can electricity treat criminal behavior?

Crime and a lack of impulse control go hand in hand. Now, there may be a way to activate that impulse control with an electric current. But we’ll need to be careful how we use it.

bloody butcher knife

Have you ever been so angry you wanted to punch someone? Maybe once, maybe repeatedly. Did you inflict actual harm on the person who was threatening you, goading you, teasing you, or just got in your way? Odds are that while you were enraged and contemplating the use of force, you thought better of it and walked away because you have adequate impulse control. But in many criminal cases, violent offenders tend to lack it, leading to assaults and murders which seem out of the blue to ordinary people. Try as we might, many of us can understand the acts of violence we see and read about intellectually, but not in a visceral, emotional sense.

Why would a criminal shoot someone for “disrespecting him” because they looked at him in a way he didn’t approve? Why did he stab someone for cutting in line in front of him? Why did he not flee the scene when the occupants of the house he was in the middle burglarizing came back and attacked them instead? The answer? Because he wanted to and there may be little to nothing holding him back from a psychological and physiological standpoint. Now, we can’t use the lack of impulse control as an excuse to allow violent crime or as an argument for leniency because self-control can be learned. But we also can’t ignore the underlying neurology.

can you switch off someone’s anger?

It turns out that we can actually instill basic impulse control using transcranial direct current stimulation, or a weak electrical signal channeled through an electrode attached to a patient’s head for 22 minutes. The stimulation excites an area of the brain known as the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which clamps down on the anger response and lets the subjects think more rationally. We’ve known this for a while, but there was still a question whether this stimulation, called tDCS, truly activated the right areas of the brain and had an actual effect, instead of merely being a distraction or a placebo. The study in question used functional brain imaging to confirm that the effects we saw in previous experiments were quite real.

One of the things this knowledge would allow us to do is to try and treat criminals and those with mental health issues related to impulsivity by lightly stimulating their ventromedial prefrontal cortices during exercises meant to teach them better self-control. Given what we know, it should ideally help reenforce their treatment, and if they committed violent crimes before, help calm their behavior in correctional facilities and reduce recidivism when they’re released back into society. Of course there will need to be more studies before we get to that point. While there seem to be no side-effects to tDCS, we have to be absolutely sure it’s safe before we start trying it on actual patients in need of a crash course in impulse control.

how to make sure this technology won’t go wrong

A major potential pitfall of knowing such technology exists and can easily be employed is the potential to abuse it. One can image corrections officials wanting to attach such electrodes to inmates in their facilities and give guards a remote to stimulate their brains at will. Parole officers may ask for similar equipment afterward while a “tough law and order” judge running for reelection orders an offender to wear it for the duration or his or her probation. While these electrodes won’t turn off anger in an instant — remember they take 20 plus minutes to work — they could easily be abused by those who don’t know better and a messy legal fight may be required to stop their use outside of therapeutic and rehabilitation settings.

Targeted brain stimulation has great potential to help those struggling with other impulse control and dependency problems, which is in no small part why it’s being so heavily researched. But in no way will it ever be a remote to human emotions and there have to be limits to how far we go with its applications. Plus, keep in mind that its effects will be temporary, as demonstrated by a different tDCS experiment which sought to induce sociopathic behaviors to better understand the condition. It would be premature and counterproductive to think this electrical stimulation alone could actually cure whatever mentally ails us if we get zapped enough times. But all that said, it will be a very useful tool when it makes its way to a therapist’s office near you.

# science // crime / medical research / psychology


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