Stunted Trees and Broken Bridges

Written by Ben Musgrave / Produced by Theatre of Debate


After the death of his Mother, Emerson experiences volatile episodes, leading to his expulsion from school and ultimately a violent outburst . Despite Emersonʼs increasingly erratic behaviour and hostility, his girlfriend, Hayley, and sympathetic friend, Miles, continue to offer their support, encouraging him to seek help. Facing trial and becoming increasingly concerned about his inability to control his behaviour, Emerson reluctantly agrees to undergo a brain scan. This scan will determine if he has a brain abnormality and can therefore plead diminished responsibility in court. The outcome of the scan will govern his future, but how reliable is this new technology, and what are the consequences of using it in this way?

Set in the near future, Ben Musgrave’s haunting play, provides a starting point for debating the importance of brain research for the enrichment of human life and for the understanding of diseases and disorders of the nervous system.

Developed with the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, The Royal Society and supported by the Wellcome trust.


Focus: Ethical issues raised by advances in neurotechnoloy and neurojustice, brain, novel neurotechnologies. Identity, mental health and well being.

Audience: Young people (14 plus) and adults

Length: 59 minutes

Full Film: Available through Theatre of Debate, with subtitles by Stagetext

Resources: Available for teachers and students, science communicators and health workers



Set in the year 2017. The story revolves around a young man, Emerson, who begins to experience volatile episodes after the death of his mother. He is expelled from school after a violent outburst and then seriously assaults a rival when provoked.

Despite Emerson’s increasingly erratic behaviour and hostility, his girlfriend, Hayley, and sympathetic friend, Miles, continue to offer their support, encouraging him to seek help. Facing trial and becoming increasingly concerned about his inability to control his behaviour, Emerson reluctantly agrees to undergo a brain scan.

This scan will determine if he has a brain abnormality and can therefore plead diminished responsibility in court. The outcome of the scan will govern his future, but how reliable is this new technology, and what are the consequences of using it in this way?


Emerson: young and misunderstood, finds his aggressive nature has got him into serious trouble. He undergoes a brain scan to see if he can plead diminished responsibility.

Hayley: his girlfriend, brave, compassionate and in love with Emerson. She stands by him through the trial and begins to take an interest in neurotechnology.

Miles: weedy and cunning, befriends Hayley and Emerson for motives that at first seem unclear. He has a strong interest in science and the brain.

Jeannette: a forensic investigator, meets Emerson after he has committed a crime. She is part of the defence team that can plead diminished responsibility, but what consequences will this have for Emerson?

Useful Articles

The following four newspaper/web articles influenced our thinking as we created the project and, we hope, highlight a number of issues that underpin the learning opportunities presented by the play, debate and resources.

Brain scans should not be used in court… for now

The New Scientist – Jessica Hamzelou, contributor

Should an offender’s sentence be decided on the basis of a brain scan? A group of neuroscientists have put together a report for the Royal Society to assess this issue and other ways that progress in brain science might impact the law.

Neuroscience is already making waves in court: an Italian woman convicted of murder recently had her sentence reduced on the grounds that her behaviour could be explained by abnormalities in her brain and genes.

The authors on the Royal Society panel, led by Nicholas Mackintosh of the University of Cambridge, also flag up research that suggests the brains of psychopaths are fundamentally different. This raises the question: should individuals with the brain anatomy of a psychopath have their sentence reduced on the ground of diminished responsibility, or should brain scan evidence be used to keep dangerous individuals locked away?

Perhaps one day we may also be able to find neurological clues that help predict whether a criminal is likely to reoffend. The report only goes so far as to suggest that such information may be useful in conjunction with other evidence.

Another key issue is that of the age of criminal responsibility. In England, the age at which a child can be tried as an adult is ten – this is too low, say the report’s authors.

Recent research into brain development suggests that crucial brain regions – such as the prefrontal cortex, which is important in decision making and impulse control – don’t actually finish maturing until the age of around 20.

Neuroscientists claim to be able to identify certain patterns of brain activity that are associated with lying, a finding that has raised the possibility of brain scan-based lie detection. But many remain skeptical that such an approach can ever be useful in the legal setting.

