As I was riding my bike back home, after an intense day, a smash of thoughts hit me right on the forehead; and no, I was not wearing my helmet. Completely changed, my decision making process switched from thinking about a big margarita pizza to why the legal system is able to judge a person as an adult, when they are 18 years old or younger. Well, for me, this does not make any sense at all.
This seems even more unreasonable when all the technology available nowadays allow us to understand that by 25 years old of age, various parts of the brain that are involved in the decision making process are fully developed. Knowing this, it is difficult to comprehend why does the legal system want to go against human nature. It is true that not all kids develop at the same rate, but it is also not true that all people should be equally punished by something that they did when they were not biologically prepared to understand or fully distinguish from what is “good” and what is “bad”.
As one starts to dig deeper, into the most complicated piece of equipment that the human being caries, one will be able to find that everything in human nature is connected in some way. For example, the average fertility age in women is 12, by this age their mother should be, at least, 24 years old, almost at the optimum mature level of the frontal lobes of the brain. This means that by the time that these kids are able to get pregnant, there mother’s brain should be capable to understand what is “good” and what is “bad” for their children. Simply put, they are the ones that are prepared to make the important decisions. This is one of the reasons by which I think that people that might be considered as candidates to respond to the legal system are the people that have fully developed brain, perhaps the parents of this naïve creatures.
As the neuroscience field continues to shine the blurry lens of the scope by which the legal system is looking the composition and biology of the brain, new neuroimaging technology keep surging. With this kind of technology neuroscientists will able to demonstrate, in a more visual and perhaps digestible way, the behavioral nature of humans. However, the law community should work together with neuroscientist, in order to understand, or try to assimilate the biological basis of human behaviors. This knowledge might help them to comprehend why it is not healthy to “reform” all kind of criminals with the same type of punishments, or perhaps, why it is not healthy to punish someone who’s brain is not fully developed. Customized rehabilitation?
With the presidential election nearing, it is easy to get wrapped up in thinking about the obvious crucial demographic groups – men, women, minorities, etc. However, one group notably left out of the mix is the mentally ill. Elections are based on a democratic system that allows citizens over the age of eighteen to vote. But where do the mentally ill stand in this and what are their rights? As it turns out, many states “have some type of law limiting voting rights for individuals based on competence,” as described in an article on CNN.com titled “Mentally ill deserve voting rights, advocates say.”
The key question is who or what determines what competence actually is and what level of it is needed to be able to vote? Is the average eighteen-year-old American more educated and capable of making an informed decision than people who “often are more in tune with what’s going on in elections because they have more time to watch television, read newspapers and research the candidates,” but happen to be labeled as mentally ill?
This matter sheds light on the issue of where to draw the arbitrary line in the very gray zone of competency, responsibility, and decision making processes in order to determine who is mentally capable and who is mentally incapable. The government officials elected will have an influence on all legislation, including the Supreme Court and the law, showing that regardless of if they are allowed to vote, the mentally ill will be affected directly by the elections. In fact, some say they “have much more at stake, because they often are dependent on the government.” So while currently there is not a clear and concise answer as to where the threshold should exist to determine competency, neuroscience could revolutionize the way it is defined and understood, thus providing a fairer perspective on who should be allowed to vote and consequently bring change in the law.
The concept of morality is as old as human civilization. It is the ability to choose between right and wrong that we have, until very recently, ascribed as the distinguishing factor between humans and animals. This idea is easily summed up in Anthony Burgess’ novel, A Clockwork Orange, in which the main character is told that “goodness is something chosen. When a man cannot choose, he ceases to be a man.” Burgess believes that good behavior is meaningless if one does not willingly choose it. His argument can be extended to the idea that, and our current judicial system commonly utilizes this view, that a criminal is exculpable if he does not willingly choose to commit the harmful act.
Neuroscientists believe that as we delve deeper into the mechanics of the mind, we will see that most of what drives us to action is inaccessible to consciousness, and that free will is close to non-existence. This line of thinking suggests that our actions are not dependent upon free will, but are predetermined by a multitude of biochemical inputs within our brain. It suggests that we are, in actuality, biochemical “robots” that have no free will and our decisions are based on the program and machinery of our DNA and our nervous system.
This seems like an extremely bleak way to view the world we live in. How will this newfound scientific knowledge sit with centuries of human thinking that has revolved around the concept of free choice? Is there any way of reconciling these two vastly different ways of perception about humanity? What will happen to religion, the belief in a soul, and other firmly held beliefs?
"The role of imaging studies should be restricted to providing the courts with information that affords a more accurate assessment of culpability and, if applicable, the manner of punishment that would be most beneficial to society and the individual."
The article makes a strong argument for this conclusion by not just citing the infancy of such technology, but instead by arguing that these brain imaging results can’t be used to explain a defendant’s state of mind during the crime. At one point, the authors pose the question: “Can [brain imaging findings] truly enlighten a court on [a defendant’s] criminal intent, or mens rea, at the time, and if so, which parts of the crime?” In my opinion, these tests do not have such capabilities. The fact is that our brains are truly one of the most complex and dynamic tissues in our body, so how can we even begin to examine it for such a purpose?
