Friday, December 08, 2006

Why Choose This Book?

I’ve been loading you up lately with reviews of books on cognitive science and brain studies that will give you a good foundation for the world of “technocorrections” that will provide lower cost, albeit really scary and intrusive, alternatives to prisons while we debate whether wearing t-shirts or carrying sandwich boards with messages is the greatest possible alternative threat to human dignity and integrity. They’ve covered a lot of the same ground, but this new one by Read Montague, Why Choose This Book?, takes a little different tack. There’s been a rich literature on human decision-making (anything you can find by James March and/or Herbert Simon will be your best guides, even after many years), but Montague is linking it directly to what happens in the brain, the roles of goals and rewards, and the impact of dopamine, among brain chemicals, on what we do and don’t do.

Montague is one of those show-offs who’s won a “MacArthur” genius award (I’ll take those folks seriously when either Jimmy Buffett or Salma Hayek get one . . . or maybe Berman). He’s taken the money and run into further study of the brain and how its reward systems lead to learning, how dopamine firing and not firing in response to new experience can lead to behaviors that include addiction, gambling, and other things that are a little relevant to those of us in criminal justice. He emphasizes how “computational models” (not exactly computer-like, far more complex) explain much of how the brain organizes its experiences and even how it lets what we think of as “us” in on what we’re doing. Most ambitious of all is his desire to show and bring about how psychology and physics will one day join in what will be the new neuroscience.

Brains aren’t normal computers. If they were, all the activity and energy use would burn up our heads. No, our brains are far too efficient to be organized the way most computers are, as evidenced by our generally cool foreheads. In fact, our actions seem based on the ultra-fast competition of alternative scenarios in our heads as we seek common and uncommon goals and our learning from them as we get feedback. Because the learning is based on neurochemicals like dopamine, those things we ingest that interfere with or multiply those chemicals will not just change our behavior; they will change our brains. As he says,

Anyone who has ever dealt closely with a drug addict knows that she no longer views the world the same way. One reason is that drugs of abuse derail exactly the guidance signals that we have been considering. Under the perturbed guidance of drugs, an addict’s system readjusts complex goal-seeking mechanisms and changes her mental world . . . .


Drug addiction disturbs our ability to learn correctly [the most value for behavioral investments], that is, “what we should want” or “how much we should care about drug-taking.” What, then, does an addict’s brain want? It wants to experience those images that predict subsequent drug use . . . and it wants the actual drug . . . . It’s a tragic use of normal learning machinery. The addict becomes addicted to the idea of the drug as well as to the drug itself.


Addiction is a complicated biological process that influences neurobiology at many levels—neurons, synapses, membrane receptors, intracellular biochemical networks, and gene expression. Addiction is also a complicated set of behavioral phenomena that includes habit formation, aberrant goal-directed behavior, and other fundamental and often sweeping changes in cognition. . . . There are lots of published “theories of addiction” that emphasize only one or two of the streams [of influences] without a detailed consideration of the others. And this is to be expected. These are broad and complex areas of knowledge that are hard to fuse in a facile way.

You come away from his discussions of the problem with a view of the challenges facing us as we deal with a drug culture. What you don’t come away with is the hope that our legal system is capable of addressing it effectively once someone has gotten into drugs significantly. This kind of research, therefore, may ultimately disrupt the offenses and defenses currently used in the courtrooms and prisons, something Montague is very aware of, as he discusses the issue of “free will” in this complex mental world and the concern that our current laws were created in a different world of knowledge. As he notes,

There has not been a capacity to know what’s happening inside the skull—to view the externally observed choice against the background of internally concealed neural directives. This kind of comparison is needed because assessment of the degree to which a person retains the capacity to choose helps the legal system determine culpability for an act. The judicial system already establishes degrees of agency (ages at which a defendant can be executed or whether one is insane, for example), but “my brain made me do it” defenses will get more sophisticated in the coming years as neuroscience makes real, physical measurements of it.

These aren’t the only areas Montague describes that raise questions for corrections sentencing. Another key concern are those parts of the brain that create the “that’s not fair” feeling in us or the feelings of disgust we have when confronted with certain behavior. I’ve talked before about how we may be mentally wired to accept a “justice premium” on the costs of punishments, that is, to spend more to punish than an offense or set of them are really objectively worth. Montague backs this up, citing MRI studies that light up the parts of the brain responsible. (I was disappointed that he seems completely unaware of Tom Tyler’s work on rule legitimacy that we’ve reviewed here, but this guy’s the genius, after all.) One idea I had while reading this was that someone should set up an experiment with volunteer “jurors” presented a case with the wires hooked up. Would all their brains light up the same as they heard the testimony and evidence? Could scientists identify the brain areas that correspond to “a rational person” and those that involved vengeance or sadism alone, and, if those areas lit up with jurors, would a judge allow that juror to be dismissed? Will a brand new industry develop among jury consultants? Can I get a piece of it before it takes off??? . . . Sorry. In any case, you can see how just this possibility of areas of “rationality” or “justice” could be effectively used in litigation. Maybe we should go ahead now and get Kent Scheidegger’s idea of a “science court” to adjudicate this stuff before we leave it up to jurists who went to law school because they couldn’t handle science classes . . . . sorry, again.

Montague’s work spells out in new ways how the brave new world of scientific research on brains, cognition, and behavior may revolutionize criminal justice processing and treatment. The one hope for the old system may be the scientific ignorance of the current practitioners, ironically. But it will only take one clued-in defense attorney, like the first one to insist on DNA testing, or innovative treatment provider to force that world on everyone.

Let me bore you with entreaties one more time. We ignore this stuff at our peril. The sooner the partnerships are formed, the better.

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