Was Jared Loughner In Control of His Actions?

Just because our physical brain is at the mercy of a myriad of networks doesn't mean we're absolved of personal responsibility

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The video clip taken January 8, 2011 from a Tucson, Arizona store security camera shows a man shooting a woman, U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords, just above the eyebrow at a range of 3-ft. Then, turning his 9-mm pistol, he kills six people and injures 13 others. As Jared Lee Loughner attempted to reload his gun, he was tackled by bystanders and arrested. Investigations have revealed that Loughner purchased the gun six weeks earlier, and in a MySpace post the morning of the attack, had written, “Goodbye friends. Please don’t be mad at me….plead the Fifth!” He took a taxi to the scene of the shooting and insisted that the cab driver get change for his fare, which resulted in the two of them walking into the store to cash a $20 bill. Since being in custody, Loughner has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and has pled not guilty. Does this mean he is not responsible for his actions? On the surface of it, and according to the latest brain science, yes. But in a bigger picture of the world we live in, no.

(PHOTOS: The World of Jared Lee Loughner)

We now know our brains possess thousands, if not millions, of discrete processing centers and networks, commonly referred to as modules, that run simultaneously and influence how we act and behave. There is not just one control system but many. What makes these findings difficult to accept, however, is that we do not feel at the mercy of multiple systems battling it out in our heads. We feel that we are calling the shots and are in conscious control of all our actions. That, however, is not what is happening.

This unified feeling is the handiwork of one particular module that we stumbled upon doing research on split-brain patients. We named this module the interpreter but could as well have named it the story-teller or the rationalizer or the composer, for it does all these things. It takes the products of all the brain’s processing and puts it together in a “makes-sense” story. Our dispositions, quick emotional reactions and learned behavior are all fodder for the interpreter to observe and explain. The interpreter finds causes and builds our story, our beliefs, our sense of self. It asks, for example, “Who is in charge?” and in the end concludes, “It looks like I am.”

(MORE: Daniel Goleman: They’ve Taken Emotional Intelligence Too Far)

But just because our physical brain is at the mercy of a conglomeration of a bunch of cells that are controlled by deterministic processes does not mean that we still don’t have personal responsibility, for the simple reason that responsibility is not located in the brain. There is no area or network that controls it, and so the determinist view of brain function begins to fade when we step into the social world and put two or more brains together to interact.

Personal responsibility is a social contract, which people establish when living together. The contract is that each person will follow certain rules. An abnormal brain does not mean that a person cannot follow rules. People with schizophrenia are able to follow rules: They pay cashiers when they make purchases, they drive on the correct side of the street. Loughner understood the rule that to ride in a cab, you must pay for it. He understood that when you pay more for the ride, you get change back. He understood that he was undertaking a plan that would make his friends upset (cause and effect), and he planned it out in advance (intention), buying a gun and carrying it concealed.

And so, personal responsibility is not to be found in the brain, any more than traffic can be understood by knowing about everything inside a car. Researchers might study the mechanistic ways of the brain-mind interface forever, with each year yielding more insights. Yet none of their research will threaten the central value of human life. It is because we have a contract within our social milieu that we are responsible for our actions. Of course, how a society chooses to hold people accountable is another matter.