Studies of the brain have recently shown us that youth lack a fully developed prefrontal cortex, and thus are unable to calculate risk and consequence fully. This may be why teenagers engage in so many risky behaviors, and their so-called rebellious rite of passage may simply be the cause of an undeveloped brain.
More current neurological studies back this scientific claim in an interesting way. Science is now questioning the basis of free will in general, as studies show that the human mind is cognizant of making decisions only after the brain has already begun carrying out these decisions. While I have no intention to debate the matter of free will through this blog, I would like to dissect the argument as it relates to crime and crime prevention.
The Economist illustrates an interesting case regarding the power of the brain to make unconscious criminal decisions. The case is as follows:
"In the late 1990s a previously blameless American began collecting child pornography and propositioning children. On the day before he was due to be sentenced to prison for his crime, he had his brain scanned. He had a tumour. When it had been removed, his paedophilic tendencies went away. When it started growing back, they returned. When the regrowth was removed they vanished again. Who then was the child abuser? [sic]"
The same article that contains the previous anecdote explains that the British government is already contemplating a law that would allow the imprisonment of people who have mental disorders that could make them likely to commit a crime (never mind that they have yet to commit one). While this seems like a scene out of the movie Minority Report or a George Orwell novel, what does this mean for human rights, crime prevention, and prisoner rehabilitation? If someone is pathologically predisposed to a life of crime without the free will to impede it, and thus commits a crime, can they be rehabilitated? Are they doomed to a life in prison? Or are they free to do whatever their neurons demand of them?
A New York Times article on this topic points to a specific 1970s study, in which a physician found that the brain perceives motion, and then a person becomes conscious of making a decision. Thus, "the conscious brain was only playing catch-up to what the unconscious brain was already doing."
While I am no neuroscientist, it's unethical for society to condemn someone who may or may not commit a crime due to their pathology, or to exculpate a criminal due to his or her pathology. However, it's also unethical to allow people to spend lifetimes in prison based on this pathology. Maybe scientists, together with law enforcement officials, can determine a method to rehabilitate such individuals effectively.
The concepts of personal responsibility and free will are difficult ideas to grapple with, as is the concept that the brain is hard-wired to make decisions for the rest of its unconscious body. As always, your comments are welcome. If you work in the field, it would be interesting to learn your thoughts about culpability and responsibility in this matter.