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Science (and the Sexes) in the City

[ 1 ] March 7, 2011

Dr. Donald W. Pfaff

Last Tuesday evening approximately 100 people gathered at the New York Academy of Sciences to hear a talk on the neurobiology behind many of the sex differences found in men and women. The speaker was Dr. Donald W. Pfaff of Rockefeller University, well-known for his work in behavioral neuroscience and his studies on sex hormones.

Before the talk started, however, I was already impressed with the Academy’s presentation. Settling into a room boasting incredible Manhattan skyline views was a diverse group of individuals, all buzzing with excitement and anticipation for the event. Speaking with others I quickly concluded that this evening was drawing not only those interested in neuroscience, but those interested in women’s rights, autism, molecular biology, and numerous other relevant topics. Various ages and races abounded, and it was evident that this diverse group of people was brought together by a passion for information.

Dr. Pfaff, upon taking the podium, seemed as eager to provide this information as we were to receive it. The evening centered around the presentation of Dr. Pfaff’s recently published book “Man and Woman: An Inside Story of Neurobiology and Sex Differences.” He began the evening discussing the social implications of his work. The topic Dr. Pfaff will most likely receive high praise for is his “3 Hit Theory” of Autism Spectrum Disorders. Taking his cue from the 2 Hit Theory of cancer causation, Dr. Pfaff theorizes that in ASD there is not only the genetic and pre/neonatal stressors involved, but also androgenic hormones. These hormones can cause neuroanatomical sex differences which are controlled by the preoptic area in males and the medial basal hypothalamus in females. Males with ASD have been shown to have enlarged preoptic areas, presumably caused by an over absorption of testosterone in the prenatal period.

This led Dr. Pfaff into his next topic: the different ways in which he has been working with steroid hormone action. Much of Dr. Pfaff’s previous work has dealt with the absorption of hormones, and how this creates individual sex differences, or masculinization of the brain. During the administration of hormones one can simply raise hormone dosage, or they can raise tissue sensitivity, making hormone co-regulators more efficient. Dr. Pfaff introduced the possibility of “re-hooking” hormone responsive axons in order to make them more responsive to hormone absorption. This could make hormone therapy an easier ongoing process for individuals needing long-term treatment.

After this explanation, Dr. Pfaff, like a kid in a candy store, began to talk about new research he has done since the publication of his book; research on nucleosome remodeling. Dr. Pfaff’s research highlights that approximately 9% of the human brain contains nucleosomes which are specifically geared for sex differences. Through researching whether these nucleosomes continue to express gender differences at the genetic level throughout life, Dr. Pfaff began looking at the DNA around histone proteins. From this he has pinpointed how lysine and arginine can change inactive DNA into active nucleotides, which then allows estrogen dependent genes to turn on. This histone modification accounts for the sexual differentiation seen in the medial preoptic area for males, and the central medial hypothalamus in females. Future research can use these findings to better map specific genes which cause sex differences, and the period of development in which these genes are “on.”

After his talk Dr. Pfaff took questions, the nature of which again highlighted the diversity of the audience. Questions were asked about autism, women’s rights, and protein reproduction. Dr. Pfaff answered all to the best of his ability, and was generous enough to point people in the direction of his colleagues in order to better their understanding of anything he could not personally clarify. The evening hummed with a buzzing excitement of his findings, and I felt a sense of contentment that the study of sex differences is heading in directions that will help us better understand the opposite sex, as well as to help treat those with hormone maladies.

Kimberly Epperson is a full-time neuropsychology student in New York City who previously studied musical theater, and hopes to run a research clinic for mentally handicapped adolescents.

What the Internet Is (or Isn’t) Doing to Our Brains

[ 6 ] December 18, 2010

by Noah Hutton
Contributing Editor

“I was losing my ability to tune out distractions and focus on one thing,” began Nicolas Carr. “I contend that the Web moves us back to a primitive way of thinking.”

Carr is the author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (Norton, $26.95). As per the title, he gave a talk last week at the New York Academy of Sciences about his theories on the Internet and what it is doing to us.

