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“If the conscious mind is not the captain of the brain, but merely a passenger along for the ride, to what extent is someone who ‘chooses’ crime culpable?”

“If the conscious mind is not the captain of the brain, but merely a passenger along for the ride, to what extent is someone who ‘chooses’ crime culpable?”

This question smacks of modern neuroscience and has certainly sparked a serious of interesting discussions and debates – not least Dr David Eagleman’s lecture at the RSA last night.

Modern neuroscience suggests that the two main assumptions that the legal system rests on are no longer considered ‘good’;

1 – that we are practical reasoners, and

2 – all brains have equal capacity

If this is the case then what does this mean for prosecutors and criminals.  Does this excuse their behaviour? Does it mean they shouldn’t go to prison? Does it mean that, ultimately there is no way of a person changing?

Louis Theroux touched on some of these issues in the recent BBC 2 show ‘A Place for Paedophiles’ which investigated the Coalinga Mental Hospital in California. Is paedophilia a mental illness? Can it ‘treated’? Or as in Dr Eagleman’s example, can it be out down to a brain tumour? In the example, a man of 40 years developed an interest in child pornography which led to paedophilia, a brain tumour was found and removed, after which his normal (non-paedophilic) tendencies returned.

Behaviours will continue to be assigned with societal values which will continue to change over time so I do wonder how far neuroscience can take us.  But I look forward to thinking about this more, exploring it more and learning more.

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