The subject of God and religion has always been touchy and controversial. The helpfulness of religion is clear in many cases and slightly less so in others, while the existence of God has prompted many arguments between different groups. However, neuroscience has shown a peculiar relationship between our brains and belief in God, one that poses interesting questions for faith and spirituality.
Patients with Temporal Lobe Epilepsy experience the usual recurrent seizures cause by the disease. However, some also experience strong religious visions that would cause them to feel as if they are not alone and lead to religious sensations. These feelings can lead individuals to suddenly believe in God or feel as if there is a higher power; they become more compassionate and almost complacent compared to their previous self. In fact, according to the article, one of the founders of the Seventh Day Adventist movement was subject to a brain injury at the tender age of nine that caused her to have personality changes; some believe that these changes include alterations to her temporal lobe, leading her to feel very religious and eventually found the new Christian movement. Scientists do however recognize a difference between believing there is someone else in the room and having a religious experience.
This may mean that there was an evolutionary development of this region in order to further the experience of these holy sensations. According to renowned scientist Richard Dawkins, it may not be the case that we all naturally believe in God. There is just the capacity to do so that may have arisen with increased intelligence. Researchers even brain scanned a Buddhist meditating in order to observe effects on the brain. Bloodflow to the parietal lobes shut down almost completely, and these regions of the brain apparently give us a foothold on time and space. When they become inactive, we may “lose our sense of self” according to the article. This may have many implications for individuals who begin to act differently and may even do ridiculous things due to brain changes that cause them to suddenly believe in a higher power. Maybe cult leaders and those who form groups that seek to worship or believe in some higher being may form due to an individual’s brain changes, leading them to create huge groups of followers who blindly listen to whatever a leader says; deaths can result, as is the case with cults such as the Peoples Temple.
Why do people see the glass as half full or half empty? Optimism is something that uplifts an individual’s spirits and can help them through difficult times. However, what causes optimism to continue despite hardships? Why do some people seem to continue looking on the bright side of things regardless of the situation?
A group of scientists asked the same question. Utilizing magnetic resonance imaging, volunteers’ brains were analyzed after being asked a series of questions. Each person was presented with a number of negative scenarios (getting divorced, contracting a disease, etc.) and were asked to estimate the probability that this event would happen to them. They were then told the actual probability that the event would happen, and then again asked to reassess their previous answer and specify a new probability that the same event would happen to them.
It was shown that when the probability of something bad happening was worse than previously believed, the participant decreased their estimated probability. Frontal lobe activity increased throughout this process. However, when the probability of something bad happening was greater than believed, optimistic participants did not “significantly update their own estimate” while also displaying significantly less frontal lobe activation! In other words, optimists’ brains disregarded the bad news presented to them and did not appropriately update their perception of how things would go for them. Scientists actually suggest that optimism is “due to a malfunction in the prefrontal cortex” concerning the understanding of future negative events; this information was corroborated in other studies as well (from brainblogger.com).
While it is generally regarded as positive to be optimistic (pun intended) there can be serious downfalls to persistently think on the bright side. Individuals who are not as likely to seriously consider the chance that something negative may happen to them in the future are much more likely to take unnecessary risks. Unsafe sex, drug use, and criminal activity can all result from an inability to rationally understand the potential for negative outcomes of actions.
Criminal recidivism is an unfortunate problem that can result, in worst case scenarios, in the death of more innocent people. Although the chance that a released former prisoner will commit such a crime is very low, it still happens. Problems arise with ensuring that released prisoners or those on parole will not commit any more crimes. What level of security should be forced upon these individuals? At what point are their rights being infringed upon if their apparent likelihood to recommit a crime is seen as too high?
In Washington, D.C, technology developed at the University of Pennsylvania that can potentially predict pre-crime has been tested out. It is apparently able to determine who when released is more likely to kill or be killed by another, and can even determine any other law-breaking instances involving the former criminals. The research team was able to sift through thousands of crimes and data concerning people who had committed crimes. Apparently, the “age at which the crime was committed” was one of the most important factors in predicting future crime.
Even more recently, the Department of Homeland Security has tested out a new “Future Attribute Screening Technology”, or FAST, that monitors body movement, voice pitch, and speech rhythms. According to the article, the technology could eventually be used at “airports…border crossings, and any large scale public event”. Comparisons to the Hollywood blockbuster Minority Report abound. But how reliable would this technology be?