But Carr would tell you that these are not just theories– that there is hard, scientific evidence to back up his claims about attention, deep concentration, and multitasking. And that is where the debate has raged since his book was published earlier this year: is there enough empirical evidence yet to conclude that the Net is having harmful effects on our cognitive capacities to concentrate and focus our attention? Or is Carr’s thesis more of a tenuous coalition of thin scientific evidence and overstretched cultural anecdotes about our online culture, all steeped in a fear of the wires and screens of the present, with a nostalgia for the pre-Web past?

Clearly, I tend to side with the latter camp; for those interested in the finer points of what Carr is basing his claims on (for example, there is much debate about Carr’s inclusion of video game studies to make point about Internet usage) I steer you to Jonah Lehrer’s eloquent NYT review of Carr’s book, as well as the comments section of Lehrer’s blog post about his review, where Carr and Lehrer had a Web-based back-and-forth in June about it all. It is important to note that even Carr has admitted the relative lack of evidence: in a September interview for New Scientist, he is quoted as follows:

Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of physiological evidence to show how the net affects the brain – but there’s some, and it is compelling. One study from the University of California, Los Angeles, for instance, shows fairly extensive changes in patterns of brain activation from moderate use of search engines.

Carr is arguing that Internet usage leads to scattered thinking, as one checks email, Facebook, Twitter, then gets back to reading an article or working on whatever they’re actually supposed to be working on. Sure, that’s one way people use the Internet, and I have certainly felt myself procrastinating from time to time, but I also contend I can do more over time because of these tools. People also try to drink and do drugs and then work—but people write different kinds books about that, and they’re found in the self-help section.

Personally, after sifting through the blog posts with their comments, and reading The Shallows, I leave the store not buying the product Carr is selling—for a very basic reason. It’s the reason with which Carr began his discussion of the Internet at the NYAS talk last week.

“Whether they realize it or not, in the early stages, users don’t realize the hidden force of technology,” Carr told the audience. He bemoaned the “compulsive fervor” of Internet consumption, and the inherent “ethic” he believes is embedded in Web-based technology, which, according to Carr’s fears about his own brain which led to all this, is rather unethical. And by the end, he was telling the audience that he believes the Internet is leading us towards a more primitive way of thinking– a step backwards on Carr’s intellectual ladder.

The book we need is not one about what this evil Internet is doing to us, as there is actually no inherent ethic in any tool. It’s all inside of us– this is rule number one from neuroscience. What we perhaps could use is one about how to take ownership of it and use it for what it’s worth. From the comments at Lehrer’s blog:

Following on the warnings of Socrates, does anyone here dispute that books have been a cognitive boon for humankind? With the advent of smartphones, I and millions of others have virtually instantaneous access to vast stores of knowledge. Yesterday over dinner naked mole rats came up in conversation, and I pulled out my Droid, used voice search, and had gobs of new information to add to the discussion. On a recent trip to San Francisco, I used walking navigation to find my way around the city. Personally it seems a huge benefit to be able to spend fewer cognitive resources on storing large amounts of obscure facts or spatial maps. Instead, I have to learn the comparatively cognitive load of learning how to effectively access the information and use it.

The Internet probably does have adverse effects if we use it with the “compulsive fervor” that Carr describes. But Derek James, author of the above comment, clearly doesn’t feel the same scattering ethic Carr does inherent in the tools he’s using.  He seems to be using his tools quite well.

From the first stone tools to maps, clocks, books, and now the Internet, tools are about how we use them and what we use them for. If you’re really worried about distractions on the Internet and really feel a loss of control, then close the laptop and take a walk. It ends up working like any cycle of addiction would—it’s nothing inherent in the thing, it’s about how we use and then abuse our things.

Carr’s fear of the Internet, as if it were a wild beast we have lost control of, will always seem nostalgic, for the active use of tools leads to the invention of new tools, as we figure out what is and isn’t working so that the next step can be taken. These steps are not always in a “forward” or “upward” direction (however one would judge those directions), but at least we’re taking a step. It’s the difference between stepping up to the plate and taking some swings or just standing there and complaining about your bat.

