Friday, October 13, 2006

The Future of the Ethical Brain

I try, whenever I can, to include in my news and blog updates any info I find on technocorrections items, but they're sometimes hard to find. The pharmaceutical stuff is easier to find than the genetic, and the surveillance updates are probably more easily found on engineering sites that I don't frequent. I'm usually looking through the science sites for substance abuse treatment studies. That means, to get any real in-depth coverage, I basically have to turn to books.

That shouldn't scare us, even if they aren't our primary fields. There are some very good books out there, comprehensible to halfway functioning brains, like mine. Not so much on technocorrections directly but more inadvertently as side topics to broader themes. The best of the books I've found are those that look at neuroscience generally with applications to our concerns here. Two of the most recent ones that you might want to check out (literally or figuratively) are Steven Rose's The Future of the Brain: The Promise and Perils of Tomorrow's Neuroscience and Michael Gazzaniga's The Ethical Brain.

Both books give you satisfying overviews of how the brain works. Don't run. They make it interesting, honest. Rose's description is the more thorough since Gazzaniga uses his discussion to illustrate his points about the moral dilemmas created by our new genetic abilities concerning brains and other related tissues. All those topics are interesting, even when not related to criminal justice. But it's when he gets to subjects like memory and eyewitnesses, free will and culpability, that his presentation turns directly to us.

You get his basic perspective from this quote: "We may be approaching a state of knowledge about the brain in which all testimony without documentation should be viewed with great caution. As neuroscience learns more and more about the unreliable memory system, the very foundation of trial law will be deeply challenged, as it should be." Corrections sentencing enough for you? This doesn't make Gazzaniga a touchy-feely type, though. Here's what he says about future findings of neural structures and genetic dispositions facilitating behavior often considered criminal (unless performed by rock stars, professional athletes, or apparently those kids on "Laguna Beach"): "Neuroscience will never find the brain correlate of responsibility, because that is something we ascribe to humans--to people--not to brains. . . . [P]sychiatrists and brain scientists might be able to tell us what someone's mental state or brain condition is but cannot tell us (without being arbitrary) when someone has too little control to be held responsible." Along the way he also gets into the neural basis of racial prejudice, "brain reading" of liars, and other related topics that we will hear more and more of as cognitive and neuro-science continue to explode.

Gazzaniga specifically focuses on the the ethical dimensions of modern neuroscience. Rose does, too, but more in the context of where the technology may take us, then dealing with the ethics of it all. A British professor, he pulls in more foreign research and applications but that won't hurt us. Really. He also disputes the current utility of "brain fingerprinting" (no better than lie detectors, despite claims) and reduced responsibility due to neural inheritance and development. He is a little scarier than Gazzaniga, speculating about "SOMA" (drug-aided control) and "psychiatric incarceration" ("treatment, or restraint if treatment is deemed impossible, rather than punishment"). We're already into civil commitment for people we fear. When will it turn to people we're just mad at? Maybe the spookiest thing he says regarding all this is "Despite the increasing explanatory powers of neuroscience, I suspect that many of these judgments are best left to the empirical good sense of the criminal justice system, imperfect, class-, race- and gender-bound though it may be."

Determine your own appropriate amount of prayer.

Actually, Rose is right, God help us. What these (and other similar) books tells us is that we are facing a world we've never dealt with before, raising questions that challenge the basic foundations of what we do in corrections and sentencing. We can react ignorantly and just stumble into that future, catch as catch can. We're good at that, as state after state and the feds show daily. Or we can become knowledgeable, not about just the science but also about the ethics, before it's too late to be smart. It's up for grabs which we end up choosing. I vote for the latter. If you're still reading to this point, you probably do, too.

Start with these books.

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