Science: Under The Microscope: Crime and the right connections

Losing One's Mind
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The Independent Culture
In The Avalanche of reporting around the Louise Woodward case, a singularly everyday phrase caught my eye: "... she didn't know what she was doing." As a neuroscientist, I am fascinated at the possibility of such a state: performing some act while seemingly fully conscious, yet oblivious to our actions. Certainly the French have long acknowledged the concept of the crime passionelle, where one is so carried away that some process - logic or reason or insight - is suppressed. If the brain can function in this kind of conscious-but-not-self-conscious mode, and if such a state could be objectively discerned or defined, then it would have enormous ramifications for judicial judgements.

But if so, we are surely only a step away from pointing not so much to a culpable brain as to an even more micro-domain, the world of our genes, to excuse us from a catch-all "criminality". How different is a "gene for" manslaughter or murder or, even more insidiously, ready loss of temper, from having a brain so transiently reconfigured that it robs us of self-consciousness?

Our genes go some way to making us who we are. But since their contribution is never likely to be so powerful that one single gene can account for a complex character trait, it makes sense to accept the net nature-nurture package as the individual, and one who is accountable as such. On the other hand, a lapse in self-consciousness is surely a temporary desertion of that individuality. My own view is that a gene would not thus be a decisive factor in a criminal act, whereas the prevailing state of consciousness would be.

It is not only criminals who can lose a sense of self. Those on ecstasy often claim to feel at one with everyone else. What might a person at a rave have in common, purely in terms of brain mechanics, with someone so driven by a strong emotion that, in both cases, their self-consciousness was abandoned? To account for the change in subjective state, there must be some transient and fast change in the brain which could not be due to number of brain cells, nor local connections between them which, though changeable, would be too slow to reflect and translate a flash flood of feeling. The only element of the brain that can change so quickly are the chemicals that act as transmitters between cells, such as serotonin. But how might the availability of, say serotonin, so strongly altered by ecstasy, be critical?

A third group who do not know what they are doing, who are not self-conscious, are small children. Although their brains have the requisite chemicals, the connections between brain cells are not as extensive as in the adult. Could it be that the chemical change that may occur in the brain during the crime passionelle or the rave, somehow changes the configuration of the adult brain to one more akin to that of the child? Could certain drugs render those extra connections in the adult temporarily out of service?

Leaving aside how this scenario might actually happen, and what it means for our understanding of consciousness, the critical issue is distinguishing "mind" from "consciousness". Mind would be the long-term nature-nurture package - that which is relinquished when one "loses one's mind". Surely not the mind itself then, replete with its genetic provenance, nor the result of loss of that mind - the blind reactive consciousness of the infant - can be held as reasons for blame or excuse. On the other hand, the process leading up to how one relinquished the self might be a key area of concern. I am not a lawyer, but perhaps we who work on the brain could be of service in helping those who sit in judgement to become aware of critical nuances, and the conundrums neuroscience presents.

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