A Day at the Museum

[ 5 ] November 22, 2010

Credit: Todd Heisler/The New York Times

Brain: The Inside Story” is a new exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City that will be displayed through August 2011.

I remember being a kid.  I remember being a kid and going on field trips.  I remember being a seventh-grade kid in New York City and going on field trips to the American Museum of Natural History.  That’s why, standing at the threshold of a new exhibit there—Brain: The Inside Story, curated by Rob DeSalle—I try to imagine that I am once again a child, beholding with that ceaseless curiosity and wide-eyed wonderment all that is around me.

This proves not-so-difficult.  The “tunnel” at the start the exhibition is draped with tangled clumps of recycled wire—1500 pounds of material.  It looks like some mischievous giants had a food fight with giant sticky spaghetti.  Meanwhile, beads of light are moving through the thick-and-thin strands.  The installation, by the Spanish artist Daniel Canogar, is meant to represent neurons firing their electrical impulses.  On a plain, white pedestal at the door, a preserved brain—small and shriveled—sits understatedly in a glass case, as if daring someone to underestimate it.  But the “tunnel” transports me inside its magical, gray matter, where I can walk beneath a sparkling canopy of nervous connectivity, a whole world alive within the wrinkles and folds, and I am as amazed as ever that all this happens inside of that.

Emerging from the “tunnel,” I am met by a life-sized projected image of a young dancer, sort of like the Princess Leah hologram only in spandex and a light sweat.  She is in the process of an audition; she is thinking, emoting, and moving.  As a recorded voice explains the correlating brain activity, a large three-dimensional brain model simultaneously lights its corresponding regions up in colors.

Credit: Todd Heisler/The New York Times

This multimedia exhibit demonstrates the concept of regional specialization, while reminding that a brain controls a person who lives a life and has a story.  From the “tunnel”—which contains an interpretation of the anatomy and functionality of brain cells—to the dancer—which illustrates cognitive, emotional, and behavioral phenomena—Brain: The Inside Story highlights some different approaches to neuroscience research, and their interrelatedness.

The rest of the exhibition is organized into five categories:  The Sensing Brain, The Emotional Brain, The Thinking Brain, The Changing Brain, and The 21st Century Brain.  At every turn are sights and sounds, and I am reminded of a carnival.  Stand here!  Look through here!  Build this brain!  Play this game!  Touch this screen!

There are illusions like an upside-down Mona Lisa made from spools of thread, and a picture of a rainy day coupled with the sound of what seems to be rainfall—until I discover it is frying bacon.

Credit: Todd Heisler/The New York Times

(This deceptive influence of sight on sound is a demonstration of cross-modal perception).  A hulking homunculus stands awkwardly with its enormous hands and mouth, a little too late—sadly—for Halloween.  (The figure reflects the proportions of the somato-sensory cortex devoted to each body part).  And everything shown is also explained by writing and pictures that surround every room, like an engaging textbook on a wall.  Of course, unlike in school, no one has to read.

At about The Changing Brain, I notice a group of school kids making their way excitedly against the flow of we, the media.  They are a diverse seventh-grade class studying neuroscience at a city secondary school.  “I’ve always heard about the things memory can do, now I’m actually seeing it,” one boy tells me, excitedly.  Another boy tells me how cool the exhibition is.  Cool?  For a kid?  I ask him if it makes him want to study the brain more.  He says, without hesitation, almost annoyed (because after all I should already know): “Yes.”  And then he scampers off to play brain teasers with his friends.  This is the main reason that Brain: The Inside Story is such an important exhibition.  It informs and amuses and, although there are more and more educational resources about the brain in the public consciousness, the fact remains that—whether you are young or old or some of both—nothing beats a day at the museum.

