A new study from the Mind Research Center in Albuquerque, N. M., uses functional MRI to predict the likelihood of whether a criminal will reoffend after release from prison. Inmates “with relatively low anterior cingulate activity were twice as likely to reoffend than inmates with high-brain activity in this region.”
Society is developing the ability to identify probabilistically ahead of time categories of people who are statistically more likely to commit crimes. In this case, the anterior cingulate cortex, according to the authors, is associated with error processing, conflict monitoring, response selection, and avoidance learning, and they are working on drug therapies to stimulate activity in that area of the brain.
Scholars have expressed serious and varied reservations about overinterpretation of fMRI, most notably that the brain’s ability to rewire itself creates serious limitations in our ability to interpret fMRI activity in a particular area of the brain as being connected with particular species of activity outside the brain. The astounding case of the French civil servant with no brain suggests that the brain is more plastic and more bizarre than we have yet begun to understand.
However, that will not stop policymakers from seeing the glitzy surface of studies such as this, and constructing on top of them a belief that they will be able to reliably detect crime ahead of time. Therefore, our prediction of the week for our ongoing feature “Privacy Concerns of 2020” is that whether the science supports it or not, law enforcement will be using brain scans to identify recidivists ahead of time.
More on what that would look like below the fold!
It’s easy for policymakers to love the idea that one can efficiently identify people with criminal tendencies ahead of time; phrenology and eugenics were much touted along those lines in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
This is not to argue that the study described above is poorly constructed; it’s probable that low anterior cingulate cortex activity is in fact correlated with increased recidivism. But let’s think for a moment about reasons that might be so. If someone who has low anterior cingulate cortex activity is in fact more impulsive and deals less well with conflict, then they will also be less likely than other inmates to be able to get and hold onto a job after release, and employment significantly reduces recidivism. There is no mention in the reporting on this study of whether the authors studied whether the effect they were seeing was a result of poorer job retention; instead, the solution they have in mind is to use drugs to alter the former inmates’ brain chemistry.
Even a technological optimist should have some reservations about whether even a safe and effective drug that alters brain chemistry should be routinely made available in order to serve broader social goals. In the futuristic world of A Clockwork Orange, there is no doubt that the electric aversion therapy undergone by the ultra-violent child rapist Alex is safe and effective; but it is also administered without his consent and has the side effect of destroying large parts of his personality. It would be worthwhile to consider whether less intrusive remedies, such as public investment in job opportunities for offenders or cognitive-behavioral therapy, might of themselves produce a more integrated and peaceful consciousness in the offender. We easily reach for individual-based chemical remedies, and tend to think less about solutions that may preserve the inviolate personality of the offender.
We should also consider a world where such drug treatments are easily available to correct every perceived abnormality detected in the brain. As a possibly misplaced confidence in the ability of science to detect personality increases, there is nothing in particular to stop courts from mandating such treatments as part of court-ordered programs. It is already common to treat with drug therapies poorly-understood neurological conditions such as ADD, autism and newly defined personality disorders, producing a narrowing of our understanding of “normal” human behavior. The incentives of pharmaceutical companies are such that new classes of profitable psychotropic drugs are a focus of development even if, as with selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors, the evidence suggests that they work no better than sugar pills.
It is deeply disquieting to envision a world where control of human beings’ future actions becomes a major focus of research. Our brains are our own, and the State has no place intruding physically or chemically upon them without our consent, even in order to save other people’s lives.