Why are you no longer performing frontal lobotomies

The electrified brain becomes moral

Scientists believe that with brain stimulation they can reduce the tendency to violence and thus explain it biologically to relieve the burden on society

How can one reduce or suppress the impulse to act violently? Before the development of psychotropic drugs, there was a promise since the late 1930s that psychological disorders, but also violent criminals, could be treated neurosurgery through lobotomy. The partial destruction of the tissue between the thalamus and the frontal lobe was propagated primarily by the American psychiatrist Walter Freeman, who himself operated on thousands of people. It was a promise of salvation, but it caused serious damage to those treated in this way.

Similar to the electric shock treatment, which appeared around the same time, no one knew why and how the lobotomy should help people (technology of submission). It was not until the late 1960s that the time of the lobotomy with the methods used at the time came to an end. Stereotactic interventions in sex offenders, in which parts of the limbic system were destroyed, were practiced for even longer. And even today such stereotactic elimination operations, known as capsulotomies, are sometimes performed as the last therapeutic option for severe obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Another method has become known, which in the 1960s also worried the secret services and led to the infamous brainwashing experiments of the CIA. In his 1962 book "Clockwork Orange", which was made into a film by Stanley Kubrick in 1972, Anthony Burgess tells the story of a young man who, out of a lust for violence, went out with his gang to beat up, rob and rape women. The gang let him go at some point, he was jailed, sentenced to a long prison term for murder, and then - it was the days of Skinner who promoted the method and also made it a utopian theme - was subjected to conditioning that made the very thought violence made him feel sick. In 1962, the neurologist Jose Delgado performed a spectacular action in 1963, how one could make an aggressive bull pious in an arena. He had implanted electrodes in his brain and was able to slow down the bull charging at him by remote control at the push of a button.

Even today, however, the neurosurgical ideas have not been completely removed. Currently, deep brain stimulation is being touted for all sorts of mental disorders and illnesses. Scientists now believe that stimulating an area of ​​the brain can suppress impulses of violence. And that is supposed to reinforce the perception that violence is morally wrong, similar to the conditioning in Clockwork Orange, which would ultimately also mean that in this case "morality" would be a neurobiologically localized function of inhibition.

Instead of lobotomy, brain stimulation

For their study, the results of which they published in the journal Neuroscience, the neuroscientists carried out a double-blind experiment with 81 healthy and adult test subjects. The test subjects were randomly assigned to one of two groups. In one group, the prefrontal cortex, more precisely the dorso-lateral prefrontal cortex, was stimulated with transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) for 20 minutes; in the second, the placebo group, they received weak stimulation for only 30 seconds. Neither the test subjects nor the practitioners knew which group it was. The dorso-lateral prefrontal cortex is said to play a proven role in antisocial behavior and impulse control.

After the stimulation, the test subjects were confronted with descriptions of two scenarios of physical or sexual violence. You should then indicate on a scale of 0-10 whether you would act similarly to the protagonist in the scenario and how you would rate aggressive actions morally. The participants in the stimulation group stated that they used 47 percent less physical violence and 70 percent less sexual violence than the control group. The moral condemnation of violence would make up 31 percent of the lower willingness.

The scientists see this as confirmation of the thesis that higher activity of the dorso-lateral prefrontal cortex can reduce the willingness to act aggressively and can increase moral control. Of course, they suggest that future applications for violent and criminal offenders could emerge from this. After all, they only stimulated the brain area for 20 minutes, if you repeat this regularly with violent criminals, this could lead to a permanent decline in willingness to violence. Whether this would have to be done for a lifetime or only for a certain time, of course, remains as open as the question of whether this is only the result of a fictional scenario or whether people would be just as less inclined to violence in a real event.

Violence should be explained and treated biologically

It seems important to the neuroscientists to have found evidence of a biological foundation for violence with their experiment, which would result in not having to explain it socially, but being able to treat it biologically. The consequence would be that social conditions would not have to be questioned at all, you just have to stimulate the brains regularly or continuously in the right place and everything will be fine. Of course, the authors also suggest accompanying psychotherapy, since only "half of the variance in violence" can be explained biologically.

The approach is advocated and defended by co-author Adrian Raine: "We are trying to find benign biological interventions that society accepts. Transcranial direct current stimulation has minimal risk. It is not a frontal lobotomy. On the contrary, we say that the front part of the brain needs to be better connected to the rest of the brain. " (Florian Rötzer)

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