ToSeeTheLightOn August 1st, 1966, Charles Whitman went on a infamous murderous spree. He killed his mother, wife, and thirteen other people, before he was shot dead by police in the University of Texas Tower.

Perhaps what is less well known is the fact that Whitman strongly suspected that his brain was not working properly. Not only did he seek medical treatment, he even tried to turn himself into the police.

Most remarkably, in many of the notes and writings he left behind, he expresses confusion and remorse over his actions. So strong was his suspicion that his violent urges had a biological origin, in one note, he even requests an autopsy.

After his death, a tumor was discovered in his brain, which had been impinging on those parts of his brain involved in the regulation of emotions like fear and aggression. Had the tumour been detected and removed, there is good reason to believe Whitman’s murderous spree might never have happened.

More recently, in 2000, an otherwise typical man suddenly developed uncontrollable sexual desires, including paedophilia. When his brain was finally examined, a tumor was discovered in the part of the brain which is thought to control impulsive behaviour. When the tumour was removed, the man’s behaviour returned to normal.

Months later, however, the aberrant behaviour returned. When his brain was reexamined, it was discovered that some of the tumor had been missed in the first operation and had grown back. Once the tumour was removed, the man’s behaviour returned to normal.

These are provocative examples, of course, but when they are buttressed by an ever-growing understanding of our brains, our genes, and how they both interact with the environment, it is becoming increasingly clear that criminal behaviour is often rooted in a failure of biology rather than a failure of will. Indeed, much like Whitman’s tumour, which went undetected and untreated, we’re probably blaming many people for biological problems that we don’t yet have the technology to detect and treat.

David Eagleman, a neuroscientist and writer, tackles the legal implications of our growing understanding of the brain in his book Incognito (and in this very readable Atlantic Monthly article.). Although Eagleman has his doubts about the overall efficacy of the human will, suggesting that our will probably isn’t as free as was once thought, he thinks the overall effectiveness of our will is largely irrelevant, when we examine the criminal justice system from the perspective of the best science currently available to us.

In Eagleman’s view, once the courts have determined that a person has, in fact, committed a crime, instead of focussing on the criminal’s blameworthiness, they should focus instead on a person’s biology and the likelihood he or she will reoffend because of it. In this model, the length of incarceration is set not by a person’s blameworthiness, but instead is set to fit whatever rehabilitation regime is required to fix the criminal’s biology and ensure he or she does not reoffend again. In some cases, however, Eagleman is prepared to admit, permanent incarceration might be the only recourse, if a person’s likelihood to reoffend is very high.

Eagleman’s arguments for this shift in perspective is motivated by cutting edge research and the intuition that the mere fact of criminality is a reliable sign that there is something wrong with the brain, even if we can’t yet detect, measure, or cure it. The shift in perspective he proposes and the intuition that motivates it, however, is not entirely novel and has much in common with the approach to aberrant behaviour that was most common in North America before European colonialism introduced the idea that humans are essentially evil and must be threatened, coerced, and punished into right action.

Rupert Ross, in his book Indigenous Healing, provides an important and accessible introduction to the traditional indigenous perspective on justice. Crucially, North America’s indigenous peoples begin with the assumption that people are intrinsically good and that an individual’s aberrant behaviour is a symptom of a breakdown in his or her social relations. A system of justice, in this model, focuses primarily on identifying and correcting the failed relations at the root of the aberrant behaviour. It involves “looking at how the crime came out of all of the offender’s relationships, and in turn affected the relationships surrounding both the offender and the victim, including those with their families and friends, and their places in the community.” The aim of justice, according to the traditional teachings of indigenous peoples, is to heal rather than punish.

Eagleman’s view, based on the latest science, and the indigenous view, based on traditional teachings, are nevertheless importantly different. Eagleman wants the justice system to focus on the biological health of the individual, whereas indigenous peoples want to focus on the social health of the individual and his or her community. On further reflection, however, the two perspectives aren’t so far apart, if one expands the notion of an individual’s biological health to include a person’s relationships with others and his or her environment. Eagleman, for example, suggests the latest science points to a “broader sociobiological” account of the person in which “the brain is the densest concentration of youness,” but not all of what you are.

Although this brief discussion is not sufficient to make the case that the latest science is, in fact, pointing to a conception of human nature more in line with the traditional indigenous perspective, it does highlight an important question well worth asking: how many of our social institutions begin and end with the assumption that humans are intrinsically evil and need to be saved by violent and coercive intervention? More importantly, how might our institutions be changed for the better, if we start with the assumption that humans are essentially good and need healing rather than punishment when one of us does wrong.

If this line of reasoning has piqued your interest, please take a look at some of my other posts that discuss our new and growing understanding of the brain.

I’m also in the process of developing a little (and free!) online course, which will explore the implications of the ideas discussed in this post.

If you want to be the first to receive what I develop, sign-up to my email list or subscribe to my YouTube channel.

If you would prefer a personal guided tour through this research and its implications, let’s talk.

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