For more:
  • Official website for the exhibit at the AMNH.
  • NY Times review of the exhibit.
Seen the “Brain: The Inside Story” exhibit? Let us know what you thought of it in the comments section below:

Joseph LeDoux: Inside the Brain, Behind the Music, Part 6

[ 2 ] October 8, 2010

Inside the Brain, Behind the Music is part of an ongoing series of dispatches written for the The Beautiful Brain by neuroscientist and rock musician Joseph LeDoux. Each piece presents the personal and scientific background of a song from his band The Amygdaloids‘ latest brain-themed album, Theory of My Mind (Amazon, iTunes,

Part 6: “Brainstorm”

Brainstorm | Eric Chan, 2007 | Giclee on Canvas

The science of mind and brain comes into my songs in various ways.  Sometimes it’s very literal, as in our song “Fearing,” which uses a dark poem about fear from Emily Dickinson for the core lyrics.  Other times the connection is more metaphorical–“Refractory Time,” written by Daniela Schiller (The Amygdaloids’ drummer) and me, symbolizes the time one needs to recover from a failed relationship by the refractory time of a neuron (the time it takes for the neuron to fire again after it has just fired an exciting electrical impulse).

The subject of this Dispatch, “Brainstorm,” is an attempt to put myself into the mind of someone in a manic state.  It’s a raucous track with nods to Pink Floyd, The Jefferson Airplane, and The Strawberry Alarm Clock.  Though the song has a playful quality, I don’t mean any disrespect to people who experience such states.  The song should be considered in the general context of our music, which is all about raising public awareness about how the brain creates the mind, including pathological states of mind.

Mania is associated with excess dopamine levels. It can be a chronic condition, often with a strong genetic component, but can also be induced acutely by sleep deprivation and drugs such as stimulants.  The song incorporates several features that can occur in mania, such as exuberance, a sense of well being and self importance, and paranoia.

Here are a few lines give you a feel for the song:  “It’s raining in my brain, I’m feeling no pain, everybody thinks I’m insane, but I’m just on my game, I don’t see the harm, just having a brainstorm.”  Another verse goes:  “Rain keeps coming down, thoughts are more profound, everybody’s staying clear, they hope I’ll disappear, I’m not alarmed, it’s just a brainstorm.”  The chorus continues the pyschedelic state of mind implied by the verses: “Thoughts are racing, colors are flying, magic’s in the air, memories are flashing, legs are dashing, don’t have a care, don’t have a care.”

Listen to “Brainstorm” by The Amygdaloids

Full lyrics can be found at this link:  Brainstorm Lyrics

We have a home-grown music video of “Brainstorm” put together by Daniela and Tyler Volk (The Amygdaloids’ lead guitarist) on the occasion of my birthday last December.  It’s hilarious watching lab members, colleagues at NYU, and band members lip sync the lyrics.  One of the world’s leading memory researchers, my good friend Yadin Dudai, also makes an appearance.

The wild and crazy solos in “Brainstorm,” which are done brilliantly by Tyler on the recording, were taken into rock outer space by Lenny Kaye (The Patti Smith Group) and Steve Wynn (Dream Syndicate; The Miracle 3) at our recent CD party, which featured these two legendary guitarists, as well as performances on other songs by Ward White (McGinty and White), Pete and Maura Kennedy (The Kennedys), and Kathena Bryant (The Hippy Nuts).  It was amazing how, with no rehearsal at all, Wynn and Kaye plugged in and played the song as if it were part of their repertoire.  They locked into each other’s every bent and distorted note, responding in kind, or taking the solo in a completely different direction that the other followed until he charged off into his own next area of sonic space.  Check out the live video of “Brainstorm from the show:

The brain chemistry between Wynn and Kaye was infectious, creating a neurochemical brainstorm in each of us on stage, but also in the audience.  “Brainstorm” will never be the same for the band. Each time we play the song, we will be trying to reach out into the rock stratosphere, where every note ever picked in The Cavern, CBJB’s, Club Lingerie, Don Hills, and every other dark, dank, rock club around the world, continues to resonate.  Maybe the notes we pluck at our next gig will mesh with the eternal vibrations of Kaye and Wynn, and give us just a little edge.

