Neuroscience, Free Will, and a New Wave in Criminal Law?


The Atlantic features an article by neuroscientist David Eagleman (Baylor College of Medicine, USA) entitled “The Brain on Trial.”  In it, he argues that neuroscience and genetics today offer a way of approaching criminal behavior that potentially promises to both make society more secure and rehabilitate offenders.  He advocates we adopt a more scientifically nuanced, actuarial-based perspective when considering not only issues like guilt and innocence, but also sentencing.  He is especially critical of the casework and clinical approaches of parole boards and psychiatrists:

So researchers tried a more actuarial approach. They set about recording dozens of characteristics of some 23,000 released sex offenders: whether the offender had unstable employment, had been sexually abused as a child, was addicted to drugs, showed remorse, had deviant sexual interests, and so on. Researchers then tracked the offenders for an average of five years after release to see who wound up back in prison. At the end of the study, they computed which factors best explained the reoffense rates, and from these and later data they were able to build actuarial tables to be used in sentencing.


Which factors mattered? Take, for instance, low remorse, denial of the crime, and sexual abuse as a child. You might guess that these factors would correlate with sex offenders’ recidivism. But you would be wrong: those factors offer no predictive power. How about antisocial personality disorder and failure to complete treatment? These offer somewhat more predictive power. But among the strongest predictors of recidivism are prior sexual offenses and sexual interest in children. When you compare the predictive power of the actuarial approach with that of the parole boards and psychiatrists, there is no contest: numbers beat intuition. In courtrooms across the nation, these actuarial tests are now used in presentencing to modulate the length of prison terms.

Eagleman tends to portray all this as the result of recent discoveries in neuroscience and genomics, but students of forensic psychiatry and criminology know that these arguments are hardly new.  They can be traced back to “social defense” theory, the “modern school of law,” and the criminal biology of the nineteenth- and early-twentieth-centuries.  It should also be pointed out that the claim that these methods are proven to be more accurate and effective than clinical assessment is something a number of prominent criminologists have called into question (among them, Bernard Harcourt and Karen Franklin).

Shyness: Evolutionary Tactic?

An Opinion Piece in today’s NY Times on Shyness and DSM by Susan Cain argues that shyness has evolutionary advantages and shouldn’t be unnecessarily pathologized:

New issue: Genèses


A new issue of the periodical Genèses is now out. Its central theme is “Medicalisation” and it includes three articles dealing with the history of psychiatry:

Lisa Roscioni, “Soin et/ou enfermement ? Hôpitaux et folie sous l’Ancien Régime” (Care and/or Confinement ? Hospitals and Insanity under the Old Regime)

On ne pourrait véritablement parler de « médicalisation de la folie » avant la naissance de la psychiatrie et des asiles, c’est-à-dire pas avant le tournant des XVIIIe-XIXe siècles. Pourtant, certaines recherches récentes soulignent le caractère précoce d’un discours et d’une pratique médicale développée dans des institutions réservées aux fous, qui apparaissent à partir du XVIesiècle. Psychiatre et asile ne sont donc pas apparus à l’improviste, mais constituent au contraire le produit d’un processus de longue durée dont l’origine n’est nullement à rechercher dans un « enfermement », mais bien dans l’ambiguïté constitutive des plus anciennes expériences d’internement et de prise en charge des fous.

We cannot really speak of the «medicalisation of insanity» prior to the birth of psychiatry and asylums, that is, before the turn of the 18th century. Yet recent research emphasises the pre-cocious nature of a discourse and medical practice, developed in institutions reserved for the insane, which arose in the 16th century. Thus, psychiatry and asylums did not appear out of the blue, but were instead the product of a long-term process in no way derived from «institutional confinement», but rather from the ambiguity of older experiences of internment and care of the insane.

Isabelle von Bueltzingsloewen, “Réalités et perspectives de la médicalisation de la folie dans la France de l’entre-deux-guerres” (Reality and Viewpoints on the Medicalisation of Insanity in France during the Interwar Period)

Depuis le vote de la loi de juin 1838 organisant l’assistance aux aliénés, la médicalisation de la folie se confond avec l’internement. Dans l’entre-deux-guerres, les aliénistes imaginent de nouveaux dispositifs de prise en charge. Ceux-ci devront permettre de faire face à la croissance du nombre des internements, interprétée comme une recrudescence des maladies mentales, mais aussi de traiter des malades atteints de troubles légers. Autrement dit de déplacer les frontières de la folie. Freiné par les départements, ce projet médicalisateur ne voit le jour qu’après la Seconde Guerre mondiale.

Since the law of June 1838 organising assistance to the insane, the medicalisation of insanity has coincided with internment. During the interwar period, psychiatrists conceived of new systems for the care of the insane. They were intended to cope with the growing number of people confined to institutions, interpreted as a recrudescence of mental illness, but also to treat patients suffering from mild disorders. In other words, to shift the boundary lines of insanity. This medicalisation project, which was impeded in the provinces, did not come into being until after the Second World War.

