Saturday, December 26, 2009

The science of pedophilia, morality, and free will

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Do forgive my lack of blogging for the past couple of days. I’d be tempted to pass the blame off onto Christmas and all that, but then, that would just be lazy. Which is, in fact, the primary reason for my lack of posting. So, to compensate, here is my longest blog post to date. There.

As you can surmise by this post’s title, this is a rather intriguing subject I’m writing about, here. A reader with whom I’ve been having an interesting discussion regarding pedophilia, morality, and the likes, has brought my attention to a couple of stories on how neurological impairment (aka brain damage) and its effects on those who have it, specifically regarding impulses, inhibitions, and sexuality. These cases bring up very intriguing questions on the neurology of morality, and the nature of free will.

The first case is one of the most peculiar stories you’ll ever hear in the realms of neurology and psychology. Imagine a perfectly normal middle-aged man who has a career and a family, a man who has normal interests in sex and shows no signs of any deviancies. Then, virtually overnight, he becomes addicted to sex (a condition known as “hypersexuality”) and becomes entrenched in child pornography. He even tries to molest a prepubescent girl, despite having shown absolutely no sexual interest in children for the first four decades of his life. In other words: a perfectly normal 40-year-old man suddenly turned into a pedophile and a would-be child molester, for no apparent reason (at least at first).

Now, people don’t just become slaves to hyperactive sex drives and start groping children after having lived what is arguably the first half of their lives without having shown the slightest impulses to do so. Yet, this is what happened to the man who is the subject of this first story. However, this is only a partial medical mystery, for neurologists have identified the precise cause of his behavioral issues: a tumor in his prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for controlling one’s impulses and inhibitions (ie. self-restraint).

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA -- He was a schoolteacher, a husband, a father. Then he became a pedophile preoccupied with sex.

Doctors who treated him at the University of Virginia hospital in 2000 believe that the man's powerful sex addiction was caused by an egg-sized tumor in his brain.

"It turned out he was a guy who had made it into his 40s without having any problem with this," said Dr. Russell Swerdlow, a UVa associate professor of neurology. "He had a brain tumor that was damaging the part of the brain that controls impulse."

Once the tumor was removed, the man's sexual obsession disappeared. Swerdlow believes this is the first known case to link damage of the frontal lobe with pedophilia.

So, the man had an egg-sized undesirable mass in the part of his brain responsible for allowing him to control himself, and he suddenly began showing a marked sexual interest in children, to the point where he even attempted to molest one. (This is in addition to his increased sex drive, of course.) And then, when the tumor was removed, all of his hypersexual, perverted tendencies suddenly disappeared and he came back to normal.

However, it gets even more interesting:

But seven months after the tumor was removed, the headaches began anew. And the man again started viewing porn.

An MRI revealed tumor regrowth. In 2002, a tumor was removed for the second time. And for the second time, the behavior disappeared.

"He's doing great, but there is always the possibility that it could grow back," Swerdlow said. "It's a really bizarre, Kafkaesque situation."

Tumor appears, man becomes a pedophile. Tumor is taken out, man is cured. Tumor reappears, man once again becomes a pedophile. Second tumor is taken out, and the man is once again back to normal. I don’t think it takes an M.D. to see where this leads.

Now, of course, something that must be noted here is how the tumor only affected the man’s inhibitions, or his ability to control himself and, to put it properly, “show some restraint”. The tumor did not affect his impulses, his subconscious desires to do whatever he likes and to hell with the consequences (which is exactly what inhibitions are there to prevent). Even though he normally is able to restrain himself from molesting children or even showing any interest in them sexually, the fact that a lack of inhibitions led to precisely this indicates that he has always had these impulses, this sexual interest in the prepubescent. Whether this makes him a pedophile per se, though, considering how he clearly knew these feelings were wrong and never attempted to act on them until his ability to stop himself was removed by the tumor, is debatable.

To use a simpler example: the fact that a man is able to stop himself from walking up to a gorgeous woman and slobbering all over her (literally or metaphorically, your pick) means he still does have that hidden desire to do so, even if he’s able to “show some restraint”.

Unfortunately, the discovery (and subsequent removal – twice) of the man’s brain tumor arrived too late to save him from going through unnecessary trial and punishment. His wife kicked him out, he was convicted of child molestation, and was then forcibly put on drugs intentioned to chemically castrate him. (Insert rant on how this is another example of why I detest long-term physical/physiological punishments for sexual crimes, here.)

In this case, the man wasn’t a sociopath. He knew fully well that his impulses, along with the actions they led to, were wrong and that he shouldn’t do them. Unfortunately, his ability to stop himself was literally removed, at least until the tumor was removed from his brain. Referring to my previous example, it’s as though the man was fully aware of how accosting a woman and asking her to have sex with him was wrong and disgusting, yet he simply wasn’t able to stop himself. Frankly, such a condition, one that leaves you unable from stopping yourself from doing anything, regardless of how strange, dangerous or simply wrong it may be, terrifies me. It’s as though you became someone else. When you literally lose control.

