The Situationist

Posts Tagged ‘David Eagleman’

David Eagleman’s Big Thoughts on Synesthesia

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 16, 2012

From Big Think:

On a late winter day in 1922, the sound of a gun shot resounded with a loud boom in the hills surrounding the house of three-year-old Edgar Curtis. The sound itself wasn’t out of the ordinary, since the Curtises lived near a firing range. What was extraordinary was the question the boy turned to ask his mother: “What is that big, black noise?”

A few days later, when his mother was putting him to bed, Edgar heard the chirping of a shrill cricket and demanded, “What is that little white noise?” For Edgar, low, rhythmic notes were dark in color. High-pitched sounds were pale, and, researchers later discovered, tones in between were variously red, blue, and purple. A rainbow was “a song.”

Edgar Curtis’ story is an early example in the scientific literature of synesthesia, a neurological phenomenon in which one or more sensory modalities are linked. “There are many different forms,”  says David Eagleman, a neuroscientist known for his ability to garner important insights into the nature of perception and consciousness through idiosyncratic methods. “Essentially, any cross-blending of the senses that you can think of, my colleagues and I have found a case somewhere.”

Watch Big Think interview on synesthesia with neuroscientist David Eagleman:

Read the entire Big Think blog post here.

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Posted in Neuroscience, Video | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Science and Situationism Praised on Huffington Post Blog

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 17, 2012

From Huffington Post and Cornell Sun (By Sebastian Deri):

As someone who was better at English and history than math and science in high school, what I chose to study in college was partly an effort to shy away from the latter fields and take refuge in “softer” subjects. “Leave the questions of science to the scientists, I am concerned with justice and morality,” we, who chose humanities, said! These two domains were exclusive — “non-overlapping magisteria” as Stephen Jay Gould might say. No meaningful dialogue between the disciplines was possible or necessary.

This attitude, however, is lazy and destructive — or at best, hopelessly antiquated.

The scientific study of human behavior is shedding new light on our actions and inner life. To ignore these insights is not just a mistake. It is criminal.

I’m on our school’s mock trial team and have done mock trial for seven years now. There was a point at the beginning when I really felt that I was crusading on the side of righteousness in a system optimized for delivering justice. But eventually, I came to realize the solutions being offered in the courtroom simply could not get to the heart of the matter in the way science could. This realization came not from inside a courtroom, but rather from a brain scientist writing in a magazine.

In an article in The Atlantic, “The Brain on Trial,” David Eagleman makes the case that we must wade out of the swamp of the medieval machinations of our legal system — obsessed with the ancient and largely useless preoccupation with assigning blame.

He cites a seemingly straightforward pedophilia case. Eagleman describes the case of a 40-year-old man who “developed an interest in child pornography” and began to make “subtle sexual advances toward his prepubescent stepdaughter.” Eventually he was sent to prison. It was only after the discovery and successful removal of a tumor in his brain that he was able to abandon his pedophilia. Eagleman explains, “When your biology changes, so can your decision-making and your desires. The drives you take for granted… depend on the intricate details of your neural machinery.” Eagleman argues that “we can build a legal system more deeply informed by science, because when modern brain science is laid out clearly, it is difficult to justify how our legal system can continue to function without taking what we’ve learned into account.”

But, David Eagleman is a neuroscientist. Of course he would be inclined to make such a grandiose claim for his discipline. Well, we are hearing the same calls from within the law.

Jon Hanson is Law Professor at Harvard. He has a bachelor’s degree in Economics and a degree in law. Yet, eventually his studies in law — and specifically the tobacco industry — led him to abandon this field for the study social psychology, social cognition and other mind sciences.

He has since founded “The Project on Law and the Mind Sciences” at Harvard Law School and advocates for his version of the theory he calls “situationism.” As though it were coming straight from the mouth of Eagleman, Hanson writes that situationism “is premised on the social scientific insight that the naïve psychology… on which our laws and institutions are based is largely wrong. Situationists… seek first to establish a view of the human animal that is as realistic as possible before turning to legal theory or policy. To do so, situationists rely on the insights of scientific disciplines.”

And those insights are impossible to ignore. Take the MAO-A gene. Having a certain form of this gene (the low MAO-A gene), when combined with childhood mistreatment, significantly increases your chances of becoming violent. Yet, I have only ever heard of one case where such evidence was even up for discussion. In response to that evidence, the D.A. said, “The more of this information that you put before a jury, the [greater the] chances of confusing them.” In other words, the claim is not that such evidence is irrelevant, but rather we are too stupid to handle it. How condescending and pessimistic. Even the prosecution’s rebuttal expert claimed “it’s way too early to use this research in a court of law.” If we are ever to progress morally and socially we cannot afford to hold such views.