Benoît Majerus, “La baignoire, le lit et la porte. La vie sociale des objets de la psychiatrie” (The Bathtub, the Bed and the Door. The Social Life of the Objects of Psychiatry)

À travers la baignoire, un objet évident du traitement, le lit, un objet hospitalier ordinaire, et la porte, artefact passant le plus souvent inaperçu, l’article essaie de porter un nouveau regard sur l’histoire de la psychiatrie au XXe siècle. Prenant en compte la « biographie » des objets, de leur conception à leur pratique, l’article souligne l’interdépendance entre des objets qui déterminent la pratique psychiatrique quotidienne, et la psychiatrie qui transforme ces mêmes objets.

This articles attempts to take a different look at 20th century psychiatry by focusing on the bathtub, an obvious object of treatment, an ordinary hospital bed and the door, an artefact that usually goes unnoticed. Taking into account the «biography» of the objects from their design to their use, the articles emphasises the interdependence between objects that determine every- day psychiatric practice and psychiatry, which transforms these same objects.

More information, as well as a complete table of contents, can be accessed here.

Dangerous Method

David Cronenberg has made a movie about Freud, Jung, Otto Gross and Sabina Spielrein. 
The trailer has just been released:

“Quantified Selfers”: The Future of Psychological Enhancement?

Financial Times this month featured an article entitled “Invasion of the Body Hackers” by April Dembosky.  The piece examines the first-ever Quantified Self Conference and the community of users and designers interested in what is referred to as “self-tracking systems.”  Dembosky describes this new trend in engineering and design this way:

The concept of self-tracking dates back centuries. Modern body hackers are fond of referencing Benjamin Franklin, who kept a list of 13 virtues and put a check mark next to each when he violated it. The accumulated data motivated him to refine his moral compass. Then there were scientists who tested treatments or vaccines for yellow fever, typhoid and Aids on themselves. Today’s medical innovators have made incredible advancements in devices such as pacemakers that send continuous heart data to a doctor’s computer, or implantable insulin pumps for diabetics that automatically read glucose levels and inject insulin without any human effort.

Today in Silicon Valley, the engineers who have developed devices for tracking their own habits are modifying them into consumer-friendly versions and preparing to launch them on a largely unsuspecting public. Though most people would cringe at the idea of getting a mineral read-out every time they visit the loo, entrepreneurs and venture capitalists see a huge market for consumer-focused health and wellness tools, using the $10.5bn self-help market and $61bn weight loss market as indicators of demand. Self-quantifiers who work at large technology companies such as Intel, Microsoft and Philips are drawing their bosses’ attention to the commercial opportunities. Public health advocates and healthcare executives are starting to imagine the potential the data could hold for disease management and personalised drug development.

Hugh Freeman, 1930-2011

HUGH FREEMAN, 1930-2011

Obituaries have just been published of the psychiatrist and historian, Hugh Freeman, who died on the 4th May at the age of 81.

Freeman will probably be best known to list members as one of the founders of the journal, History of Psychiatry and the editor of a number of essay collections on the history of psychiatry in Britain.  These include the two volume, 150 Years of British Psychiatry (London: Gaskell/Athlone, 1991 and 1996) edited with German Berrios;  A Century of Psychiatry, (London: Mosby-Wolfe, 1999),  and Psychiatric Cultures Compared: Psychiatry and Mental Health Care in the Twentieth Century (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2005) edited with Marijke Gijswijt-Hofstra, Harry Oosterhuis and Joost Vijselaar.

After retiring as consultant psychiatrist to Salford Health Authority, Freeman was engaged in large scale history of psychiatric policy in post war Britain under the supervision of John Pickstone.  Parts of this work have been published including:

‘Mental Health: Policy and Practice in the NHS’, Journal of Mental Health 7.3 (1998): 225-39.

‘Mental Health Services in an English County Borough before 1974’, Medical History 28 (1984): 111-28.

The Times obituary was published on the 16 June but is only available to subscribers.  The Guardian obituary is open access here.

Dr Rhodri Hayward

School of History

Queen Mary, University of London


New article in the NYRB: “The Illusions of Psychiatry”

one flee

The New York Review of Books contains an article by Marcia Angell dealing with psychiatry and its history. The piece, in which the author critically discusses the DSM, the pharmaceutical industry and other such topics, begins thus:

In my article in the last issue, I focused mainly on the recent books by psychologist Irving Kirsch and journalist Robert Whitaker, and what they tell us about the epidemic of mental illness and the drugs used to treat it. Here I discuss the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM)—often referred to as the bible of psychiatry, and now heading for its fifth edition—and its extraordinary influence within American society. I also examine Unhinged, the recent book by Daniel Carlat, a psychiatrist, who provides a disillusioned insider’s view of the psychiatric profession. And I discuss the widespread use of psychoactive drugs in children, and the baleful influence of the pharmaceutical industry on the practice of psychiatry.

The entire article can be accessed at here.

For Angell’s first article entitled “The Epidemic of Mental Illness” (dated 23 June 2011), see the following link.

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