Neuroscience: Changing Our View of Choice and Responsibility

Wednesday, January 11, 2012


In article for the Irish Times, writer Paul O'Donohue recounts the acts of Charles Whitman, who in 1966 infamously climbed tothe top the bell tower at University of Austin and began shooting people.  All told he killed 15 people in 1966 before being killed by police.

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.

Rapid developments in neuroscience raise many complex questions that need to be considered regarding its many potential uses in the future. One 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. 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 report, published in January 2011, is entitled Neuroscience, Society and Policy and 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 Security will 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 Law and 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.

Irish Times