Monday, May 30, 2011

Did my dopamine do it?

When I wrote my last week’s blog, I did not expect that soon it would become so relevant. Not the main theme but a little example in it, the case of the influence of dopamine on risk taking and sexual behaviour. More and more it has become clear that a higher dopamine level in your brain stimulates both. The level can be increased by taking the drug for pleasure or for medical reasons, but also when one doesn’t take it there are differences in the dopamine levels in the brains of individual persons resulting, as is to be expected, in different levels of risk taking and sexuality. Since such a connection exists it is likely that both kinds of behaviour tend to go together.
The next cases are not meant for proving this theory and they cannot be more than tentative and suggestive, but take for instance Casanova, an adventurer from the 18th century known by his love affairs who succeeded to get important positions and to gain huge capitals but also lost them again and again. In Mozart’s version of Don Giovanni he had 1003 sweethearts in Spain and many in other countries, too, as we hear in the background music, but when admonished to improve his behaviour, he took the risk to turn a deaf ear to the warning and in the end he went to hell. Often we see that also men in high political power positions show risky sexual behaviour; risky not only because it can mean the end of marriage but also because they stake their high positions. There seems to be a relation: men at the top are sexual attractive (by the way, it seems that this is also true for women, although there are some differences), although it needs not automatically to be so that this leads to risky behaviour. Yet it often happens. Everybody knows the case of former US president Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. The French ex-president François Mitterand had a daughter in an extramarital relation and the Dutch prince Bernhard, father of the present Queen of the Netherlands, too. Examples abound actually on all levels of power. Now, maybe a new affair can be added, the case of DSK, former Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund and possible presidential candidate in France, who has been accused of sexual assault of a chambermaid. The case is still sub judice, under judgement, so I leave it open whether he is guilty or not, but what is the point here is that cases like this do happen. If they all can be ascribed to high levels of dopamine in the brain (or to another drug, or to a genetic factor) then a question presents itself that I have asked already several times: who is responsible for the behaviour? Are we simply executors of our physical mechanism? In a certain sense we are, but that does not make a person not responsible or less responsible for what he (or she) does in a bigger degree  than for what he does, for instance, as the president of a country or as the managing director of an important financial institution.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Your criminal genes and your passport

The present methods for checking people on airfields on departure and on arrival are sometimes quite time-consuming. Look at the long rows during rush hours. You have to be there up to three hours before your plane leaves. And for some countries you have to fill in a long list of questions before your arrival, too, in order to prevent that criminals are admitted, which takes again much time (and annoyance) and requires an extensive data base for the border control authorities as well. It would be much easier when there would be a reliable method to select possible dangerous people in advance and preferably so that they simply do not take a flight, since they know that they have no chance to enter. At present such a method does not exist but there is hope for Big Brother that it can be developed in future. Everybody knows that generally crimes are not done by Tom, Dick and Harry (it’s true, most perpetrators are men) but by people with a certain personality type. How nice would it be if a fail-proof way could be found for establishing the personality type of the possible (or even better the effective) criminal if not terrorist.
It has become known that decisions are not simply taken by free thinking and acting men but that it is our brains that take the decisions for us. If we may believe a still growing group of neuroscientists, our decisions are taken by our hormones, and our conscious I is simply a kind of brain interpreter that functions like a political commentator (see my blogs dated August 23, 2010, and later). But what steers my hormones? Decisions can be influenced by taking drugs (either for your pleasure or for medical reasons) but recently it has been discovered that there is also an inherent bodily mechanism that influences them: your genes. Genes do not only determine the colour of your skin, the shape of your nose and your other physical characteristics, they do not only determine your predispositions to certain illnesses, but, as research has shown, they affect also the availability of certain hormones that play a part in decision making. So we learned, for instance, that dopamine influences your risk taking behaviour in gambling. In Parkinson patients it can lead to hypersexuality. And now it has come out that your genetic structure determines also how much dopamine (and other drugs) is available. In this way, your genes have an important influence on your – possible – behaviour. Okay, the research in this field has just started and it is still a long way to go until we are that far that we can say that a person with these or those genetic structure has a strong disposition to criminal behaviour or even to bomb throwing. But is this really science fiction? Hasn’t come much what was considered science fiction in the past the facts of today? George Orwell’s Big Brother will sooner be possible than many people thought when he wrote his novel. And so it may be with our genetic criminal passport as well. Then you’ll find in your passport not only a chip with a finger print (as the European Union wants to have it) but also one with your DNA in order to simplify the task of the border patrol to decide whether the holder can be admitted or not. Or we write simply in his (or maybe her) passport “possible criminal”, as a warning that this person can better be refused the access of the country. Then a possible criminal will simply avoid entering in the legal way, and it will save the decent traveller much time at the border, too.
See “Do genes make up my mind?”,

Monday, May 16, 2011

Being guilty of what one hasn’t done

In my last blog I said that the time will not be far away that we can “read” the minds of other people and see what their intentions are. As we have seen, scanners may be able to guess even better what we want to do than we, the bearers of these intentions, can. But what does it mean to say that someone has the intention to perform an action like blowing up an aeroplane? Fundamentally it says that the person concerned (let’s call him or her the agent) has the serious will to perform the action that s/he intends to do and that under normal circumstances this agent will not not perform the action. When an agent has an objective intention (an intention as registered by a scanner), we suppose that this agent will sooner or later also develop the subjective intention to act according to it. But what if this is not the case? Scanners show only correlations, not causal relations, so it is quite well possible that a scanner registers a certain intention and that this intention is related to an action by those who operate the scanner, while actually the scanned intention needs to be related to another action.
This still imaginary case reminds me of a real case that happened not so long ago somewhere in the Netherlands. Most Dutch municipalities have bye-laws that say that it is forbidden to transport equipment like rope ladders, chisels and other such tools in your car between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., for they might be used for breaking in. Now it happened that a man who had done some odd jobs in a friend’s house was stopped by the police late at night, when he returned home. The police found an almost complete set of “forbidden” tools in his car (but not a rope ladder) and despite the explanation of the man why these tools were there, he was fined. The man decided not to pay, so he had to appear in court but there he was condemned (actually because the judge did not listen to his arguments).
I think that this case is basically not different from my scanner case and that it clearly shows what can happen if we ascribe an objective intention to a person on account of “objective” facts, although this intention does not agree with the person’s subjective intention. It makes clear that scanning a person’s brains in order to register his or her intentions does not have only practical consequences (like preventing a bomb attack), but that it can have ethical consequences as well: someone can be considered guilty on account of an objective intention that s/he has according to a brain scanner, while in fact s/he did not had the related subjective intention to act and although s/hewould never subjectively develop the intention ascribed to him or her for the simple reason that, for instance, an intention as registered objectively can have multiple meanings or because the circumstances are such that the agent would never get the idea to develop the ascribed intention: One is guilty of what one hasn’t done and did not want to do. I think that the consequences reach also further, for what remains of our idea of the free will, when it can happen that we ascribe objectively an intention to an agent (and maybe condemn him or her because of it), while s/he did not have the related subjective intention nor did perform the action concerned?