Lie detection research is often based on students telling untruths that are unlikely to have any impact on their lives – a situation that’s difficult to compare to a criminal who might be lying for his life, not to mention that of a cunningly deceptive psychopath. Moreover, as the report points out, if such lie detection were possible, it wouldn’t detect when a person was telling a falsehood they believed was true, or whether a person had learned how to trick the system.

“In one experiment, the success rate for distinguishing truth from lies dropped from 100 per cent to 33 per cent when participants used countermeasures,” say the authors. They conclude that “for the foreseeable future reliable fMRI lie detection is not a realistic prospect.”

In the same vein, attempts to measure the amount of pain that a person is in – perhaps to catch people who cheat on health insurance payouts – could also be foiled by individuals who learn how to simulate the brain activity associated with the experience of pain, the authors say.

And then there’s that old chestnut: “my brain made me do it”. In some cases it seems the argument can be made. For one man, paedophilic tendencies appeared and disappeared with a tumour in his orbitofrontal cortex – a region linked to judgement and social behaviour.

Most cases aren’t so clear cut. The report concludes by recommending that neuroscientists and lawyers from around the globe meet to discuss the latest in each discipline once every three years.

In the meantime, the authors recommend that the legal system consult with groups such as the British Neuroscience Association to assess how lawyers currently access scientific expertise. The authors also reckon it would be useful for law degrees to include some background in neuroscience, and for neuroscientists in training to consider the societal applications of their science.

This article was originally published in the New Scientist, 13 December 2011

Brain scan could prevent Abu Hamza’s extradition

Brain scan could prevent could prevent Abu Hamza’s extradition, the high court reserved judgement on a plea by radical cleric Abu Hamza who is fighting extradition to the US to have further medical tests.

His QC said a brain scan could establish that he is unfit to plead and should not be extradited to face trial on terrorism charges.

Alun Jones QC told two judges in London that Hamza’s health is “deteriorating” and he is suffering from long-term depression, inability to concentrate and short-term memory loss.

Sir John Thomas, President of the Queen’s Bench Division, said the court would give its ruling at a later date.

Hamza is one of five terror suspects who have launched last-ditch legal challenges after the European Court of Human Rights refused to stop their US extradition.

Lawyers for the 54-year-old former imam at Finsbury Park mosque in north London are asking Sir John and Mr Justice Ouseley to continue an injunction preventing extradition, pending tests recommended by two doctors.

Mr Jones said the application was not “a device” to avoid removal. Hamza is suffering from longstanding clinical depression as a result of being held for more than eight years in “harsh, utterly unacceptable conditions” in the high-security unit at Belmarsh prison in south-east London.

Mr Jones said a scan could establish whether he is suffering from some organic, degenerative condition affecting his ability to concentrate on legal proceedings, and thus his fitness to plead.

This article was originally published in the Scotsman 12th October 2012

Guilty, but not responsible?

Monsters are born, not made: the latest round in the debate about criminal responsibility questions the very existence of intuitive morality.

Rosalind English for the UK Human Rights Blog, part of the Guardian Legal Network.

The US neuroscientist Sam Harris claims in a new book that free will is such a misleading illusion that we need to rethink our criminal justice system on the basis of discoveries coming from the neurological wards and MRI scans of the human brain in action.

The physiologist Benjamin Libet famously demonstrated in the 1980s that activity in the brain’s motor regions can be detected some 300 milliseconds before a person feels that he has decided to move. Subjects were hooked up to an EEG machine and were asked to move their left or right hand at a time of their choosing. They watched a specially designed clock to notice what time it was when they were finally committed to moving their left or right hand. Libet measured the electrical potentials of their brains and discovered that nearly half a second before they were aware of what they were going to do, he was aware of their intentions. Libet’s findings have been borne out more recently in direct recordings of the cortex from neurological patients. With contemporary brain scanning technology, other scientists in 2008 were able to predict with 60% accuracy whether subjects would press a button with their left or right hand up to 10 seconds before the subject became aware of having made that choice (long before the preparatory motor activity detected byLibet).