The problem with these ideas is that just because a technology can attempt to predict a future crime does not mean that this crime will occur. Everything is based on the likelihood of the event happening, NOT on an exact fact. At a certain point, people will not be allowed on probation simply because there is a high chance they will commit a crime given a certain test. False positives are a huge issue and more experimentation needs to be done to ensure that the machine does not incorrectly identify people. Overall, these methods seem scary and unreliable as of now and are not something that should be implemented into our society.
Psychopathic individuals are characterized by a lack of emotion, morals, and extreme egocentricity. They are frequently able to produce convincing lies about their past and have no remorse when it comes to getting what they want. Ted Bundy, probably the most notorious serial killer in United States history, was treated with disgust by the general public and sentenced to death, despite the fact that he has a mental disorder with strong biological connections. Should he have died?
There is no doubt that what Bundy did was horrifying. However, a combination of nature and nurture led him to become the “perfect storm” of serial killers. He was smart, graduating from college with a psychology degree, and even helped the Republican party in Washington. But his brain condition coupled with his upbringing led him to kill many, many individuals. The signs of sociopathy can be picked up to some extent when Bundy was interviewed days before his execution.
When speaking, he builds himself us and seems to be forcibly making us understand that he was a “good person”, a phrase he repeats often. He also emphasizes how he came from a “Christian household” with good Christian parents that did not drink or smoke. These are all qualities that one would associate with a good childhood upbringing, something that for Bundy may not actually be real. It is disputed whether or not his childhood was as good as he claims, and many indicators point to this not being the case, confirming Bundy’s tendency to lie about his past. This is just another sign of his psychopathy; he knows that his interviewer will feel sorry for him and he will be in their favor for a point in time.
He then claims that he did certain things that he kept very close and secret to himself and to no one else, and that it was just another stage in his life. Unfortunately these things were the murders of innocent young women. He seems to understand that this is wrong, and yet almost could not help but commit crimes. He frequently traveled back to visit where he got rid of the bodies and claimed that the site was almost a sacred place for him. He also shifts the blame of his actions onto pornography that he claims he became obsessed with when younger.
Bundy’s death was met with celebration by many. He is still called an evil person by many, including news sources. It is important to understand that he is not evil, he is suffering from a neurobiological condition that drove him to serial killings. Even if we know he is a psychopath, does it change anything? It is highly unlikely that anyone would want to lessen his sentence given what he has done. His threat to humanity gives good reason to at least hold him in prison for life so that he does not cause any further deaths.
In 1990 in St. Petersburg, Florida, a young woman had a cardiac arrest and passed out. The subsequent deprivation of oxygen throughout her brain left her in a persistent vegetative state. Despite repeated attempts by doctors to bring her back to full awareness, Terry Schiavo remained unable to respond to the outside world. Her husband wanted to remove her feeding tube because he believed she would not want to be kept alive like that when there was such a small chance of recovery. Her parents, on the other hand argued that as a devout Roman Catholic, Terry would not want to violate church rules concerning euthanasia and would prefer to be kept alive. National debate concerning the trial ensued, and arguments over brain dead individuals continue today.
One argument towards removing Schiavo’s feeding tube was that there was no way she was coming back and that she had no more consciousness. Are brain dead individuals still able to think and feel? Or are they literally shells of their formal selves, breathing and living but doing nothing else? One study has shown that there are actually different levels of brain death and that some individuals labeled as having been in a vegetative state could respond to researchers requests with their minds. With functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the researchers asked brain dead individuals to imagine hitting a tennis ball or walking through a room or familiar location. Five out of 54 of the patients, who varied from vegetative to minimally conscious, were able to elicit responses on the fMRI. In addition, a car accident victim in Belgium has been responding to “yes” and “no” questions through a brain imaging machine.
These studies bring a number of ethical dilemmas with them. If a patient wants to die and says so through the imaging technology, should they be allowed to do so? This is similar to euthanasia or assisted suicide and would probably be met with as much opposition as support. If anything, this only complicates how we see the distinction between what constitutes life and death. The courts will be forced to decide what to do in situations like this and whether or not to accept the output of more advanced technology.
It is well known that former sex offenders can be easily tracked down and found through online and other methods. There is an extremely large stigma against these individuals because of what they have done in the past. Pedophilia, sexual attraction to children, is often met with the most disgust.
