The Ethics of Gently Electrifying Prisoners’ Brains

By Hazem Zohny and Tom Douglas

Scientists who want to study the effects of passing electric currents through prisoners’ brains have a PR problem: it sounds shady. Even if that electric current is so small as to go largely unnoticed by its recipient – as in the case of transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) – for some, such experiments evoke historical abuses of neuroscience in criminal justice, not to mention bringing to mind some of the more haunting scenes in films like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and A Clockwork Orange.

And so, last week the Spanish Interior Ministry put on hold an impending experiment in two Spanish prisons investigating the impact of brain stimulation on prisoners’ aggression. At the time of writing, it remains unclear what the ministry’s reasoning for the halt is, though the optics of the experiment might be part of the story.

The experiment builds on another published by the same team earlier this year and involves measuring the impact of tDCS on the self-reported aggressiveness of imprisoned violent offenders. This entails stimulating the part of the brain related to decision making and social behaviour with a tiny electric current (1.5mA) for 15 minutes at a time. The current, halted study was meant to address some of the limitations of the first and had intended to include a non-imprisoned control group.

As the theory goes, enhancing the excitability of this part of the brain might help those disposed to aggression to better rein in these impulses. In the previous study, the imprisoned participants reported up to a 37% drop in feelings of physical aggression after 3 sessions of tDCS. In contrast, prisoners who only wore the electrodes without being administered the current showed no difference. (Typically in these ‘sham groups’ the current is administered only for a few seconds at the start of a session in order to mimic the brief tingling sensations associated with the onset of stimulation).

Of course, whether self-reported aggression tells us much about one’s actual disposition to be physically aggressive is open to question. The researchers had wanted to measure the impact of tDCS on cortisol levels—a less subjective proxy for aggression—but failed to get ethics approval for this.

There are a number of ethical concerns one might have about these types of experiments, though it’s unclear whether those played a role in the Ministry’s apparent ambivalence about this work. One looming issue is consent: can prisoner’s give it meaningfully, considering the coercive conditions they are in? Is being informed about the risks, signing a consent form, and being told they can withdraw at any time, sufficient?

The worry is that prisoners are generally highly incentivized to demonstrate a desire for rehabilitation – any evidence toward that end might be used to help them with, say, obtaining parole. Given how harmful being in prison can be for prisoners, it might be unreasonable for some to refuse an opportunity to participate in such an experiment, even if the likelihood it might reduce their sentences is remote.

This might indeed be a worry in the case of an intrusive experiment that entails some serious harm, or at least some risk of serious harm, to participants. For instance, if this were a deep brain stimulation experiment – which involves implanting a neurostimulator into the brain itself, along with all the associated risks of surgery – the question of attaining valid consent under such circumstances would indeed be paramount. But tDCS? Passing a 1.5mA current into the frontal cortex for 15 minutes a day for three consecutive days involves negligible risks. There is no evidence that unintended off-target effects (say, if an electrode is misplaced on the scalp) pose a risk from one session of tDCS  – instead, the most common side effects are slight tingling sensations and temporary skin redness where the electrodes were placed.

And this is relevant to consent: the importance of ensuring that consent isn’t coerced is related to the harm potential of what is to be done to someone. The greater the potential for harm, the more care we should take to ensure that all who agree to an intervention are doing so voluntarily. When the potential for harm is minimal, we might think that some risk of coercion can be tolerated in order to secure the benefits of research. Thus, many would think that some forms of low-risk medical research can justifiably be performed in prison settings, despite concerns that some prisoners may simply be agreeing to participate in order to please the prison authorities.

The other, and perhaps more serious concern here is what these experiments might entail – if successful – for prison reform, and indeed for crime prevention more generally.

