Neurolaw Update: Who’s in charge here—me or my brain?
Our brains. They seem to be all powerful. They make us do stuff. Stuff beyond our control or even awareness, or so it seems. For example, if you are a young (and presumably heterosexual, for this study) male, you are more likely to do something really risky if you are being watched by a young woman rather than another man. Now, that may not seem so unthinkable, but there are so many more! Our brains, or what we unconsciously do with them, distort reality. Male batterers consistently overestimate the rate of violence toward partners—researchers hypothesize batterers do this to justify their behavior and to seem more ‘normative’. We would guess female batterers might justify their behavior in much the same fashion. Not so much research there…
Our brains even trick us into doing things we may not want to do. Of course, we know that requests work better than orders (Mom’s version was ‘you get more flies with honey’) even when we are talking to ourselves! We also learn that we are more likely to do things others request of us and think of them more positively if they briefly touch us as they make the request, and yes, this one has the potential for getting very creepy, very fast. Some of us have brains that make us so empathic we literally ‘feel’ each other’s pain—it’s called “extreme empathy”. Remember the empaths on Star Trek? Not so different from what these ‘extreme empaths’ experience.
But whether we are ‘extreme empaths’ or not, almost all of us have had the experience of time standing still. Now we know how the brain makes that happen. It’s called ‘time dilation’.
And it happens to all of us when we are really afraid.
Except psychopaths. Because they don’t get really afraid. Their brains are wired differently and your look of fear as they approach you and your experience of ‘time dilation’ mean nothing to them. You are simply an obstacle on their path to your wallet (or car, or jewelry, or body, or significant other). Psychopaths’ brains are wired to achieve their objectives regardless of the consequences. They want what they want when they want it. The question has thus arisen as to their ultimate responsibility for their actions if they are controlled by a different sort of hard-wiring than the rest of us.
We blogged about this issue just a few weeks ago and again, a few months ago but more research has been published looking at this very question. Who killed John Lennon? Is the person responsible (Mark David Chapman) or is his brain responsible? Michael Gazzaniga wonders if we should rethink the insanity defense given what we are learning about free will and culpability. Is the fMRI technique ready to weigh in on the fate of murderers? Jurors in Brian Dugan’s case didn’t think so.
We will likely see more and more of the fMRI as we attempt to sort out where personal responsibility ends, how many psychopaths there are who do not murder, and as every-day people on jury duty are asked to make huge decisions about life and death. Our guess is that the fear instilled by the idea that ‘people like this exist’ will keep jurors from wanting to show mercy to the psychopath. But eventually, someone may find a way to make it happen. Until then, (and likely after then!) we’ll keep following the research.