However, this abnormal interest is not really their fault. According to Dr. Herbert Wagemaker, pedophilia is a mental health disease that an individual cannot control; “No one decides, I’m going to grow up and be a child pedophile.” Unfortunately, these people are stuck with what seems to even be disease that you can be genetically predisposed to. What should be done with individuals who molest children or download child pornography?
In one case involving a pedophile (Kluver-Bucy Syndrome) that was arrested for viewing child pornography, prosecutors argued for the maximal sentence because of his ability to control his urges in public. He knew that pedophilia was not appropriate, yet he could not control his urges in private situations. The judge in this situation accepted that the suspect’s mental condition was a mitigating factor and lessened his sentence.
This brings up the problem of whether or not individuals with such problems should even have lessened sentences. This is somewhat of a reoccurring problem with many cases involving suspects that are found to have mental health disorders. While it is understandable that their condition may have had some part in what they have done, it still does not dismiss the fact that such actions have a greater chance of occurring again. Only the development of effective treatments will be able to help these individuals.
The lecture on psychopathy in class is a fascinating topic. It was interesting to think about a whole group of people who cannot perceive emotions very well and who easily and cheerfully manipulate other people in order to get what they want. While psychopaths have been treated extremely negatively due to their perceived lack of moral compass, their label as “bad, terrible people” is not entirely true. This is a neurobiological disease of the mind, meaning that some people are born as psychopaths and can’t help it. But what does this mean for the law?
First off, recently numerous revealing studies have been conducted to further understand the mind of the psychopath. There have been studies conducted where individuals are shown faces with various expressions, with psychopaths not showing any difference in brain activity between the different emotions. However, it is uncertain whether psychopaths cannot mimic the emotions of others in their minds or whether they are merely able to not focus on emotional ideas when looking at or thinking about things. One group of scientists repeated the face experiment , but this time with videos of hands. Some hands showed positive movements like stroking another hand, while others twisted another hand and seemed to cause pain. This time many brain activities would be activated and there would not be any preconceived notion of where to look to find differences in activity. The same gestures would then be performed on the patient’s hand in order to judge their real life response.
But why are psychopaths so callous? According to another article, once focused on a goal they are unable to take in any new information. This may be why serial killer psychopaths seem to relentlessly track and kill their prey. As mentioned in class, they do have a normal physiological response to the threat of electrical shock; the reason they do not show any interest or fear is that they are simply too focused on something else and are not interested in the apparent threat of shock.
Finally, returning to the original question, what do we do with psychopaths? In a recent Italian court case, a murderer was given a reduced sentence because of the low presence of MAOA (discussed in class as well) in the brain. His lawyers argued that this predisposed him to violent behavior. It seems as though the court took the genetic evidence too far though, as this genetic predisposition does not imply predestination and his environment must have had to be bad as well. In a more serious error, it seems as though this man who is apparently predisposed to violence is receiving a shortened sentence! Regardless of his condition, the fact is that he is a more dangerous threat to society. It doesn’t entirely make sense to release him earlier because he may just go back to committing another violent crime. Steve Jones, a geneticist from University College London, notes that “90% of all murders are committed by people with a Y chromosome.” Does that mean all males should also automatically receive lessened sentences? Hopefully further technological advanes will allow for some sort of treatment for psychopathy and other mental problems predisposing them to violence so that these individuals will be given a chance other than jail or threatening society.
An interview with a dangerous psychopath, a good way to note how blankly he talks about killing and how he sometimes seems to take control of the interview.
Imagine if a crazed man ran into one of your crowded classes, yelled something quickly but clearly with his fist shaking around, and fled the room. You would definitely remember the situation right? What he yelled, what he was wearing, and whether he had a gun seem like things that are pretty easy to recall. How difficult can correctly reporting what happened be?
Apparently pretty difficult. According to Elizabeth Loftus, a psychologist at the University of California at Irvine, witnesses strongly disagree on various aspects of the event, including those included above. She has also performed research that concerns the “misinformation effect”, which shows how the information presented to a witness after an event can significantly change how they perceived the event. The wording of a question, something that lawyers can use to their advantage, can change many details of the memory of the witness. Her studies along with many others, including those of Daniel Simons, author of the book The Invisible Gorilla, point at the fact that witness recall is not a very reliable method of obtaining facts because of the fallibility of memory. Despite what we may think, more emotional memories may actually be even less reliable.
