Light Reflected Off The Expanding Bubble of Mindless Brain Research

A seminar in New York, at Fordham University School of Law of all places, is “symptomatic”, to use the  wrong word, of what’s wrong in brain research today. Somehow  it is believed that by studying the brains of people thought to be abnormal we are going to figure out how the brain works. If we do so, this line of reasoning presumes, we can end massive acts of violence taking place in the world today. You think?

The story in the New York Times is entitled The Day When Neurons Go on Trial.

Neurons are the new superstars in today’s brain research world. We’ve got neurologists, neuro-scientists, neuro-researchers, neuro-psychiatrists, neuro-philosophers, etc, etc. Who knows? Maybe neuro-attorneys are the next wave. The latest trend is neuro, but neuro with a twist, as nothing in the brain, and especially nothing in brain research, seems to proceed in a straight line.

Over and over, they put questions to a guest speaker, Joshua R. Sanes, director of the Center for Brain Science at Harvard, about the implications for society if and when brain science can identify with confidence a propensity for violence, or for lying.

Dr. Sanes answer was he wished he knew.

It is now believed that diseased circuits caused diseased brains, which we experience as psychiatric disorders, Dr. Sanes said. A student, Brittany Taylor, asked what such broken structures would mean if they cause somebody to commit a crime. “Are we going to look at that as a mitigating circumstance, or are we going to have to change our culpability standards completely?” she asked. What if other parts of the brain were involved, or if environmental factors were influencing the neurons? Could someone say with confidence that the neurons made him do it?

Stupid is as stupid does. If diseased brains are brains with diseased circuits, isn’t it a bit disingenuous to say that diseased circuits cause diseased brains? The cause, it would appear, is still X, and X is basically unknown.

Dr. Sanes reply seemed to be expect a lot of useless information. Following this plea of overwhelming informational overload, Dr. Sanes goes onto make a few predictions, the kind of predictions that could earn him a spot on my projected future column, Psychiatrists Say The Darndest Things.

“Fifteen years from now, somebody is going to say it’s the 489th neuron from the back of your ear that made you do it,” along with a mutant gene, Dr. Sanes said. “That’s going to be hard to dismiss.”

I suspect Dr. Sanes could not imagine himself, as a neuro-science-freak, being the person to have such a couple of willfully rebellious neurons. My own prediction is much more modest. I predict that this Decade of the Brain is likely to be as much of a vacuous bubble, a dud, as the last Decade of the Brain. We still have to make that little leap to consider what many neuro-science-types refuse to consider, namely, that maybe obnoxious and aberrant behavior isn’t entirely determined by biology.

Mental Health Treatment Is Not Gun Control

The drug industry mental health system propaganda machine is working overtime churning out statistics such as only 40 % of the people in need of mental health treatment are receiving it. These randomized stats beg a number of questions: how much of that treatment is forced, how is need determined,  how many of those people want treatment, do you mean “mental illness” or problems in everyday life, etc., etc., etc.

The government has decided the problem is a mental health problem and not a criminal activities problem. If we pump money into mental health treatment, if we beef up the mental health system, theory goes, we are doing something about massive acts of violence. I, for one, question the complete illogic of this absurd endeavor. The ghosts who commit atrocious acts of violence are not those sore thumbs who are going to get picked up by the mental health cops.

Excuse me, the real reason the government is beefing up the mental health system is to look like the government is doing something to deal with the problem after a series of massive acts of violence in this country. This is a cosmetic matter.  This is an political reputation strategy and a complete diversion. People in the mental health system are not responsible for violence in this country. In a word, they are innocent. They simply didn’t do it.

Mental health treatment, until very recently, has been mostly a matter of treating people who didn’t want to be treated completely against their will and wishes. If 60 % of them didn’t pursue this treatment, the only wonder is that the statistic is not larger. Criminals don’t have this problem. They are assumed to be friendly, unlike mental patients, with liberty from the beginning.

Murder is a criminal offense. “Mental illness” is a sensibility offense. We lock people up who have broken no official laws, but have displayed erratic behavior, because they offend our sense of propriety.  Also, it is thought that if we don’t lock them up, they will either manage to get somebody so offended as to do them violence, or they will manage, wittingly or unwittingly, to do violence to themselves.

The problem is that people are not really locked up because they are violent. Violent acts are criminal offenses. You’ve got people in both systems, that is, people who have been put in the mental health system by the criminal courts rather than by the civil courts. These patients are said to be forensic. They are not the rule, they are the exception. You could call them either “mentally ill” criminals, or, alternately, as is more conventional, the criminally “mentally ill”. Again, for people in the system, they are the exception, they are not the rule.

Beefing up the mental health system because of these few exceptions is not a good idea. Questions of conscious intent are not always resolved sufficiently by the courts. If a so-called “socio” or “psychopath” is a good anything, a so-called “socio” or “psychopath” is a good actor. One thing good actors are very good at playing is bad actors. People characterized as “mentally ill” are bad actors, otherwise they wouldn’t have gotten caught. They would have “slipped through the cracks” as the ruse goes.

Real gun control is a matter of seriously dealing with a culture of violence and reducing the proliferation of weapons of war. It is not a matter of blaming people in the mental health system any more than it is a matter of blaming people who belong to different races, religions or ethnic groups.  Curtailing the gun ownership rights of people in the mental health system is not going end massive acts of gun violence, nor is beefing up the mental health system. The problem is not “mental illness”, and pretending it is, is not the solution; the problem is violence.