Monday, 18 July 2011

How much neuroscience is too much?

Last week I followed up reading Simon Baron-Cohen’s The Science of Evil with Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test. The books are interesting bedfellows. Reading them one after the other twisted my brain into some quite painful, yet interesting, contortions.

Ronson is a fantastic writer. I picked up his latest book in a local bookstore, read the opening paragraphs and was hooked (yes I bought a real book from a real indie bookstore even though I could have got it cheaper online because I had to read it straight away). I love the way Ronson puts himself into the story – all his self doubts, ruminations and recriminations about letting a journo like him loose in the world with a psychopath test and a list of possible psychopaths to interview and ‘assess’.

To be honest I admired Ronson’s restraint. Checklists have a special allure. Last week, armed with the checklists that appear in the appendices of The Science of Evil, I’d been casting my eye over colleagues and secretly assessing them against the traits for narcissism, borderline personality and psychopaths. 

It’s a habit of writers to look for the craziness in others. As Ronson points out, it’s the crazy ones who are interesting: not too crazy as to be pitied but just crazy enough to make us want to prod and poke them just a little, to see what happens. And there is probably just a little bit of the psychopath in us all sometimes.

But who should judge of how much psychopathy is too much? Or, in Baren-Cohen’s terms, how little empathy is too little? Why do these brain anomalies happen in the first place? If it is possible to ‘fix’ a psychopathic brain, is it ethical to do so? Some of the possible psychopaths identified in Ronson’s book didn’t seem particularly unhappy. They were perfectly fine with making other peoples’ lives a misery because, well, armed with a complete lack of empathy, they didn’t care.

And if zero empathy is not an anomaly so much as an evolutionary by-product, (i.e. someone has to make the hard decisions like who to fire and who to feed) should anyone be messing with it at all?

I have no answers to any of these questions. As a writer I’m more in the business of investigating ‘what ifs’ in fictional terms than making judgement calls on the merits of overhauling the justice system based on evidence provided by brain scans. But one thing is becoming clear to me. As technology in neuroscience advances, the nature of what it is to be human is becoming more and more subject to the scrutiny of the interaction and interconnectivity of our neurons. On the surface, it sounds quite reasonable. After all, neuroscience is science, right? And science is about proven facts, isn’t it?

But I’m starting to wonder if scrutinising everything from education to culture to the justice system under the ever expanding neuroscientific gaze is a bit like quietly assessing people for psychopathy with nothing more than a checklist and a head full of subjectivity.