Joseph LeDoux is a University Professor, Henry and Lucy Moses Professor of Science, Professor of Neural Science and Psychology and Child Psychiatry at NYU. He is also the Director of the Emotional Brain Institute at NYU and at the Nathan Kline Institute. The author of two best-selling books, The Emotional Brain and Synaptic Self, LeDoux is also a singer and song writer of The Amygdaloids, a band of scientists that plays music about mind and brain and mental disorders.


SciFoo 2010: a Conference from the Future

[ 5 ] August 3, 2010

Conference culture has a new younger sibling: the un-conference— a wonderfully spontaneous, informal, and, above all, communicative variation on the traditional model of presenting new research and ideas.

The Googleplex in Mountain View, CA, was home to the 2010 Sci Foo event. Click to enlarge. (Photo: Noah Hutton)

The main staging lobby at the Googleplex for SciFoo. Click to enlarge. (Photo: Noah Hutton)

I had the honor and privilege of being invited to participate in last weekend’s SciFoo un-conference at the Googleplex in Mountain View, CA, where about 300 leading scientists, technologists, writers and other thought-leaders gathered for the fifth annual 3-day event hosted by Nature, Google, and O’Reilly Media. Participants from all corners of the Earth brought their most exciting ideas in theoretical physics, synthetic biology, neurotechnology, and social justice, among others—to toss into a teeming weekend schedule for all-day discussions, presentations, and long lunches that stretched disciplines and made science feel riskier. And, when it came to the ideas and attitudes on hand at SciFoo, riskier seemed to be a good thing.

Upon arrival at the Googleplex on Friday evening, the roughly 300 participants were given the opportunity to form the weekend’s schedule of presentations. We crowded around a series of large white boards to stick our oversized post-its on squares that corresponded to specific times and rooms of various sizes in the Googleplex, where we’d foster a discussion around any idea or specific piece of research we wished to bring to the table. The boards were quickly filled with a dazzling array of topics, with each hour holding around 14 distinct sessions running in parallel around the complex.

For more of an introduction to the concept of SciFoo, check out this Nature video made by talented science filmmaker Charlotte Stoddart about last year’s event:

I started Saturday morning at SciFoo in a session called “Lightning Talks” where presenters stood before a packed room and were challenged to deliver their latest and greatest in five minutes or less, and then to answer a few rapid fire questions from the audience at the end. Cognitive psych researcher Rebecca Saxe described augmenting moral decision-making, whereby modulating activity in distinct regions of the brain seems to alter behavior in morally-charged situations.  Mind Hacks author Vaughan Bell described several studies about hypnosis; Richard Jefferson reminded us that we exist because of communities of microbes living within our bodies. If there were an Olympic relay race model for communicating cutting-edge research and ideas, this session was it.

Later that morning, I attended a longer format relay presentation, where four thinkers stood up and delivered their “3 Rules” for a specific pursuit:

Eric Drexler on how to be a better scientist.

  1. What to do: aim to learn about the whole of science.
  2. How to do it: immerse yourself in other fields, dip into the scientific literature in an unfamiliar discipline once in awhile.
  3. Prepare yourself to recognize problems: turn unknown uknowns into known unknowns.

Carl Zimmer on how to be better understood as a scientist.

  1. When writing, mentalize. Try to put yourself inside the mind of your audience, and see what that feels like.
  2. Choose every word. (Check out Zimmer’s list of banned science writing words).
  3. Take storytelling seriously as a serious tool.

Garrett Lisi on rules for being a mad scientist.

  1. Make outlandish claims but be sane.
  2. Embrace your eccentricities.
  3. Extremize your hair.
  4. Break the rules.
  5. Have a rich life outside of science.
  6. Corrupt the youth.
  7. And the mysterious bridge to…
  8. Make a profit.

Jonah Lehrer on how to have more “aha!” moments.

  1. Take more warm showers.
  2. Pretend problems are far away.
  3. Move to Silicon Valley (i.e. foster diverse social networks across disciplines, have more horizontal interactions).

