Tag Archives: criminals

Prison Or Brain Hacking? A Choice That May Shape Our Future

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How does a civilized society deal with its least civilized individuals? This is a question that every society has had to answer, going back to the hunter/gatherer era. We live in an imperfect world full of imperfect individuals. Some are more imperfect than others, so much so that it’s not always possible to reform them into functional members of society.

Most people who commit crimes are not monsters, nor are they sadists who get their joy by torturing the innocent. A vast majority are just people who find themselves in bad situations where they make wrong decisions, exercise poor judgment, or lack impulse control. For these people, fines and brief imprisonment are usually sufficient.

For those who become career criminals, neither respecting the law nor seeking to abide by it, the current system is woefully inadequate. It’s part of the reason why criminal justice reform has become a hot topic. We’re finally learning that throwing people into prisons where they’re dehumanized, degraded, and tortured doesn’t help them become productive members of society. Go figure.

There’s plenty of room for improvement. Some countries have demonstrated that there are more effective, more humane ways to treat criminals. However, even those systems have their limits. As long as human beings remain an imperfect species, we’ll still have to deal with these deviant, violent, and inherently dangerous individuals.

For the moment, our options for dealing with these people are few. It primarily involves incarceration or intense therapy, often coupled with drug therapy. While this can be helpful to some, there are severe limitations. Some individuals don’t even want treatment and even those who are caught don’t always respond.

With that in mind, allow me to present a not-quite-hypothetical scenario. What if, instead of prison or therapy, we gave offending criminals an option to undergo an invasive treatment that affects the primary source of their deviant behavior in the brain? Jail is still an option for those who aren’t keen on messing with their brain wiring, but for certain people, an alternative is an alternative.

What I just described is one of those concepts in which the science is there, but the technology and the courts haven’t caught up to it. I know whenever I talk about emerging technology, be it sex robots or artificial wombs, I venture pretty far into speculation territory. Some of these advances rely on science and tools that don’t yet exist. This isn’t one of those cases.

In July 2018, the Journal of Neuroscience published a study revealing that targeted stimulation of the prefrontal cortex reduced aggressive tendencies in test subjects. Before you start getting fever dreams of mad scientists strapping people to gurneys and sticking wires in their ears, you can rest easy. This isn’t the kind of electroshock treatment that find their way into one too many horror movies.

These treatments have ground-breaking implications. They prove that it’s possible to temper or mitigate certain behaviors in people. The study doesn’t specify the limits of the effects or if it can be applied to something other than aggressive behaviors. It’s still a proof of concept and one that could compound the impact of other emerging technologies.

We already have tools like CRISPR that allow us to tweak our genes. We also have companies like Neuralink that are actively working on implants that could fix, augment, or expand our brain capacity. While men like Elon Musk and Ray Kurzweil often discuss these advances within the context of keeping humanity on pace with artificial intelligence, there will likely be some interim uses for these technologies.

Tempering violent behavior in people with significant cognitive impairments is just one possible use, but one that has the potential to change how we think about crime and punishment. Think back to those people I mentioned earlier who just inherently violent. They can’t manage their emotions or control their anger. They don’t think before they act and some don’t even feel guilty about what they do.

Like it or not, these people exist. I’ve known people in my life who have terrible impulse control and fly into a rage over the smallest things. Some of those people have had issues with the law and I often see in them a sense of never-ending frustration. Many don’t like that they have these issues. A few have tried to get help, but it doesn’t always work.

I suspect that if some of those people were given a chance to treat their tendencies with targeted shock therapy or a brain implant, they would jump at the chance. Deviant tendencies aside, they seek some level of function in their lives. If tweaking their brain is the difference between prison and freedom, then they’ll take that risk.

Turning people who might have been unrepentant psychopaths into productive, non-violent members of society is an objective good. The technology to do just that is not that far off and more study could help us refine the process, so much so that prison might be less necessary in certain cases. Given how expensive it is to imprison people, it’s an alternative worth pursuing.

Along with that undeniable good, however, there are plenty of potential dangers. Anyone who has ever seen one too many psychological thrillers or just read “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest,” can easily imagine how this kind of technology could be abused.

Tempering someone’s violent behaviors is all well and good, but why would it stop there? The brain is capable of all sorts of behaviors, deviant and otherwise. Say a society determines that other non-violent behaviors, be it sexual promiscuity or binge-watching Netflix for too many hours, are not socially desirable. What’s to stop them from imposing this on their citizens?

