On cannibals, psychopaths and free will

With the right’ genes and right triggers, anyone could have committed the acts which Bhakkar cannibal brothers did.


Sultan Mehmood May 12, 2014
The writer is an adviser to the Dutch government on public policy. He tweets @mrsultan713

The rage felt on the recent actions of Bhakkar cannibal brothers and the serial killer, Muhammad Ejaz, is understandable. All cultures have a universal need for reciprocity, of fixing blame and ‘making an example’ out of people who do these heinous crimes. This need is based on notion of free will; each of us has a choice to either to do good or do evil.

However, psychology and neuroscience of criminal behaviour provides us with some uncomfortable facts on free will and culpability. As Yale’s professor of cognitive sciences Paul Bloom pointed out that recently, free will has taken ‘quite a beating’.

Are we completely in control of our actions or are we merely living out a grand ‘design’, a design dictated strictly by our genes and environment? The evidence is accumulating fast in favour of the latter. Intriguing, multi-coloured fMRI maps not only ‘read’ our thoughts, but make it amply clear that our hidden desires lurk behind a sophisticated web of neural machinery shaped by genes and environment. In the first of these two article series, I make the case for the relevance of human biology on our moral behaviour.

Let us go back on a warm August day of 1966 in Austin, Texas. Charles Whitman is taking an elevator to the top floor of the University of Texas Tower. He has already killed his wife and mother but he is not finished yet. He goes to the top floor and what follows is a shooting spree: killing 13 people and wounding 32. In his suicide note, Whitman writes about his “unusual and irrational thoughts”. He asserts that he cannot explain them. The note ends with a request for an autopsy to be performed to see if something had changed in his brain. He was spot on. Medics discovered that he had a tumour in his brain, pressing against his amygdala, the brain centre responsible for emotional regulation, particularly fear and aggression. Knowing that, should we blame Whitman for all the unfortunate suffering he had caused? Did he deliberately make bad choices as our justice system would assume? Think about it.

As the renowned neuroscientist David Eagleman concluded in another case: “Human biology cannot be separated from human behaviour”.

All of this is exactly in line with the ground breaking research by Americans Heinrich Kluver and Paul Bucy in the 1930s, who found that damage to amygdala in monkeys caused them to display lack of fear and aggressive behaviour. Female monkeys with amygdala damage physically abused their infants.

Amygdala and orbitofrontal cortex dysfunction is found among psychopath killers. American James Blair and others have shown that “amygdala dysfunction is one of the core neural systems” implicated in the pathology of psychopathy. Because of this, psychopaths do not have the brain capacity to feel empathy or to experience fear.

These and other findings from neuroscience and psychology seem to shake the moral foundation of crime and punishment. A credible threat of incarceration only works for people with ‘normal’ brains. One estimate in the US puts 20 per cent of prison population to suffer from mental disorders. The probability is possibly much higher in Pakistan, where prisons have become the defacto abode of mental patients with no treatment offered.

Of course, it is hard, if not impossible to imagine that you could ever act like the Bhakkar cannibals. But with the ‘right’ genes and the right triggers, anyone could have committed these acts.

If you cannot empathise with these people, remember how many times you have given into your impulses: eating ice cream when you are watching your weight, staying in bed when you should have gone to the gym, watching television when you should have been studying for an exam? We regularly give in to our impulses. ‘They’ do so too. Let us view crime in a more biologically-informed way. Let us have some moral humility.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 13th, 2014.

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COMMENTS (12)

Brother Aly | 7 years ago | Reply

It is Brother Aly, not just Brother. Again you seem to miss the point of both the article and mine, I'll try to make it a little easy for you in order to understand. First off there are no laws relating to psychiatric care for this particular case, hence their release. Furthermore no laws were implemented after this situation and have not been even though if has occurred yet again. This is clearly an institutional failure. I do not see why we need to treat the killers under a set of laws where they will not get the right set of treatment. As for polio well Sister Mahivhs let us just say that is a failure of religion and the security apparatus.

Mahvish | 7 years ago | Reply

@Brother Aly: But tell me one thng Brother,, cannibals of district bhakar were caught one year ago but after release from prison they did the same,, why shouldn't they were met with psychologist in prisons so that they didn't repeat their acts,, n the countries where law is related wid psychologist have no travelling sanctions due to polio, were not facing crisis of terrorism and also most dangerous illetracy,, I thnk passing of Bill about cannibals and implementing it in true sense is enough,,

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