Saturday, October 29, 2005

Saturday Report: This is your brain on drugs

I've mentioned here, a few times, that I love what I'm doing, but I've been so busy doing it that I haven't had time to tell you about it. Early on Saturdays, though, the weekend stretches out before me, and I can delude myself for a few hours into believing that my workload is actually manageable. So, now seems like a good time to tell you guys about what I've been up to. Maybe this will become a weekly thing.

On Wednesday, we had a really interesting guest speaker at the Philosophy Department: Dr. David Rosenbloom, a professor of pharmacology, spoke on "Drugs, Consciousness and Murder." Dr. Rosenbloom frequently gives expert witness at criminal trials, and had a seemingly inexhaustible supply of bizarre crime anecdotes to illustrate his points about consciousness, agency and moral culpability. And a lot of interesting factoids about drugs. Did you know that if you mix cocaine and alcohol, a chemical reaction occurs that causes the effects of the cocaine to last twice as long? Budget tip for partiers! Of course, the cocktail also plays havoc with the parts of your brain responsible for impulse control, emotion and memory, so side effects may include entering a state of drug-induced automatism, stabbing your girlfriend over 60 times, and waking up a few hours later covered in blood, with no memory of what happened. Naturally, being strung out on street drugs doesn't exonerate murder. For one thing, we hold the murderer responsible for taking the drugs in the first place. Dr. Rosenbloom generally argues that a drug-induced lapse in conscious autonomy is a mitigating circumstance, and therefore grounds for some leniency in sentencing, if the defendent did not have the knowledge that he might commit such a crime, or the intent to commit it. So, for example, you might know better than to get drunk and do a lot of coke, and you might understand that you'll become a less responsible person if you do, but if you have no prior history of violence and you love your girlfriend, you probably have no idea that your actions are going to lead you to chop her up with a knife. The defendent in this particular case was sentenced to 12 years.

I am hammering my SSHRC application together, and issues of psychological determinism and moral agency are turning up in my proposed plan of study. I'm not that interested in drugs, though, and I'm less interested in rare, extreme cases than in day-to-day cases involving minor pathologies like mood disorders. The type of question I'm likely to ask will be not so much "Is the schizophrenic responsible for stabbing her child?" as "Is your clinically depressed roommate responsible for the fact that she never cleans the damn kitchen up after herself?"


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