Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Neuroscience and society: Hate Area of Brain Identified?

According to Rick Nauert PhD Senior News Editor, whose work was reviewed by John M. Grohol, Psy.D. (October 29, 2008)
New brain imaging studies show that people who view pictures of someone they hate display activity in distinct areas of the brain that, together, may be thought of as a hate circuit.
Hate circuit? This sort of thing makes me feel like giving up on neuroscience.

Why? Well, here's the scary part, courtesy Zemir Seki of University College, London:
“Interestingly, the activity in some of these structures in response to viewing a hated face is proportional in strength to the declared intensity of hate, thus allowing the subjective state of hate to be objectively quantified. This finding may have legal implications in criminal cases, for example.”
Yes, that is just what I had feared.

The problem is that subjective states of hate are a poor predictor of actions. Many people impoverish their lives by hating others for decades, but take no action. No doubt some signature can be detected in their brains. But if this fad spreads, thosse people could be falsely convicted of crimes.

That is precisely why criminal law makes the critical distinction between intent (= she was caught on security video plunging a knife into that guy) and motive (maybe she was angry about his government's policies?).

Here is an example of intent caught on camera:

Motive can provide useful background information, of course. Particularly, it can help determine whether the accused is insane, and thus not fit to stand trial. Here, neuroscience might be of use. Assume, for example, that the accused insists that "voices" inside her head tell her that she is chosen to save her society by committing assault with a deadly weapon on some airport employee. Perhaps neuroscientists can identify a physical disorder that inhibits reason-based thinking, and thus help a just resolution of the case.

But that is an example of neuroscience staying close to medicine and away from a variety of more suspect causes that try to co-opt it.

In general, motive (one's reason for taking action, as opposed to evidence of the action) may be useful in mitigating a sentence. Assume, for example, that a woman stabs a guy at an airport because he ended their affair, dumping her for a wealthy fashion model - leaving her pregnant and in big trouble with her relatives. Stabbing is still a crime, but ... a humane and intelligent judge would take motive into account when determining a sentence.

Alternatively, if, when she discusses her motives, she turns out to be under the control of a local terrorist, going after the terrorist would be the next key logical step. He is probably training others.

Hat tip: Stephanie West Allen at Brains on Purpose

Other Neuroscience and society stories here.

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