But what should be done? The Dana Foundation’s article (via The Law and Neuroscience Blog ) on brain science and the law notes that some are suggesting that the police or EMTs may be more reliable witnesses because their memories are less emotionally charged. Unfortunately, some companies have started to market neuroimaging machines that they claim can detect when individuals are telling the truth or lying. According to Jennifer Bard’s article (via The Law and Neuroscience Blog )on these technologies, these methods are extremely unreliable, not well developed, and are trying to replace the “judgment of the fact-finder, judge, or jury”. She argues that the main problem with such technologies is that, as discussed above, memory is not a credible indicator of what happened at events; while a person may believe clearly that he or she is telling the truth, what they say may not really have happened at all. The machines would wrongly suggest that the person is right, while in fact the only thing that the machine is doing is confirming that the person is saying what they believe is true.
A big national issue that has been debated for a long time concerns the death penalty. There are those that believe it is necessary to prove a point and “make an example” out of some in order to prevent others from doing wrong, and those who believe that it is a barbarian way of skirting around an individual’s actual underlying problems in order to quickly get rid of them from society. As we have touched upon in class, many of the people who are convicted of crimes have the potential to have some sort of underlying neurological problem. The death penalty in children (those who committed crimes at the age of 18 and under) are even more controversial. Neuroscience has now been brought into the battle as a key point in whether or not the death penalty for minors is constitutional; is it cruel and unusual punishment? One sources argue that it may be, for it does not fulfill the purpose of the death penalty: “retribution and deterrence” (2). Is it acceptable to execute an individual when they committed a crime at an age when they may not have had a fully developed brain?
Scientists have argued that the brain’s frontal lobe “doesn’t begin to mature until 17 years of age” and that brain maturation happens later than age 18 (age 20-25 according to various scientists) (1). A test was conducted in which teenagers and adults were told not to look at a light that flashed on a screen. Teenagers could complete the task, but utilized different portions of their brain than adults. In addition, the teens’ impulse control was just not at the level of the other adults. Analyzing MRI tests over time shows that continuous pruning and change occurs as the teenager becomes older. As one study put it, the “…adolescent’s brain is unstable… put stressors into a system that’s already fragile and it can easily revert to a less mature state” (1). Basically, the brain is in a state of continuous development that may influence how an adolescent thinks and can result in their inability to reason correctly through the implications of performing crimes.
Finally, although many people do agree that the brain is changing through adolescent development, some scientists are also hesitant to pick a side. They argue that there is not enough evidence to support or deny the ability to make a moral decision. It is a difficult task to try and relate brain activity to actual actions, an important point to remember in this ongoing debate.
How do people decide what political party to support? It has long been stated by political scientists that an individual’s political leanings are strongly dependent on their family’s opinions and the people we surround ourselves with. As one source put it, if you are a screaming liberal it must be “because you were raised in a household full of screaming liberals” (1). However, some scientists have claimed that the tendency to support or be against sets of political ideals may be because of genes. People may from birth be predisposed to believe in certain values. This may actually be why many families frequently all support the same political parties.
One article even mentions that this is a question of “nature vs. nurture”. As Dr. Eagleman talked about last class, this is not ever the real question. While studies have not been able to conclusively prove anything related to the likelihood of particular genes causing corresponding political leanings, it seems as though it is a combination of nature and nurture that causes people to believe in certain things. Harvard University and the University of California conducted a study where identified a particular dopamine receptor gene (DRD4) that made individuals “more likely to be liberal as adults” (2). However, this fact was only true if the individual in question had “an active social life growing up” (2). This is another good example of the combination of nature and nurture that is required to ultimately decide the course of our mental development. If you want your child to become a politician that is liberal, it would be best to live in a liberal environment and support liberals yourself!
Another study in Nature Neuroscience highlighted the efforts of researchers who found that liberal and conservative leaning people actually process and respond to information differently. Liberals were very responsive to “informational complexity, ambiguity, and novelty” while conservatives displayed more “structured and persistent cognitive styles” (3). There are apparently very basic differences in the brains of these two groups, and that some of these differences are due to genetic differences. Judges from more liberal areas and raised in liberal homes will therefore have more liberal leanings than those from conservative areas, due not only to the environment but also the genetic characteristics of the individual.