Not just our legal system, but our political system too could use an injection of scientific reasoning. Many political claims are testable scientific hypotheses and ought to be treated as such. To support the “war on drugs,” for example, under the claim that it reduces crime and drug use is to make a scientifically testable and falsifiable hypothesis. Of course, the data is messy and experiments hard to come by, but the very act of framing these as scientific questions will help us hack through this choking epistemic relativism in which everyone is entitled to an opinion by virtue of the fact that their justification may correspond to a possible version of reality. The world is not essentially unknowable. And the tools of science can help us peer into the eyes of reality. And from that reality, we should build our society.

I’m not worried that we run the risk of ignoring science as a great tool in our legal system, political debates or moral reasoning. Its encroachment into these domains is inevitable. The question is how quickly we’re going to embrace it rather than resist it at the cost of progress. With great gusto and speed, not only must scientists become lawyers, politicians and preachers but lawyers, politicians and preachers must become scientists.

Sample of related Situationist posts:

Posted in Education, Neuroscience, Situationist Contributors, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Brain and Blame

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 11, 2011

From The Atlantic (by David Eagleman):

On the steamy first day of August 1966, Charles Whitman took an elevator to the top floor of the University of Texas Tower in Austin. The 25-year-old climbed the stairs to the observation deck, lugging with him a footlocker full of guns and ammunition. At the top, he killed a receptionist with the butt of his rifle. Two families of tourists came up the stairwell; he shot at them at point-blank range. Then he began to fire indiscriminately from the deck at people below. The first woman he shot was pregnant. As her boyfriend knelt to help her, Whitman shot him as well. He shot pedestrians in the street and an ambulance driver who came to rescue them.

The evening before, Whitman had sat at his typewriter and composed a suicide note:

I don’t really understand myself these days. I am supposed to be an average reasonable and intelligent young man. However, lately (I can’t recall when it started) I have been a victim of many unusual and irrational thoughts.

By the time the police shot him dead, Whitman had killed 13 people and wounded 32 more. The story of his rampage dominated national headlines the next day. And when police went to investigate his home for clues, the story became even stranger: in the early hours of the morning on the day of the shooting, he had murdered his mother and stabbed his wife to death in her sleep.

It was after much thought that I decided to kill my wife, Kathy, tonight … I love her dearly, and she has been as fine a wife to me as any man could ever hope to have. I cannot rationa[l]ly pinpoint any specific reason for doing this …

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.

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.

I talked with a Doctor once for about two hours and tried to convey to him my fears that I felt [overcome by] overwhelming violent impulses. After one session I never saw the Doctor again, and since then I have been fighting my mental turmoil alone, and seemingly to no avail.

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. By the late 1800s, researchers had discovered that damage to the amygdala caused emotional and social disturbances. In the 1930s, the researchers Heinrich Klüver and Paul Bucy demonstrated that damage to the amygdala in monkeys led to a constellation of symptoms, including lack of fear, blunting of emotion, and overreaction. Female monkeys with amygdala damage often neglected or physically abused their infants. In humans, activity in the amygdala increases when people are shown threatening faces, are put into frightening situations, or experience social phobias. Whitman’s intuition about himself—that something in his brain was changing his behavior—was spot-on.

Stories like Whitman’s are not uncommon: legal cases involving brain damage crop up increasingly often. As we develop better technologies for probing the brain, we detect more problems, and link them more easily to aberrant behavior. Take the 2000 case of a 40-year-old man we’ll call Alex, whose sexual preferences suddenly began to transform. He developed an interest in child pornography—and not just a little interest, but an overwhelming one. He poured his time into child-pornography Web sites and magazines. He also solicited prostitution at a massage parlor, something he said he had never previously done. He reported later that he’d wanted to stop, but “the pleasure principle overrode” his restraint. He worked to hide his acts, but subtle sexual advances toward his prepubescent stepdaughter alarmed his wife, who soon discovered his collection of child pornography. He was removed from his house, found guilty of child molestation, and sentenced to rehabilitation in lieu of prison. In the rehabilitation program, he made inappropriate sexual advances toward the staff and other clients, and was expelled and routed toward prison.

At the same time, Alex was complaining of worsening headaches. The night before he was to report for prison sentencing, he couldn’t stand the pain anymore, and took himself to the emergency room. He underwent a brain scan, which revealed a massive tumor in his orbitofrontal cortex. Neurosurgeons removed the tumor. Alex’s sexual appetite returned to normal.

