Thursday, January 26, 2012

Justice System & the Plasticity of Memory

The Foggy State of the Legal System

For example, our legal system is based on psychological principals and the Christian idea of "free will", which are just plain wrong.  The US has the highest incarceration rate in the world.  And we make no attempt at rehab, because we don't understand why people misbehave.  The gold standard in trial for capital crimes, is the victim identifying the perpetrator.  Extensive research has clearly demonstrated that our memory is very plastic.  Every time we remember something, we change it a little bit.  It's very similar to how software makes more and more mistakes the longer you use it, because after each use a couple of errors are made in the code as it is re-written onto the hard drive. Eventually enough mistakes are made during the recopying process, that the software makes mistakes.  The parallel in human memory is that when asked a question about the past, we recall the details of the event incorrectly.  We all do this.  Some of us are better at recopying than others (make fewer copying errors), but we ALL make errors to some degree.  There are ways to get some idea about how POTENTIALLY accurate a person's memory may be; but, since we all make mistakes, it makes no sense to ALWAYS believe the physicist with a PhD and an IQ of 160 over the janitor who didn't graduate from high school and has an IQ of 100.  In fact, the human memory is so bad about remembering details of events in the distant past, there is little reason to believe either one of them when questioned about events 15 years ago.  In legal matters, other sources of information should carry more weight than that of a "witness" in cases where events in the distant past are important.  This is the OPPOSITE of the way the current legal system operates.

So it is with the human brain.  Humans, especially the victims who are so emotionally distraught at the time of the assault that they are not paying much attention to the perp in the first place, are actually terrible at identifying the attacker.  Study after study show clearly that victims can identify the perp no better than random chance.  Yet many innocent people, mostly black men, spend their lives in prison, when the only evidence was the victim's ID.  The accused  may have solid alibis, like collaborated proof  that they were in another state at the time of the assault, and a jury will still render a guilty verdict.  There is such pressure to find and punish these perps that from DA to jurors, the rules of law are stretched and bent until reason plays no part in the outcome.  The racist in us wants to believe that the Black man did it.  It's the easy way out for everyone involved, except the innocent accused.  We pretend that there is objectivity in the court room, but there is not; and ,there is certainly no justice.  Anyway, this is the kind of thing I blog about, so give it a try; and, if you like it spread the word: . So let's get a dialogue going !

A further comment: please do not assume that I am implying that neuroplasticity is a wholly negative characteristic.  In fact, some major breakthroughs in treating mental disorders have been discovered and put into practice based on this principle. One of the best examples is the work of Jeffrey M. Schwartz, M.D., a leading researcher in brain disfunction. He has been a forerunner in the diagnosis, treatment, and etiology of obsessive compulsive disorder* for decades. He has developed a behavior modification treatment program that not only relieves the patient's profoundly disturbing symptoms; but, over long periods of time, actually produce physiological changes in the brain. Dr. Schwartz's work has raised hope in the medical and neurophysiology communities that other forms of biochemical brain disorders can be treated using this same approach based on this characteristic of the neuroplasticity of the human brain.

* the common concept of OCD is that it is little more than annoying patterns of repetitive behaviors such as compulsive hand-washing.  This was well portrayed by Jack Nicholson in the movie "As Good As it Gets".  However, these OCD individuals are plagued by profoundly disturbing, intrusive thoughts, such as a macabre, recurring thought that they should jump out in front of the next bus that approaches.

For a comprehensive review of this fascinating subject, see The Mind and The Brain by Jeffrey Schwartz.