“But thatha (grandfather in Tamil), you must punish my brain, not me,” responded my eight-year-old grandson, on being reprimanded for a socially unacceptable behaviour. A few weeks earlier, I had explained to him, the intricacies of brain cartography and how today, we can “localise” and explain the many facets of behaviour. Out of the mouths of babes, comes the truth. Touché – a Frenchman would have remarked.
You become a Mother Teresa or bin Laden because of your pre-determined genetic profile, the way your brain is wired and neurotransmitters jump across synapses. Rapists and hardcore criminals will seek clemency, as sophisticated neuroimaging has revealed functional and even structural ‘aberrations' in the brain. Jumping out of your jeans lies in your genes! It is the hippocampus in my brain which is responsible for my behaviour, not me!
Worldwide, for decades the judiciary has accepted the principle of mens-rea — the act does not make a person guilty, unless the mind is also guilty. What is the mind? Where is the mind? Ever since Homo sapiens became a biped and stopped swinging from tree to tree, he has often introspected on “Who am I.” Great thinkers of yesteryear, be it Adi Sankara or Socrates, postulated the existence of the “mind” and the “soul.” Without today's brain mapping tools, René Descartes had enunciated the concept of Cogito ergo sum — I think therefore I am.
If everything we do is physically caused by our brains, which in turn are a product of our genes and our life experiences, how can we be held responsible for our actions? Sophisticated electrophysiology can pick up electrical activity in nerve cells, even as a thought process is being initiated. Normally, when the thought could lead to an anti-social act, inhibitory impulses ensure that it is aborted. What if my inhibitory cortex is less well-developed — am I responsible for this? Coca-Cola has a team of neurophysiologists working on neuromarketing — studying what exactly happens in the brain, when a desire for a product is kindled. With reverse engineering can they ignite this pathway, so that their return on investment quadruples? Will HR of the future use brain imaging correlates of personality, intelligence, mental health vulnerabilities, attitudes toward ethnic groups, predilection for violent crime as part of their selection process?
If someone picks up someone else's belonging and can't remember, can proof of Alzheimer's disease exonerate him of the alleged crime? In the next decade, can sophisticated brain mapping findings be invoked, as mitigating circumstances to explain aberrant behaviour? How does society “punish” my abnormal neurotransmitter levels, the aberrant tracts and circuits in my behavioural brain, so elegantly displayed in colour in a fMRI tractogram? Is this the cause or result of my behaviour? Who am I?
Like Google Earth, brain cartographers are mapping areas responsible for concentration, fear, anxiety, perseverance, learning, memory, appetite, pleasure and sex. The hippocampus, a crescent-shaped collection of neurons deep in the brain, is the chief coordinator for memory — the amygdala, an almond size cluster of nerve cells, stores memories of fear; the basal ganglia retain memories of habits and physical skills. Is this me? Is human love, the agony and ecstasy we feel, only an electrical outburst of a circumscribed set of neurons? To explain me (the mind) as the functions of 1300 grams of a semisolid gelatinous mass, a palpable physical entity appears too naïve? Am I just a sum total of hope, despair, genius, dull mediocrity? Am I electrical impulses zapping from one brain cell to another, helped along their way, by a myriad of complex chemicals? How juvenile! Am I not something beyond the merely physical, something ethereal that is closer to a spiritual concept of the soul? How melodramatic! The truth, as all great truths are, though currently evading us, is probably somewhere in between.
Epilogue: “Arvind, you are right, but since I do not know how to punish only the nerve cells responsible for your action, I am reproaching them through you — no games and TV today, and next time don't be a smart alec — you cannot get away with this specious argument!
(The author is a Chennai-based neurosurgeon and telemedicine specialist. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)