Some countries probably already fantasize about technologies that enable them to directly pacify their citizens, rendering them weak, passive, and easily manipulated. In his famous novel, “1984,” George Orwell called these people proles. However, in the book, the deviants had to be tortured and re-educated. If Big Brother had access to this technology, it would be a simple medical procedure.

That has plenty of terrifying possibilities for abuse. What if someone uses brain stimulation to prevent people from having homosexual urges? What if someone uses it to treat those who identify as transgender? There’s no evidence that the techniques in the study would work on that, but there’s no evidence to say it’s impossible.

Its use will definitely be controversial. That much, I’m certain of. It’s not advanced enough to become a legitimate treatment for anything. At the moment, direct brain stimulation is utilized for a specified set of conditions and it’s often a last resort. Using it on healthy people who just want to cull their violent urges is uncharted territory.

Whether it enters the picture for criminal justice reform is anyone’s guess, but if the process works, someone who has dealt with one too many repeat offenders will try to use it. From there, the precedent will be set. It’s hard to say what form it’ll take, but it’ll take society into uncharted territory with respect to controlling our minds.

Perhaps, at first, the process would be voluntary and only be presented in conjunction with jail or some other treatment. It’s also possible that the courts will determine a strict set of criteria for when the state could force this treatment onto someone. There are probably a few repressive governments who would try to use this on an industrial scale. I won’t say they’re names, but most people know who they are.

Like any emerging technology, there are risks and rewards worth considering. We stand to benefit greatly by having a society with as few violent individuals as possible. We also stand to lose a great deal if we allow misguided authority figures to determine how we use this technology.

I’m not qualified to determine whether or not someone should have their brain hacked. I don’t know that anyone is. However, I also don’t deny that the human brain, as magnificent as it is, has plenty of flaws. We should go about fixing those flaws, especially in people who are disproportionately impacted by them. We just have to be very careful about how we manage it.

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Love, Intimacy, And The Making Of Mass Murderers

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Every now and then, I feel compelled to comment on an ongoing story that I know is still raw in the minds of many people. Usually, I try to wait for the worst of the storm to pass. When it comes to school shootings and spree killers, though, I think the recent events in Parkland have shown that time can only do so much to temper the horror.

Before I go any further, I want to make one thing clear. I am very hesitant to talk about this topic. Whenever it comes up, and it comes up way too often, my first instinct is to keep my mouth shut and not add to the noise, outrage, and anguish that it evokes in people.  The last thing I want to do is add to the pain of such losses or encourage those who would use it to further an agenda.

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However, there is one part of this issue that I feel is worth talking about, even when the memories of such a terrible event are still raw. In fact, I think it should be discussed while we’re all more aware of the terror caused by such heinous crimes. No, I’m not talking about guns, although that is a discussion worth having. I’m talking about the forces that turn people into mass murderers in the first place.

This is one of those issues where everyone has an opinion, but nobody has any answers. Whenever there’s a mass shooting, any attempt to explain it is basically a media Rorschach test where if you want to blame a certain thing for mass shootings, you can. The fact that it fits with someone’s beliefs, politics, and agenda is not a coincidence.

With the Parkland shooting, the results of this test are already playing out. We’ve got people blaming everything from bad parenting to video games to mental health. Some are already forming conspiracy theories about it, which are sure to embolden the professional trolls of the world. Agenda or not, there’s an inherent need to point fingers and seize upon an simple explanation to make sense of such horror.

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While I understand the desire to make sense of something so terrible, I also think the search for a simple, easy-to-identify explanation is inherently misguided. I also think there’s no such thing as an easy explanation when it comes to deviant human behavior. Human beings are complex creatures. The sheer breadth of thought and personalities makes it next to impossible to predict what goes on in the mind of a mass killer.

That said, there is one aspect that I feel is worth touching on, if only because it rarely comes up when everyone begins the finger-pointing after a mass killing. It’s not related certain forms of media. It’s not some weapon or product that can be regulated or banned either. It’s not even some sort of mental illness that can be treated with overpriced medication.

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This factor in the minds of such deranged individuals, which I believe is a factor worth considering, doesn’t have an easy label to slap onto it. However, it does consist of three simple components that are fundamental to the human experience.

  • Love
  • Intimacy
  • Belonging

I know those all sound like things you’d expect an aspiring erotica/romance writer to cite, but I’m dead serious when I say these are factors we should consider when contemplating the mentality of a spree killer. Specifically, it’s the absence of these factors that needs greater scrutiny when studying a deviant mind.

