The Future of Neuroscience and its Role in Other Fields: A Panel Discussion

This guest post was contributed by science writer Karen A. Frenkel []

For two years, the University of Pennsylvania has hosted Neuroscience Boot Camp, an 11-day intensive of lectures, discussions of journal articles, lab trips, and panels originated and organized by Martha J. Farah, Walter H. Annenberg Professor of Natural Sciences and Director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience and the Center for Neuroscience and Society.

This year’s forty international attendees included lawyers, journalists, anthropologists, sociologists, and bioethicists. On the last day, they were treated to a final panel discussion between two faculty at the Center for Neuroscience and Society: Professor of Neurology Anjan Chatterjee and Professor of Law, of Psychology, and of Law in Psychiatry, Stephen J. Morse. They focused on brain damage and personal responsibility.

One of the great problems in neuroscience, Morse said, is that people don’t bridge the gap between what imaging tells us about the brain and how law should take that into account. The future will not be about proving neuro-determinism true, he said, because no science can do that. Rather, the radical challenge of neuroscience is about neurodeterminism and personhood—are mental states an epiphenomenon of the brain (and inert), such that we are the mere victims of our neuronal circumstances?

He described the court case of a 63-year old, middle-class businessman who had a growth pressing on his brain. An MRI showed the extent to which a subarachnoid cyst displaced his frontal cortex. His lawyers pled insanity on the grounds that because of this cyst, he could not control himself when he strangled his wife to death and threw her out of a 13-story window. But Morse argued, “there was simply no history, behaviorally or medically, consistent with insanity.” The judge agreed.

Morse then asked the jury how many would use the medical information at sentencing. Half raised their hands. Morse probed further asking why the cyst was relevant, other than that they might feel sorry for the defendant. Neither the judge nor the jury knew how to deal with this situation and did not take it into account in sentencing. “They had no idea where to place the bridge,” Morse said. Yet that is the crucial task for moral neurolaw, “to take law seriously as it now exists and use neuroscience to help it be more rational. It’s all going to be a question of translation and I fear at present a lot is lost in translation.”

The neuro-determinist’s position––that our mental states are epiphenomenal and thus inconsequential and that neurons rule––requires our whole notion of personhood to evaporate, Morse said. To counter those espousing this view he said he always asks, “Why do anything if that’s true? Neurons are little biochemical switches and are not normative” in and of themselves. This tells you nothing about how we should live together, he concluded, “The radical challenge is not going to cash out.”

Chatterjee also buttressed his points by describing a case: the plight of a patient he treated while practicing in Alabama. The patient was an engineer in his fifties who suffered orbital frontal damage. Although his cognition was in tact and he was logical and rational, he could no longer function in his firm so he and his wife moved to a rural farm. In moments of self-examination, he told Chatterjee he had become a person he intensely disliked. “There are things I do that nobody should do,” he admitted, “but I find myself getting bizarre pleasure out of doing things that are not good.” He recounted trapping feral cats that live in his barn and snipping off their whiskers. Because cats use whiskers to sense space around their heads, without whiskers they poke their heads in narrow places and get stuck. Chatterjee commented, “He has all the rational capabilities to explain why [his behavior] is bad, but there is no question that this change in personality is a consequence of what happened to his brain…in what sense is he responsible?” Chatterjee was clear that other people and cats must be protected from this man, but Chatterjee was uncomfortable with society assigning blame. “What do we do about people like this? I just don’t know.”

Morse responded by supposing the engineer was prosecuted for cruelty to animals. He said it was necessary to distinguish between his desires and his responsibility for acting on them. The man was neither responsible for having desires he dislikes nor for his personality change. “That’s not his fault any more than it’s your fault for having the personality you have,” said Morse, “The question is, is he lacking in rational capacity to control conduct, or is he somehow out of control independent of a cognitive problem?” Morse said he would like to know more about the man but was clear that he should not be completely exculpated. Given what is known about the orbital frontal area, Morse could imagine demonstrating certain disconnects that guide the patient’s behavior that might mitigate his case.