The second case doesn’t involve a brain tumor; rather, it’s much more … well, sad, seeing as how unlike with the first case, this one cannot be reversed, and is permanent. It all started when a then-19-year-old man began experiencing intense seizures and other strange symptoms such as attacks of déjà vu, sharp pains in his chest, breathlessness, and auditory hallucinations. As expected, tests confirmed he had temporal lobe epilepsy. He was given anticonvulsant medication (to limit or prevent seizures), yet this didn’t help; in fact, his condition only worsened over time. Finally, at 33 years old, he had brain surgery to remove the part of his brain affected by the disorder. Unfortunately, his respite only lasted for a few months before returning anew, and worse than ever.

So, now 39, the man underwent a second bout of brain surgery to remove even more of his right temporal lobe to try and stop these horrible symptoms. Unfortunately, this is when his real problems began …

Approximately a month after surgery, behavioral changes of irritability, hyperphagia [increased eating] and hypersexuality (including coprophilia [sexual pleasure from feces]) developed. He became more sexually active with his wife and masturbated more often. Compulsively, he began to watch adult pornographic images and videos on the internet when his wife slept.

These symptoms paint a clear picture indicating Klüver-Bucy Syndrome (KBS), which is a rare diagnosis in humans. However, it is unusual that he should have this at all, considering how KBS normally occurs in patients with damage to both temporal lobes, not just one.

However, increased eating and a heightened sex drive were only the beginning, and they led to his eventual and inevitable downfall:

Some websites solicited him to view and purchase child pornography. He became obsessed with this and eventually purchased and downloaded pornographic images of prepubescent females engaged in sexual activities from the internet. He was ashamed and secretive about these activities, not discussing the pornography or masturbation with his wife or with anyone else.

Once again, notice how he knew how these impulses and actions were wrong and how he shouldn’t engage in such actions, which is the clear opposite of a sociopath, one who knows no limits and does not feel remorse, fear, or moral guilt. He knew he shouldn’t feel sexually aroused by children – yet he was. His ability to stop himself simply wasn’t there to help him.

Then, in 2006, he was caught and arrested. He was given a psychiatrist, who put him on antipsychotic and antidepressant drugs. Curiously, this seemed to “cure” him, just as removing the brain tumor from the subject in the first case made his own symptoms and tendencies disappear. According to his wife, “he became much warmer and loving but the medications shut off his libido... sex became non-existent”. The removal of his deviant tendencies also apparently removes his sex drive altogether.

However, we then leave the waters of neurology and enter the fetid swamps of the criminal justice system. The man was charged with “knowingly and wilfully possessing material which contained at least three images of child pornography”, to which he plead guilty. However, in his defense, Dr. Devinsky argued that the right temporal lobe damage left by the brain surgeries was the “major contributing factor to the patient’s hypersexuality and viewing of child pornography”, and that the man wasn’t responsible for his actions. Noted neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks concurred, saying that the man was …

[…] a man of superior intelligence and of real moral delicacy and sensibility, who at one point was driven to act out of character under the spur of an irresistible physiological compulsion resulting from his brain injury. A recurrence of such behavior is extremely unlikely given his character and insight... He is strictly monogamous.

In other words: the man was a good and moral person who would never have done such things in his normal condition, yet his brain injury simply left him unable to prevent himself from engaging in them. Shorter: it just wasn’t his fault. His brain was fucked up. In fact, the three doctors who wrote the report on this case, Drs. Devinsky, Sacks and Devinsky, argued that he shouldn’t even have been prosecuted at all:

Was he criminally responsible? Did his behavioral actions warrant imprisonment? We believe the answer is no to both questions.

Not to make an appeal to authority or anything, but seriously, when you’ve got three reputable neurologists rooting for you and calling for the charges against you to be dropped, chances are you really don’t deserve to be where you’re at. (Needless to say, I agree with their reasoning. Frankly, the guy never hurt (or attempted to hurt) anyone. He just downloaded some porn onto his computer, something that I have nothing against, anyway. But, that’s another story for another time.)

Naturally, though, you can count on the prosecution to ignore all that sciencey stuff and the accredited experts and just plow right ahead with the charges. Which, of course, is exactly what they did:

[…] the patient’s hypersexual behavior in some situations but not others was evidence for volitionally controlled criminal behavior; that it was incompatible with a neurological cause. For example, he downloaded and viewed child pornography at home but not at work.

