Day: May 7, 2003

Putting The Brain On Trial

“The most interesting part of this is getting into the hardwiring of morality and free will,” Swerdlow said. “It raises the question, how free is free will?”


This philosophical question is being investigated by doctors across the country. And the answers they find through their research could have serious implications – not just for individual treatment but for the criminal justice system as well.


Brain scans conducted on murderers, for example, show that there is sometimes damage or poor function of the prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain that lies just behind the forehead and eyes.


Such scans and other scientific studies of the mind may one day be widely used in courts as evidence for the defense, as it was for Swerdlow’s patient.


“This guy was going to go to prison and what he needed was an operation, not incarceration,” Swerdlow said. WMBB (Florida)

Beautiful Mind, take II?

Brilliant man in an asylum fights doctors to top court:

‘Physics expert with bipolar disorder tells judges he’d rather stay locked up for life than be forced to take medication.

–snip–

Mr. Starson is adamant that forcible medication would slow his thinking, dull his inspiration and make him appear disoriented.


“Our species is making every effort possible to communicate with your species and explain a situation to you,” he said in articulate, yet frequently disconnected, bursts of speech. ” ‘ The Globe and Mail

Of course, this case points out that, tragically, mental illness does not spare the brilliant. The article touts the ‘endorsements’ he receives from other physicists who “consider him a peer”, which misses the point. The tragedy is that, if he indeed has bipolar disorder, it is (unlike the chronic deteriorating course of the schizophrenic condition that affected mathematician John Nash) episodic, with preservation of intellect and personality between episodes; episodes are controllable; and relapses are largely preventable. Furthermore, contrary to his beliefs, controlling his illness will not rob him of his mercurial intelligence. Creativity, which is indeed often correlated with mental illness and bipolar disorder in particular, is unfettered rather than impaired by stabilizing the disorder.

Bipolar patients and schizophrenics, to generalize, resist admitting their illness and need for treatment for different reasons. In schizophrenia, as your mind’s ability to tell what is real deteriorates further and further, you cling all the more to the insistence that you can trust your ability to make sense as your only refuge against the terror. On the other hand, mania is just too self-aggrandizing and, well, downright pleasant for bipolar patients to give up willingly. It is hard to convince someone that their feeling of limitless energy, confidence and ability are symptoms of an illness, and that a more realistic appraisal would find them, like everyone else, fallible and constrained. Moreover, preventative medicines stabilize the manic side of the bipolar disorder better than the depressive side, so they are often left not with normalcy but distress when they are robbed of their mania. Nevertheless, a bipolar patient should have the right to make a shambles of his life if he wants to, as long as he does not represent a danger to himself or others. I hope that is the guiding principle in the Canadian litigation as it would be here in the US. It sounds as if it is; he apparently was hospitalized after making death threats against a neighbor. Mr. Starson is exceedingly unlucky, however, if this is indeed bipolar disorder. Episodes usually remit spontaneously after some time measured in weeks or months even without medication. But four years??

Mr. Starson, who repeatedly insisted that he be called “Professor Starson” and that the word “if” not be used in questioning him, said he is confident that he will prevail.

Breaking off a train of thought involving moon-walking astronauts, his claim to have invented the modular telephone and his plans for a team of 200 lawyers scattered worldwide, Mr. Starson addressed his case:

“Here, I’m basically dealing with the bottom of your species,” he said. “Your species deals with force so much. Force is not the way science operates. And the worst religion on the planet is psychiatry.”