Participants created the schedule for the weekend conference on Friday evening. (Photo: Noah Hutton)

Other highlights for me included David Eagleman’s brilliant presentation on the neuroscience of time perception (including an experiment that involves a free-fall into a giant net while trying to tell time), Gabrielle Lyon’s session on the search for a replacement to the “pipeline” metaphor for science, and Ed Boyden’s fascinating research at M.I.T. using optogenetics to stimulate neurons with beams of light, a technique with a vast range of experimental applications. At my session on Saturday evening, I presented year one of my ongoing Blue Brain documentary film project and received some invaluable feedback from those in attendance. The screening morphed into a lively debate about the project and A.I. research in general, and many great suggestions for future questions and approaches to the film were put forth.

But for me, the definitive SciFoo moment came in a Saturday afternoon session led by Eva Amsen called Musicians & Scientists, where Eva described her terrific project to interview scientists who double as musicians (or vise versa), learning about what motivates them to pursue both. Halfway into the session,  two scientists in the room came forth with their own musical projects—first, Stanford physicist Hari Manoharan gave a mind-bending presentation of the work done in his lab—and then showed us what that work sounds like. Manoharan uses innovative methods to pick up and move individual atoms through a process called quantum tunneling. Manoharan can listen to the sound of the energy between these atoms as they move across one another, clicking into place or scraping across many others in sequence. Not only does this produce interesting rhythms (which Manoharan says some students have used for their own musical projects), it actually serves as a crucial scientific tool for the researchers to know where they are moving each atom by listening to each “click” and scrape.

A view of the Google campus in Mountain View, CA-- home of SciFoo. (Photo: Noah Hutton)

Next, physicist Stephon Alexander presented a forward-thinking way to visualize the classic circle of fifths in music. Alexander has exploded the circle into 3-D space, creating a pentahelix whereby each note on the scale can be placed on a distinct point in a perpetually twisting structure. The result is something like a musical DNA strand, and Alexander–a jazz enthusiast– can now use the helical structure to visualize, for example, the geometry of a John Coltrane tune, with each chord lighting up a distinct 3-D object formed by the points of each note in space. For more about Alexander, check out his profile piece on the National Geographic site.

Manoharan and Alexander’s impromptu presentations within the theme of the session as a whole encapsulated for me what made SciFoo such an invigorating and risky place to test out new ideas and projects, and above all, to talk with other curious parties. For kids, science needs to be cool enough to be as interesting as say, sports; for adults, science will do best to stay just as engaging– maybe even risky at times– and always driven by an insatiable curiosity. The SciFoo model of unfettered communication among some of the most excited and passionate thinkers may be the best ticket to keep it that way.

More SciFoo coverage:

Joseph LeDoux: Inside the Brain, Behind the Music, Part 5

[ 7 ] July 23, 2010

Inside the Brain, Behind the Music is part of an ongoing series of dispatches written for the The Beautiful Brain by neuroscientist and rock musician Joseph LeDoux. Each piece presents the personal and scientific background of a song from his band The Amygdaloids‘ latest brain-themed album, Theory of My Mind (Amazon, iTunes,

Part 5: “Crime of Passion”

The amygdala is an evolutionarily ancient almond-shaped structure in the brain.

This week’s song is “Crime of Passion.” When I was writing this, I felt I was channeling Johnny Cash.  It just seemed like the kind of song he might have done.  Through a simple twist of fate, the amazing Rosanne Cash ended up singing this song with me on the record.

So why did I write a song called “Crime of Passion”?  If you’ve been reading these Dispatches, you know that I am very interested in how brains respond automatically (unconsciously) in certain emotionally provoking situations. Over the years, this rep has gotten around, and I’ve been contacted from time to time by people seeking help in legal cases involving murder, in particular prisoners on death row looking for a angle that might give them the basis of new hearing.  The hope is that I might provide information that would buttress the argument for shifting the blame from the defendant to his brain, especially his amygdala.  This strategy is apparently not unusual.  Consider the following quote from a 2007 article in The Sunday Times of London.  The author, Raymond Tallis, is describing the basis for an “amygdala defense”: “The case against Mr X must be dismissed. He cannot be held responsible for smashing Mr Y’s face into a pulp. He is not guilty, it was his brain that did it. Blame not Mr X, but his overactive amygdala.”

