Psychoanalysis Science & Technology

Behavioural Neurology: Neuroscientists Never Studied Brains of Prisoners – IV

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Using neuroscience in the prisoner context faced substantial obstacles. The most important was that neuroscientists had never studied the brains of prisoners and, therefore, any studies directly on point existed, points out Prof. Ashoka, in the fourth part of his erudite research, exclusively for Different Truths.

Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in a concurring opinion in a case that did not directly challenge the use of solitary confinement, “the human toll wrought by extended terms of isolation has long been understood and questioned by writers and commentators…. Research still confirms what this Court suggested over a century ago. Years on end of near total isolation exact a terrible price.”

The plaintiffs’ use of neuroscience in the solitary confinement challenge was thus similar to the role neuroscience played in the Eighth Amendment challenge to the execution of juveniles

The plaintiffs’ use of neuroscience in the solitary confinement challenge was thus similar to the role neuroscience played in the Eighth Amendment challenge to the execution of juveniles, wherein the Court viewed scientific evidence not as an independent basis for decision, but as evidence that would tend to confirm the conclusion that prolonged solitary confinement caused serious mental and physical harm to the brain to a degree prohibited by the Constitution. As the Court noted in the juvenile death penalty case Roper v. Simmons, in distinguishing between adults and juveniles, “as any parent knows, and as scientific and sociological studies respondent and his amici cite tend to confirm, ‘a lack of maturity and underdeveloped sense of responsibility are found in youth more often than in adults, and are more understandable among the young’.”

Using neuroscience in the prisoner context, however, faced substantial obstacles. The most important was that neuroscientists had never studied the brains of prisoners and, therefore, any studies directly on point existed. Moreover, the possibility that neuroscientists could do significant scientific studies of the Pelican Bay prisoners was remote. To demonstrate conclusively that solitary confinement alters the brain, a study would have to use one of two types of design. The optimal design would be longitudinal and would require gathering baseline brain imaging data on prisoners before they were placed in solitary confinement followed by periodic testing to ascertain changes in brain structure and function. To be certain that such changes were associated with isolation and not with prison life in general, similar observations of well-matched control subjects (of similar age, sex, mental ability, and ideally criminal offense history) would have to be taken over the same period of time. An additional control group of subjects equally well-matched on crucial variables but not incarcerated would also be useful since this would enable the parsing of the effects of the general stress of prison life from the additional impact of social isolation, physical inactivity, and other distresses of solitary housing. Absent the basal data, a less optimal cross-sectional design could be used, but it would require a larger number of prisoners in order to enable either the two-way or three-way comparison.

Neuroscience could aid in establishing that the human brain requires social interaction with other people and, therefore, such interaction is a basic human need.

Neuroscience could aid in establishing that the human brain requires social interaction with other people and, therefore, such interaction is a basic human need. In Ashker, the plaintiffs submitted an expert report from neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman, the director of the Social Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory at the University of California, Los Angeles, and author of the award-winning book, Social: Why Our Brains are Wired to Connect. His declaration explained why social interaction is a basic human need, on a par with sleep or exercise. The deprivation of that human need will not–unlike the deprivation of food–result in death in short order, but like the deprivation of sleep or exercise, it will have very deleterious effects on both mental and physical health over time.

The research suggests that solitary confinement would produce physiological changes in the brain, harm that is therefore physical, potentially observable, and causes mental pain.

The second reason to introduce neuroscience evidence was to break down the divide between mental and physical pain. The research suggests that solitary confinement would produce physiological changes in the brain, harm that is therefore physical, potentially observable, and causes mental pain. As in the tort context, a demonstration of physiological harm would supplement the psychological research of the harm suffered by individuals who are denied social contact.

Lieberman had never studied prisoners nor solitary confinement in state prisons, but he applied his general research on the effects of social isolation on the brain to the Pelican Bay context.

Ashker is but one of several cases in which neuroscience has been used to challenge prolonged solitary confinement. As already mentioned, the Ashker plaintiffs introduced Lieberman’s expert report to support their claims that solitary confinement causes serious mental and physical harms and deprives those confined of the basic human need of social interaction. Lieberman had never studied prisoners nor solitary confinement in state prisons, but he applied his general research on the effects of social isolation on the brain to the Pelican Bay context.

Lieberman started his report with the proposition that “it is considered settled science within the field of psychology that humans and all mammals have a fundamental need for social connection.” Lieberman then described the neuroscientific contribution to understanding social connection as a basic need. He summarized that the brain has a neural system that registers various kinds of physical pain–each linked to a potential survival threat (loss of food, water, shelter)….My lab and others have observed that when individuals are in a socially deprived state, they experience social pain and this produces neural activity consistent with it being a form of pain.

(To be continued)

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