October 19, 2012
I used to think that the brain was the most wonderful organ in my body. Then I realized who was telling me this. - Emo Phillips
Along with the shock of the murders lay another, more hidden, surprise: the juxtaposition of his aberrant actions with his unremarkable personal life. Whitman was an Eagle Scout and a former marine, studied architectural engineering at the University of Texas, and briefly worked as a bank teller and volunteered as a scoutmaster for Austin’s Boy Scout Troop 5. As a child, he’d scored 138 on the Stanford-Binet IQ test, placing in the 99th percentile. So after his shooting spree from the University of Texas Tower, everyone wanted answers.- David Eagleman in The Atlantic
For that matter, so did Whitman. He requested in his suicide note that an autopsy be performed to determine if something had changed in his brain—because he suspected it had.
Whitman’s body was taken to the morgue, his skull was put under the bone saw, and the medical examiner lifted the brain from its vault. He discovered that Whitman’s brain harbored a tumor the diameter of a nickel. This tumor, called a glioblastoma, had blossomed from beneath a structure called the thalamus, impinged on the hypothalamus, and compressed a third region called the amygdala. The amygdala is involved in emotional regulation, especially of fear and aggression.
If the psychopath has an amygdala which is shrunken by 18%, which is functioning more poorly when they are making moral decisions, then how just is it of us to punish psychopaths as harshly as we do in the criminal justice system, given I presume that psychopaths did not ask to have a shrunken amygdala? Or go back to cavum septum pellucidum; these individuals, these young babies did not ask to have a limbic system that was maldeveloping. To what extent should they be punished just as much as other people who lack these brain abnormalities?- Adrian Raine on The Science Show
And a last implication here is the extent to which we should or should not use biological data like this in order to identify children who are at risk for antisocial behaviour, and to what extent should we or should we not develop new biological interventions to try and reduce crime.
As everyone agrees, the word for getting rid of a whole subspecies is not “cure”. I’m not quite sure what the right word might be, but it’s probably somewhere between extermination and genocide. (Let’s call it cultural genocide, in deference to the fact that the biological organism persists even though its identity has been eradicated.) We’re even seeing the flowering of something like civil rights advocacy, in the form of the neurodiversity movement that’s been picking up steam over the past decade or two.- Peter Watts at his blog.
From what I can see out here, though, that movement seems to be an Autistics-Only club: what’s lacking is any sort of pro-Sociopath lobby along the lines of, say, the American Vampire League from True Blood. One would think that both groups would warrant the same kind of advocacy; the arguments of cognitive subspecieshood apply equally to both, after all. You’re stepping onto a pretty slippery slope when you claim that the occupation of a distinct neurological niche warrants acceptance of one group, but this other group over here — no more responsible for its wiring than the first — should still be wiped ou— er, cured.
Well, this all seems to be shaping up nicely. And I find myself thinking of neuroplasticity and the treatments based on it, and of the intellectual work-arounds that can help a person move from being low-functioning to high-functioning despite neurological disability, (the amusing Moffatism suggests "function" may not just be about autism and Asperger's). Would mental training help the psychopath become less of a psychopath, or, like the LSD enhanced encounter sessions described by Jon Ronson in his book, just make them better, and more dangerous, at being psychopaths? And, as I always wonder, if you can train yourself to be less mentally ill, could you train yourself to be more so, where that might prove useful? Even if it did mean losing your sense of smell? Ah, let "me" think...