New studies challenge our notions of free will

Thu, Jan 12, 2012, 00:00

Advances in the neurosciences – including neuro-imaging – will inevitably change perceptions about choice and responsibility, writes PAUL O'DONOGHUE

ONE DAY during 1966, Charles Whitman climbed to the top of a tower at the University of Austin, Texas, and began shooting at people. On the way up he killed a receptionist with the butt of his rifle. He killed a further 12 people and wounded 32 before he was shot dead by police. Earlier that day he had murdered his mother and stabbed his wife to death as she slept. Whitman was 25 years old and had no history of violent behaviour.

In a suicide note he requested an autopsy. He was convinced that something was wrong with his brain as he had been experiencing overwhelming violent impulses which he struggled to control. He had gone to a doctor, but did not return. The autopsy revealed a brain tumour that affected his hypothalamus and amygdala, a part of the brain involved in the regulation of emotion and in particular the regulation of fear and aggression.

This case and others have been outlined by David Eagleman, a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas. Eagleman has an interest in neuroscience and law and through presenting such cases, and data on the general population, he raises questions about responsibility and free will and challenges the currently dominant treatment of offenders, which emphasises punishment over systematic rehabilitation.

He points out that we choose neither our nature (genetic inheritance) nor our nurture (cultural environment) and that we are creatures of chance with vastly differing perspectives, personalities and capacities for decision making. Therefore it would be more ethical and useful to focus on the best approach to particular offenders in light of our evolving understanding of the relevant science. This does not mean offenders need not be taken off the streets if they are a threat, nor does it imply that all offenders can be rehabilitated. But Eagleman argues that the chances of a more positive outcome, for both the criminal and society, would be greatly enhanced with such a constructive attitude.

Ongoing rapid developments in neuroscience raise many complex questions that we need to carefully consider regarding its many potential uses in the future. An excellent tool to begin this process is provided by the British Royal Society in the form of a number of online modules under the overall title Brain Waves (see royalsociety.org). The aim of the Brain Waves project is “to explore what neuroscience can offer, what are its limitations and what are the potential benefits and the risks posed by its applications”.

The first module, published in January 2011, is entitled Neuroscience, Society and Policyand focuses on the development of neuroscience and the technology through which it operates. It examines such areas as neuroimaging, neuropharmacology (brain – drug interactions), understanding conscious and unconscious decision-making and brain interfaces with external devices and prostheses such as games and artificial limbs. It also examines governance issues.

Module two, published in February last, is entitled Neuroscience: implications for education and lifelong learning. This module emphasises the fact that the brain remains plastic to varying degrees throughout the life-span and reinforces the ideas that “neurons that fire together, wire together” and that we must “use it or lose it” when it comes to gaining and retaining skills. Education, in the light of data from neuroscience, can contribute significantly to our cognitive abilities, resilience in the face of stress and our overall quality of life.

Module three, Neuroscience, Conflict and Securitywill be published soon and address concerns over the development of chemical and biological agents for weapons usage, incorporating data from neuropharmacology to target the nervous system.

Module four is titled Neuroscience and the Lawand examines a number of the issues considered by David Eagleman, and a range of other topics including the age of consent and the use of neuroscience in the court.

Although many of the developments in neuroscience are yet to come and in particular the practical applications, it is time to begin to inform ourselves as to what is coming down the line. The information is complex and the ethical and governance issues require careful consideration, debate and discussion.

Eagleman’s work and innovative ideas and the Royal Society publications outlined above are a perfect place to start.


Paul O’Donoghue, principal clinical psychologist and founder member of the Irish Skeptics Society. Email contact@irishskeptics.org