For instance, the lead researcher on this project, Andrés Molero-Chamizo, told New Scientist that tDCS might be good for prisons themselves: “It could help to keep order inside a prison.” However, for many, prisons are long overdue for radical reforms in terms of how inmates are treated and the conditions they are kept it. We should not be supporting measures that put the burden of change on prisoners, we should be supporting measures that change the conditions that make prisoners hard to control to begin with – like overcrowding, for instance.

Moreover, some might argue that if these sorts of neurointerventions prove effective at altering offenders’ behaviours, this might relieve the much needed pressures driving social progress. Why bother understanding and amending whatever the underlying factors contributing to, say, domestic abuse or armed robbery, when we can instead merely alter the dispositions that led to those offenses?

These are valid questions, but it’s doubtful that they are decisive in this particular case. Firstly, it is a mistake to assume that individualised interventions, on the one hand, and the reform of prisons and wider society, on the other, are mutually exclusive. The two can, do, and often should go together. Perhaps we should solve problems like over-crowding and poor healthcare in prisons, and offer prisoners tDCS for aggression control.

Moreover, there is nothing suspect about behaviour modification in and of itself – that is precisely the goal of many existing rehabilitative efforts, like anger management courses and 12-step addiction programmes. Of course, if the end result of a brain stimulation intervention will be more than just a somewhat less impulsively aggressive prisoner, but one who has also lost crucial traits associated with, say, defending themselves or standing up for themselves, then that could be a serious moral concern.

But from what we know of the effects of tDCS, such a drastic effect seems unlikely. Incidentally, the halted study had intended to shed more light on whether tDCS would likely only reduce the aggression of those particularly disposed to it (such as violent prisoners, presumably), or whether it would have a similarly diminishing impact even on those who are comparatively less disposed to aggression. We’ll have to wait and see if the study is allowed to move forward.

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Reddit

7 Responses to The Ethics of Gently Electrifying Prisoners’ Brains

  • Adrianna says:

    cheap jordans real cheap jordans real o kjhaa 57344

  • Kristi says:

    I used to be able to find good info from your articles.카지노사이트

  • Chang says:

    Howdy I am so glad I found your blog page, I really found you by mistake, while I was searching
    on Askjeeve for something else, Regardless I am here now and
    would just like to say thanks a lot for a tremendous post and a all round thrilling blog (I also love the theme/design),
    I don’t have time to read through it all at the moment but I have bookmarked it and also
    included your RSS feeds, so when I have time I will be back to
    read much more, Please do keep up the fantastic work.카지노사이트

  • Kellie says:

    Please let me know if you’re looking for a article author for your
    blog. You have some really good posts and I think I would
    be a good asset. If you ever want to take some of the load off, I’d love
    to write some articles for your blog in exchange for a link back to mine.

    Please send me an email if interested. Cheers!카지노사이트

  • Bobby says:

    I am in fact thankful to the holder of this site who has
    shared this wonderful piece of writing at at this time.온라인카지노”>온라인카지노

  • Herbertzigue says:

    Winstrol Generic
    Attempt to avoid locations where individuals regularly smoke cigarettes to avoid enticement. Steer clear of smoking regions at night clubs, cigarette smoking rooms at your workplace along with other locations where there are cigarette smokers, if you believe the urge could be excessive. Also, when getting together with friends that light up, attempt to do so inside a cigarette smoke-cost-free ambiance, for example, no-smoking cigarettes dining establishments and parks.
    Testosterone Enanthate 18 Year Old
    Would you like a brief and successful way to eliminate email messages on your own apple iphone? It really is simple using this type of quick method. Just swipe over a message with the finger, and you will delete it. If it is a Gmail accounts, you may adjust the options which means this swipe archives the content instead of getting rid of it.
    Dianabol 5 Days A Week
    Fresh lemon juice will help lighten up red-colored markings brought on by pimples. Use the fruit juice of a new citrus, applied to a natural cotton swab, entirely on the symbol. You may thin down the juices with h2o or bee honey if preferred. Doing so really helps to free of moisture your acne and lower swelling.
    Oxandrolone Buy