Ie.: “Because he was a pervert in some ways but not others, and because he engaged in his perversions in ways that wouldn’t directly result in him getting instantly caught, it was therefore all of his own free will.” Which is a completely fucking ridiculous and unscientific way of putting it, of course. (To put it mildly.) The fact that the man had enough sanity to choose to download the offending content at home rather than at work is indicative of him not wanting to be caught like an idiot, not that he could just stop himself any time he wanted. And also, the fact that he didn’t also enjoy fucking cows or drinking blood in addition to showing pedophiliac tendencies is equally indicative of nothing at all. No more than the fact that I like some fruits, such as apples and bananas, doesn’t mean that I’m gonna like all fruits. Jesus Christ, how moronic can prosecutors get?

The prosecution tried to hand him the maximum possible sentence, which was 20 years in jail. (For downloading some porn onto his computer. Whereas some rapists or arsonists don’t even get that long. Way to show some proportion, morons.) Thankfully, the judge accepted that the experts’ sciencey-sounding explanation actually had some credence to it, and was gracious enough to hand the man the minimum punishment allowable by law (26 months in jail, 25 months house arrest, and an additional probation of 5 years). Still a lot – too much, considering how he ought not have received anything – but the very least the judge could afford to give him, for which thanks ought to be given, considering how much worse it could’ve been.

Of course, these stories aren’t just interesting because of their unique circumstances, but also for the issues and questions they raise. Now, the issue of “what is morality?” has already long been settled in the scientific community: the human concept of “morality” is, at its basics, a system of psychological guidelines that we’ve evolved to help guide us to make the choices more apt to lead us to survival and prosperity, as individual groups (families, friends, etc.) and as a species. Apparently, we figured out that working together and helping each other, particularly others of kin and those with whom we share close bonds, worked out better for us than not doing so, so this trait simply stuck with us.

The second question cases like these raise, perhaps the most pertinent yet, is quite simply … what is free will? Does it even exist? Or are we all unwitting slaves to happenstance and causality?

This issue is very similar (if not even identical) to the old “nature of the Universe” question: is everything just a result of previous events, the results of past equations? Or is there some randomness to it, some influence from a higher power? Naturally, I think you can figure out what my answer to this is. Everything is a result of what has happened in the past. If you’re reading this from your living room computer, your PC didn’t just appear out of nowhere, and trees weren’t suddenly shredded and combined with bits of metal, glass, plastics and so on to form your home. Everything in the universe, big and small, from the popcorn I’m currently eating to the eventual end of the Universe, is a direct result of prior events and causes.

There is no randomness in the Universe as far as we can see, no sign of anything being manipulated by anything other than quantifiable physical forces. There is no divine hand screwing with knobs and levers, there are no rocks appearing out of nowhere, and the laws of physics, chemistry, biology, and so on have thus proven immutable and irrefutable. Things don’t “just happen”. Something make them happen, and other things make that happen, and so on. It’s an endless cycle.

Now, this very same logic can be, and is, applied to our concept of “free will”. The bottom line is that there is no such thing, really. We are all slaves to causality, whether we know or like it, or not. Everything we think, and everything we feel, and everything we do, is the direct result of chemical reactions in our brains and bodies. Reactions so fast and minute that we can only detect them using multi-million dollar scientific equipment, running on a timeframe of femtoseconds – quadrillionths of a second. And, as with the Universe and the natural laws that govern it, nothing is ever truly random. Just the fact that it’s all so unbelievably complex, far too complex for anyone to begin to understand, is not enough to claim that anything is happening that can’t be explained through causality.

The notion that we can make choices and decisions is, in the end, a false one. Put it this way: we’ve all already made every single choice and/or decision we’ll ever make in our lifetimes, from where we step to avoid puddles to which house to buy. We just don’t know it yet. Everything in the past and future is “scripted” – not by an intelligence, but in the same way that the solution to any mathematical equation is “scripted” in advance. 2+2 has always equaled 4, and it always will. Whenever you’re in a situation where you have made a decision, regardless of how big or small it may be, the thing is that you really couldn’t possibly have made any other choice. Not in the circumstances that permeated your decision-making. Everything that you were seeing, smelling, hearing, touching, feeling emotionally, and thinking, combined in a way to ensure that the decision you made is the only one you could possibly have made at that time.

But, of course, when it comes to every day life, such things are irrelevant. Yes, your future courses of actions may all have been decided eons ago, but that doesn’t change the fact that you don’t know what you’re gonna do before you do it. No-one knows what the future will bring, and we are unable (thankfully) to conjure up a machine or an equation that can tell us. And, in the end, the fact that we don’t know what’s going to happen before it does, this ultimate illusion of free will and happenstance is all that matters. Because it’s all we know, and all we’ll ever know. It’s all we can know. Not being blessed with foresight, humans are limited that way.

So, in short: does free will exist? Technically, no. But practically, yes, in the sense that even though all that will come to pass, will come to pass, and exactly in the manner that it will come to pass, we just don’t know that. And so, unable to anticipate, we walk ahead blindly. Which is really what our notion and understanding of “free will” is, no?

Food for thought.

(via Uzza)