The idea of an amygdala defense is fairly new in detail but not spirit.  In 1843, Daniel M’Naghten shot the British Prime Minister and pleaded temporary insanity.  The insanity defense in a number of countries, including the US, is based on the M’Naghten case.  Temporary insanity caused by strong emotional arousal, usually from catching one’s spouse in a compromising position, is often accepted as a rationale for leniency.  The amygdala defense simply replaces the psychological justification (temporary insanity) with a brain explanation (an overactive amygdala).

Scientifically, we can weave together the various pieces of the puzzle into a coherent story that might justify a temporary insanity/crime of passion/amygdala defense.  Through rational thought, we control our behavior.  Rational thought is a function of the mind and a product of cortical areas of the brain.  The amygdala, which works unconsciously, is a brain region responsible for strong emotional responses. Strong emotion (stress) due to an overactive amygdala disrupts the function of cortical areas involved in rational thought, in part by releasing hormones and other chemicals that impair cortical function. Unconscious processes controlled by the amygdala can interfere with rational thought and allow the performance of irrational behaviors that the person would not otherwise not commit.

The author of the Sunday Times piece was none too pleased with this movement towards the “my brain made me do it” defense.  Where do you draw the line with this kind of defense?  When is the brain responsible and when are you responsible? How do you ever know?  Why wouldn’t everyone make this case?  Tallis goes on to quote Stephen Morse, a law professor, who argues: “it is people, not brains, who commit crimes and neuroscience . . . can never identify the mysterious point at which people should be excused responsibility for their actions.”

Tallis sees one instance where “the neuromitigation of blame” might be acceptable: in instances where there is unambiguous evidence of grossly abnormal brain function or abnormal mental function due to clear cut illness that may have its origin in brain disease.  This reminds me of the “Texas Tower Sniper,” Charles Whitman, who gunned down University of Texas students.  He too was gunned down, and an autopsy revealed a tumor impinging on his amygdala.  This medical condition was given at least some of the blame.  Had he survived and gone to trial, and had modern brain imaging techniques been available, and had they been used and locate the tumor, Whitman might well gotten something short of a death sentence, even in Texas.

But let’s go back to the amygdala defense in the crimes of passion sense (as opposed to the damaged brain sense).  There are two versions of this that need to be distinguished.  The first is the “my amygdala did it.”   This is the version I have most often been contacted about.  In this version, the amygdala, when activated, is responsible for the act of murder.  When the cuckold catches his wife, he picks up a knife or baseball bat, walks over to the bed, and kills his wife, her lover, or both.  But as far as we know, actions like these are not what the amygdala does.  It is hard-wired to control simple, preprogrammed responses like freezing, not complex sequences of behaviors, like finding a weapon and using it.  Other regions like the basal ganglia might be able to do this, and they probably also function unconsciously.  But I’ll leave it to a basal ganglia expert so say whether the caudate nucleus or the nucleus accumbens can commit a crime of passion.

The other version of the amygdala defense is more reasonable scientifically.  This is the overactive amygdala hypothesis that Mr. Tallis mentioned.  In this version, intense emotional arousal strongly activates the amygdala and this biases the way brain areas (including action control regions such as those in the basal ganglia) subsequently behave (or misbehave).  Can this happen? Sure.  Did it happen in a particular case? Who knows?  But even if we could prove through imaging that the amygdala was hyperactive to emotional stimuli in the perp close in time to the crime, where would we draw the line between active and hyperactive, and most important, could we link amygdala activity in a causal way to the crime?