The year after the brain surgery, his pedophilic behavior began to return. The neuroradiologist discovered that a portion of the tumor had been missed in the surgery and was regrowing—and Alex went back under the knife. After the removal of the remaining tumor, his behavior again returned to normal.

When your biology changes, so can your decision-making and your desires. The drives you take for granted (“I’m a heterosexual/homosexual,” “I’m attracted to children/adults,” “I’m aggressive/not aggressive,” and so on) depend on the intricate details of your neural machinery. Although acting on such drives is popularly thought to be a free choice, the most cursory examination of the evidence demonstrates the limits of that assumption.

Alex’s sudden pedophilia illustrates that hidden drives and desires can lurk undetected behind the neural machinery of socialization. When the frontal lobes are compromised, people become disinhibited, and startling behaviors can emerge. Disinhibition is commonly seen in patients with frontotemporal dementia, a tragic disease in which the frontal and temporal lobes degenerate. With the loss of that brain tissue, patients lose the ability to control their hidden impulses. To the frustration of their loved ones, these patients violate social norms in endless ways: shoplifting in front of store managers, removing their clothes in public, running stop signs, breaking out in song at inappropriate times, eating food scraps found in public trash cans, being physically aggressive or sexually transgressive. Patients with frontotemporal dementia commonly end up in courtrooms, where their lawyers, doctors, and embarrassed adult children must explain to the judge that the violation was not the perpetrator’s fault, exactly: much of the brain has degenerated, and medicine offers no remedy. Fifty-seven percent of frontotemporal-dementia patients violate social norms, as compared with only 27 percent of Alzheimer’s patients.

Changes in the balance of brain chemistry, even small ones, can also cause large and unexpected changes in behavior. Victims of Parkinson’s disease offer an example. In 2001, families and caretakers of Parkinson’s patients began to notice something strange. When patients were given a drug called pramipexole, some of them turned into gamblers. And not just casual gamblers, but pathological gamblers. These were people who had never gambled much before, and now they were flying off to Vegas. One 68-year-old man amassed losses of more than $200,000 in six months at a series of casinos. Some patients became consumed with Internet poker, racking up unpayable credit-card bills. For several, the new addiction reached beyond gambling, to compulsive eating, excessive alcohol consumption, and hypersexuality.

What was going on? Parkinson’s involves the loss of brain cells that produce a neurotransmitter known as dopamine. Pramipexole works by impersonating dopamine. But it turns out that dopamine is a chemical doing double duty in the brain. Along with its role in motor commands, it also mediates the reward systems, guiding a person toward food, drink, mates, and other things useful for survival. Because of dopamine’s role in weighing the costs and benefits of decisions, imbalances in its levels can trigger gambling, overeating, and drug addiction—behaviors that result from a reward system gone awry. Physicians now watch for these behavioral changes as a possible side effect of drugs like pramipexole. Luckily, the negative effects of the drug are reversible—the physician simply lowers the dosage, and the compulsive gambling goes away.

The lesson from all these stories is the same: human behavior cannot be separated from human biology. If we like to believe that people make free choices about their behavior (as in, “I don’t gamble, because I’m strong-willed”), cases like Alex the pedophile, the frontotemporal shoplifters, and the gambling Parkinson’s patients may encourage us to examine our views more carefully. Perhaps not everyone is equally “free” to make socially appropriate choices.

Does the discovery of Charles Whitman’s brain tumor modify your feelings about the senseless murders he committed? Does it affect the sentence you would find appropriate for him, had he survived that day? Does the tumor change the degree to which you consider the killings “his fault”? Couldn’t you just as easily be unlucky enough to develop a tumor and lose control of your behavior?

On the other hand, wouldn’t it be dangerous to conclude that people with a tumor are free of guilt, and that they should be let off the hook for their crimes?

More.

Related Situationist Posts:

Posted in Emotions, Law, Morality, Neuroscience | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

David Eagleman on the Brain and the Law

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 31, 2011

From :

Dr David Eagleman considers some questions relating to law and neuroscience, challenging long-held assumptions in criminality and punishment and predicting a radical new future for the legal system.

[Eagleman's examples in the first 15 minutes will  strike long-term readers of The Situationist as non-novel.  For others, that portion of the video may be a useful primer to neurolaw.]

Related Situationist Posts:

 

 

Posted in Implicit Associations, Law, Neuroscience, Video | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

 
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