  • Elmo says:

    cheap bikinis
    Oh, this one I actually liked one of my past boyfriends
    had this idea for us to send each other postcards every couple of weeks even though we lived
    in the same city. We would treat them like short love letters and basically just write light sappy things on them.
    We never talked about them; it was totally unspoken. Based on the guaranteed
    profits of RMB 331.2 million in 2018, the exit PE ratio for the Longde purchase is 8.45, against the Shanghai Composite Index PER then in the 20’s, the Chinese relisting draw is irresistible.
    If the buyout is successful, Guo could increase his group’s existing 38% share of the potential upside to 100%, thus shutting out
    the outside shareholders from the possible windfall.
    On paper, this was like a done deal, as the company had received RMB 2.1 billion cash from the sale to Longde, which
    is more than sufficient to fund the buyout.

    dresses sale What are chemical peels?Chemical peel is a treatment
    for your body which main purpose is to improve and smoothing the
    texture of the skin usually the face using a chemical solution that causes the skin which are dead to
    shed off and eventually peel off. There are some
    kinds of chemical peels that are over the counter but it is recommended
    to see a dermatologist, plastic surgeon on a type to use.
    It is chemically similar to Retin A. dresses sale

    wholesale bikinis Does seem to be the case, but I feel
    like there a few caveats. It a small sample size, for one.
    Number two, Driving is viable because 30% (number I heard, not sure how accurate) of attendees use some kind of shuttle.
    As far as sex dreams, and his panic attacks, I think that had more to do with
    his abandonment issues. His therapist said his sex dream was
    straight up about his mother (lol ew). And his
    panic attacks were never JUST about Donna, she was just one of many factoring issues.

    wholesale bikinis

    Tankini Swimwear They even got back in touch a few years back after he figured out social media.

    They send each other family photos, swap work stories
    (they are all retired) and occasionally even skype on holidays.Last thanksgiving,
    I was over at my dad and Josh was visiting while they were
    skyping. His mom knows from my dad that I a huge football
    fan and she offered to introduce us.Well, Josh would have none of it.
    Tankini Swimwear

    wholesale bikinis But the second bottle tasted noticeably different, so they sent
    it back. The staff apologetically produced a third bottle, which
    the diners consumed with pleasure. Parr closely examined the three bottles and discovered the problem
    with the second one: it was genuine.”The Jefferson WinesRare and beautiful wine it seems, resides partly in illusion and not as tangible as it seems. R/roosterteeth is full of people who think that downvoting is a hippy trend, as long as they see a small amount of downvotes, they feel like they need to contribute as well without finding a real reason. If it makes them happy so be it. A lot of stuff can make an individual happy.. wholesale bikinis

    swimwear sale Religion and government are two different things. We are lucky enough to live in a country where people can practice any religion they want, or none at all. But there is a separation between church and state and that means that Kirks belief in Adam and Eve should not effect civil rights. Edit: FDH and I are both hockey players (By no means good enough to be pros but we love the game). We met at a rink during a pickup game and fell for each other through hockey, late night wings and beers and a shared nerdiness. We decided to rent the rink, have a friend marry us in a super fast ceremony while in our game gear and play a game. swimwear sale

    one piece swimsuits With this in mind it worth asking about accommodation, as not all vacancies have available accommodation. You need to weigh up all aspects of university life when making your decision things like cost of living in that particular place, distance from home all the things you thought about when you made your initial choices. Have a look at this checklist.. What gets me down is the misanthropy. The utter hatred of your fellow citizens. If, for the sake of argument, we paint the divide with a broad brush and say that the right favors self centered policies and the left favors a greater good, what hope do we have when the side working for the greater good stops believing in it? For lack of a better phrase, I believe that the left is the only side that can be the bigger person one piece swimsuits.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use the <em>, <strong> and <blockquote> tags. Links have been disabled to combat spam.

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.

Authors

Subscribe Via Email

Affiliations