Personally, I don’t think that imaging can tell us much about the amydala’s role in a crime. The amygdala participates in a lot of functions, most famously, fear and aggression. But it is also involved in evaluating food as tasty and safe or poisonous, and in processing the meaning of odors; it contributes to reproductive behavior (sexual and parenting behavior); it is also important in the reinforcement or reward of behavior.  A hyperactive amygdala, in other words, does not mean anything on its own.  Very specific tests need to be performed to determine why it is hyperactive (which function or functions it is hyperactive in relation to).  Perhaps most important, imaging gives you correlational information, not information about cause and effect.  A person might commit a crime and have a hyperactive amygdala, but whether the hyperactivity caused the crime, whether the crime caused the hyperactivity, or whether the two were caused by completely independent factors cannot be concluded from simply taking a picture of the brain.

I have declined requests to contribute as an expert witness in crimes of passion. I just don’t think we know enough at this point to make life and death decisions on the basis of what was going on in the brain during such an act.  In particular, I truly believe that strong emotion can take over the brain and bias it in unusual directions.  But I also think it is probably very difficult to rule out all premeditation in a crime of passion.  We know that it only takes a few hundred milliseconds for brain events to reach consciousness.  It takes longer than that to pick up a baseball bat or knife, or to cross the room and strangle a person.  So some conscious thought has the opportunity to slip in and put on the breaks.  The question is whether the emotional arousal was so great that it prevented the conscious thought from putting on the breaks, or maybe even completely prevented the infiltration of consciousness.  How we would ever know what went on in those few hundred critical milliseconds?

I think the most difficult issues raised by the neuro-version of the crime of passion/insanity defense concern the nature of the self and willful self-control.  When one says, “I didn’t do it, my amygdala did,” who is the “I” in question?  Is that the conscious self, perhaps the prefrontal cortex?  If so, maybe the argument might be that people are responsible when their conscious self (or prefrontal cortex, in a neuro version) controls behavior, but not when unconscious processes (or brain areas) control behavior.  But that doesn’t really work. Much of what we call consciousness depends on underlying unconscious processes.  Given this, maybe we have to conclude that we can really never know if behavior is consciously produced, and therefore should never be held responsible for our actions.  Obviously, this is not a viable option.  Alternatively, we could conclude that we are always responsible, in which case there is no room for a crime of passion/insanity defense.

In the end, I don’t have an answer to the crime of passion legal problem but I do have a song about it.

“Crime of Passion” by The Amygdaloids

Click here for lyrics to “Crime of Passion”

“Crime of Passion” is a classic country waltz (3/4 time) and has a traditional verse/chorus structure. I originally wrote it completely from the point of view of an inmate who had murdered his wife’s lover upon discovering her with him.  Facing death, the inmate hasn’t come around and forgiven her.  Quite the opposite.  In the chorus he wails, “If I could go back, I wouldn’t, I wouldn’t kill for you, you’re not worth, what I’m going through.”  When Rosanne agreed to sing this song with me on the record, I rewrote the lyrics in a “call and response” format.  So in the recorded version you get a little taste of the wife’s point of view as well.  She pipes up in the verses a bit. So when hubby says, “You were to me,” his mate completes the phrase, “like nectar to a bee.”  Hubby goes on, “My source of life,” and she responds, “your loving wife.”  She expresses her sorrow when she signs solo in a part of the chorus: “A crime of passion has got you, locked in that dirty old cell, A crime of passion has got you, lost in a living hell.” LeDoux is a University Professor, Henry and Lucy Moses Professor of Science, Professor of Neural Science and Psychology and Child Psychiatry at NYU. He is also the Director of the Emotional Brain Institute at NYU and at the Nathan Kline Institute. The author of two best-selling books, The Emotional Brain and Synaptic Self, LeDoux is also a singer and song writer of The Amygdaloids, a band of scientists that plays music about mind and brain and mental disorders. The Amygdaloids‘ latest album Theory of My Mind which features the song “How Free is Your Will” is available on Amazon, iTunes, and at

What do you think about applying modern neuroscience to the legal system? Have a question for Joe? Let us know in the comments section below.

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