When it comes to mass killers, there are all sorts of stereotypes, some of which are more common than others. They’re often angry, lonely, isolated, self-centered, emotionally muted, and impulsive. Some even have real medical issues. The infamous shooter of the University of Texas in 1966 had a brain tumor and prescription drugs in his system.

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Like most stereotypes, though, the profile of mass killers is not universal. Even if you take all the scientific data we have on the twisted minds of these people, it doesn’t create a clear or predictable picture. That’s why predicting these horrific events is impossible. We never truly know when someone is just going to snap.

It’s for that reason that, rather than focus on the traits these mass killers have, we should take time focus on the traits of those who don’t become violent or deviant. Rather than agonize over what went wrong, we should also note what goes right when someone becomes a healthy, productive member of a society.

Since society, as a whole, is so complex and our modern civilization is so diverse, it helps to narrow in on the more basic units of society. From a biological and evolutionary standpoint, a hunter/gatherer society provides the simplest approach. I’ve used this example before when discussing our pre-modern sex lives, but it’s just as useful when assessing the raw basics of human experience.

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Within that society, those three factors I mentioned aren’t just present. The society doesn’t work without them. In a hunter/gatherer society, everyone has a role to play and a purpose to contribute. You hunt, you gather, and you share those resources within a close-knit community.

That close-knit component is where the love comes in. On top of having a clear role and a defined purpose, members of a hunter/gatherer society are surrounded by family, friends, and community that loves and supports one another. It’s not just out of charity either. That love and support keeps the society strong, providing emotional fulfillment in addition to the physical fulfillment from sharing resources.

From that love and fulfillment, a sense of intimacy naturally follows. I’m not just talking about sexual intimacy either, although the behavior of the notoriously non-violent Bonobo chimps does strongly hint at its value. In a close-knit community, being able to open up and embrace others is part of what binds that community. It helps make each individual within that community stronger, mentally and physically.

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That’s not to say those communities never have a deviant or a psychopath every now and then. Within this simple template, though, it’s easier to understand the core needs of the human psyche. It’s not just food and water that a person needs to survive. They also need love, intimacy, and a sense of belonging to give their lives a sense of purpose.

As a result, there is a growing body of evidence that those hunter/gatherer societies were exceedingly peaceful. Sure, there were a few tribal conflicts here and there, but there’s little evidence that someone who grew up in such a close-knit community went onto become a spree killer.

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With that basic understanding in mind, look back at the long list of spree killers. Look at their personal stories, which vary from tragic to affluent. Now, look at how much or how little love, intimacy, and belonging they had in their lives. To some, it may seem like they had everything they needed. However, that doesn’t mean that’s how they felt as they went down that dark path that led them to commit such atrocities.

To some extent, it’s a lot easier to feel isolated, alone, and unloved in our modern civilization. We don’t function in small, close-knit tribes anymore. We regularly find ourselves surrounded by all these people that we don’t know, don’t understand, and have no intimate connection with.

On top of that, seeking love and intimacy beyond family is much harder, especially for men. Some have even pointed out that many of these mass killers lack any semblance of a satisfying sex life and growing sentiments that demonize men’s sexual expression isn’t helping. While I don’t think a lack of sex is as big a factor as some claim, I think it does contribute to a certain extent.

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In a world where these men don’t need to hunt or gather, have no sense of purpose or role, and have limited outlets for intimacy and sex, what does this do to their minds? I’ve mentioned before why I believe solitary confinement is one of the worst forms of torture, but its effects need not be confined to a cell.

Human beings are complex and adaptive, but they’re also vulnerable. Strain them in any number of directions and there’s sure to be damage. I know people who have endured such damage. I, personally, have had my own struggles. However, I’m lucky to have a very supportive, very loving family that has always been there for me. I believe that love is a big part of what has helped me live, love, and function.

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We may never know what goes on in the mind of a mass murderer or someone who just up and snaps. Until we can actually read the thoughts of someone, which we are working on, we can’t know whether a mass murderer just didn’t get a lot of love in life or if he just played too many violent video games as a kid.

That still won’t stop people from pointing fingers and pursuing agendas. It’s only natural to want to blame something in wake of such a terrible tragedy. Atrocities, like mass shootings, are the result of something that went horribly wrong within a person and a society. It’s certainly worth scrutinizing those flaws, but it’s also worth remembering what happens when it goes into making it right.

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Human beings are capable of unspeakable atrocities, but they are also capable of wonderful acts of kindness. Understanding what goes into forging these kind, loving souls will be the most potent recourse in preventing these terrible tragedies. There’s a lot that goes into creating such souls, but love, intimacy, and belonging will likely be the core ingredients.

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