is the person for their actions’, but another is ‘what strength of urge do we think it is reasonable for a person to inhibit’.

Life experience, genetic factors, brain injury or any forms of neurological disturbance may make urges stronger or reduce our ability to inhibit them.

Some epileptic seizures may be ‘irresistible’ in this way of thinking (although interestingly, some seizures may cause thoughts or urges that are resistible to varying degrees), whereas other patterns of brain activity will produce desires or intentions that can be more easily suppressed.

A serial killer may genuinely have reduced ability to inhibit violence urges, but at what point do we say that the effort they would have to make to stop them reacting violently is beyond what is considered reasonable or possible.

Link to Times article ‘Why blame me? It was all my brain’s fault’.

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