NiteTalk: Talking Murder With David Eagleman

Earlier today David Eagleman popped the lid off our skulls and showed us some of the misperceptions of aging. Now the neuroscientist, who's coming to Books and Books on Wednesday, shares some of the secrets behind what makes someone murder. Is it nurture? Is it nature? Read on to find out.

Is a murderer made (nurture) or born (nature)?
Both. Everything in modern science indicates that genes and environment intertwine in such hopelessly complex ways that we will never be able to point at one or the other to determine why someone's brain is the way it is. As a result, the nature/nurture question is dead. 

If it's in the circuitry, can we go in and "fix" it? Of course, there are always many ways to interact with someone's brain circuitry so they won't commit crimes anymore -- from killing the person to giving them a prefrontal lobotomy to flatten their personality. But these are cruel and unusual, and I believe a government should never have the right to directly mess with the biology of its citizens. The only approach that would be feasible in terms of neuro-rehabilitation is one I outline in the book: using real-time feedback with brain imaging to help people help themselves toward better impulse control.  It will only work if the person wants it to.

Could we perhaps alter the circuitry even before the commission of a crime? No. A tenet of American jurisprudence is that we cannot punish someone before they've committed a crime. And this is, in part, because the commission of crime is very complicated -- a cross of personality and circumstance. The same brain in slightly different situations may or may not break any laws.

That doesn't let anybody off the hook though, does it? Correct. The intersection of neuroscience and law tries to gain a better biological understanding of behavior in order to achieve customized sentencing, tailored rehabilitation, and better incentive structuring. This will lead to a more humane and cost-effective legal system. But it won't let anyone off the hook. People who are breaking social rules will still need to be removed from the streets. But it's the way we treat them that will change.  Instead of using incarceration as a one-size-fits-all solution, we will be able to treat drug addicts, the mentally ill, and so on with more nuanced and effective approaches.

David Eagleman will be reading from and discussing Incongito on Wednesday June 1 8pm at  Books and Books 265 Aragon Avenue Coral Gables. For more information call 305-442-4408 or log on here.

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