At the same time though, I do understand that there are predisposing factors that make certain individuals biologically vulnerable to more criminal behavior. For this reason, I find myself strongly agreeing with the latter part of the authors’ conclusion. These imaging techniques allow us to examine the brains of defendants for any abnormalities that could affect their behavior. From these results, the justice system can tailor the punishments in order to reduce the rate of recidivism. There is a promising future for these technologies, but we must be cautious with how we use them.
Does someone with a serious mental illness face legal disadvantages in divorce cases? Determining parental competency as a consequence of a mental illness lacks a clear definition, and decisions that have severe consequences for children and adults are made with little basis on science.
Key informants in the legal arena observed that a parent's diagnosis of mental illness can have a profound impact in divorce proceedings when custody and visitation determinations are made. Divorcing parents are faced with multiple stressors including the trauma of loss, grief, and financial burdens, which are usually more extreme for women than for men. Key informants suggested that mothers experiencing mental illness, particularly those whose ability to maintain employment is compromised, are often unable to afford the costs of divorce, e.g., lawyers fees, evaluations for the children, child care, missed work, and are therefore at a disadvantage. Many lawyers are reluctant to take divorce or custody cases where a parent has a mental illness. Most often this fear stems from a lack of knowledge about mental illness and how this relates to a person's ability to be a good parent. Situations where supervised visitation is necessary are also problematic because supervisors are both costly and difficult to find . ( read more )
Moreover, a 2001 study from the University from Massachusetts found that divorce is far above the norm in women with brain tumors. MS, and systematic cancer. The divorce rate is also higher in women than in men with the same illnesses. Divorce laws on ground of insanity exist in some states, and they usually require that the illness be long-term, ongoing, or declared incurable.
Some institutions offer assistance to parents suffering from mental illnesses, such as the Threshold Mother's Project in Chicago. This institution offers programs for mothers and children, and in some cases may offer legal counsel in divorce cases. It would be nice to see more work done to help all those involved in such divorce cases, as more becomes known about mental illnesses and "parental competency."
2. "Divorce in Women with Serious Illness." Journal of Neuroscience Nursing 33.5 (Oct 2001): 286. Health Reference Center Academic. Gale. Houston Academy of Medicine-TMC. 24 Nov. 2008
An article in Health section of the New York Times recently described the differences in fMRI scans of bullies and non-bullies. Subjects were shown clips of people in pain as a result of accidents, and the fMRI scans of bullies showed a response in the center associated with reward and pleasure whereas non-bullies did not exhibit the same response. The author concludes that the "striking differences" in brain scans "suggests...major differences in how [bullies] process information."
Although this may seem obvious to any academic of the neuroscience field, the connection between the physical brain and behavior does not seem as clear with the public. News stories like this, however, are promising in that it indicates that the media is slowly opening up to this connection between the brain and behavior. With further acknowledgement of this brain-behavior link, we may very well see an increased need for research in the realm of neuroscience and neurolaw, which is deficient when compared to other fields such as genomics. An increased awareness of the brain-behavior connection could be both beneficial and detrimental, as the brain may now become a target area for treatment. However, discrimination may occur against people with brains who do not function in socially acceptable ways.
Guilt is assigned to offenders who have knowingly committed an unacceptable act.Blaming a person for their crimes stems from the idea that the offender possessed the freedom to decide how to act.This process relies upon deliberating on a variety of alternative actions before acting, a process otherwise known as free will (Kane 5).
While humans perceive free will as a concrete asset that distinguishes us in the world, others contest the existence of free will.Some argue that free will is not a valid concept because, in reality, people are not really free to decide their actions.Instead a person’s actions are determined by a variety of factors comprised of the following categories: physical/causal, psychological, biological, and theological (Free Will).Yet ascertaining these determinants, especially the biological, has proven to be elusive and thus they have been overlooked as evidence from the debate on the validity of free will.
Up until the scientific community’s increased ability to study the brain, the debate between free will and determinism was limited to thought.However in today’s age, the technological advances of neuroscience has afforded scientists with new approaches of investigating the brain and, accordingly, has provided results that indicate our decisions are reflections of the biochemistry of our brain.An upcoming article from Science News presents that results from neuroscientific investigations are giving us new information in which to frame the debate between free will and determinism (Siegfried).Siegfried writes that neuroscientific findings are beginning to wean us off of the idea that free will bestows people with the option of doing what they please and that the complex electrochemical networks in our brains are in fact responsible for the decisions people make.
It appears that as future scientific investigations accumulate findings explaining the thought processes of our brains, the notion of free will and of being the ultimate decider will crumble beneath the evidence of determinism. Once this occurs, free will in turn will be utilized as a euphemism describing the automated processes of the brain.In addition, such future comprehension of “free will” may also provide avenues of influencing the brain through outside intervention.This raises the possibility of governing the thoughts of people, with obvious applications involving the rehabilitation of criminals.In the end it will be up to our judicial system to decide whether or not society should use these methods to enforce a generally accepted notion of “free will”.