Clearly, findings of this kind are difficult to reconcile with the sense that one is the conscious source of one’s actions. The discovery that humans possess a determined will has profound implications for moral responsibility. Indeed, Harris is even critical of the idea that free will is “intuitive”: he says careful introspection can cast doubt on free will. In an earlier book on morality, Harris argues

Thoughts simply arise in the brain. What else could they do? The truth about us is even stranger than we may suppose: The illusion of free will is itself an illusion (The Moral Landscape)

But a belief in free will forms the foundation and underpinning of our enduring commitment to retributive justice. The US supreme court has called free will a “universal and persistent” foundation for our entire system of law.

Implications for the criminal justice system

Any scientific developments that threatened our notion of free will would seem to put the ethics of punishing people for their bad behaviour in question. In Free Will Harris debates these ideas and asks whether or not, given what brain science is telling us, criminal justice, in focusing on retribution, rests on an entirely false basis. An example he gives is a murderer who kills because of a brain tumour. This person is a victim, not a criminal. The tumour is the cause of his crimes. People imagine that the normal brain is a different story. But in fact the study of any criminal brain, says Harris, is the equivalent of finding a tumour in it – the wrong genes being transcribed, the brain being dictated by events over which he has no control. Human choice, says Harris, is as important as fanciers of free will believe. But the next choice you make will come out of the darkness of prior causes that you, the conscious witness of your experience, did not bring into being.

Clearly we need to lock up dangerous people. But there is no sense to the idea that they somehow deserve it. Retributive justice is like requiring us to hate, as well as shoot, a wild animal who escapes from the zoo. His short book opens with an account of an horrific crime that mesmerised America with its cruelty – the home invasion in Connecticut by two men in 2007. Two career criminals first brutally bludgeoned the father (the only survivor), then raped and murdered the mother, and finally killed the two young daughters when they set the house on fire. As one reviewer says,

Harris gives voice to most everyone’s worry when he writes that, without (contra-causal) free will, monsters like these men are “nothing more than poorly calibrated clockwork,” and therefore they aren’t really responsible for their actions. They’re just damaged goods.

Speaking on an WNYC interview, Harris explains that the brain precedes a motor plan before our consciousness of our planning of it, even while we think we’re still free to decide which way to go.

You can’t really take credit for your unconscious predelict. This reaches back into everything we think and do and decide. There is no place in which we can say, the buck stops here. The buck just never stops. Your wants themselves emerge out of a wilderness of causes which you yourself cannot inspect. The only tools at your disposal are those which you inherit from your past. There are certain things about morality and about the legal system which do shift when you take on board that there is no free will.

The evolutionary biologist Stephen Pinker reminds us that our sense of justice tells us that where someone commits a crime, the perpetrator’s culpability depends not just on the harm done but on their mental state, what any first year law student knows is the mens rea, the subjective state of intentionality prerequisite to establishing criminal liability. In his recent study of the decline of violence in human history, he gives the following example:

Suppose a woman kills her husband by putting rat poison in his tea. Our decision as to whether to send her to the electric chair very much depends on whether the container she spooned it out of was mislabelled DOMINO SUGAR or correctly labelled D-CON: KILLS RATS – that is, whether she knew she was poisoning him and wanted him dead, or it was all a tragic accident. A brute emotional reflex to the actusreus, the bad act (“She killed her husband! Shame!”) could trigger an urge for retribution regardless of her intention. (The Better Angels of our Nature: Ch8, Inner Demons, p 547)

This type of retributive impulse of course we all condemn as unpardonable in civilised society. But if we follow Harris’s argument to its logical conclusion, the correct label should no more condemn the murderer to retribution than the misleading one, for the proclivity to do harm is at large, and is in no wise governed by rational choices immediately preceding the actusreus. He is not making a case for exculpation on the basis of identifiable brain lesions or particular genetic mutations, which the psychologist Harold Schechter showed were notably absent from all the notorious subjects of his authoritative compendium The Serial Killer Files.

Are we really rational actors?

Where does this leave human rights? Harris’ prescription for rethinking criminal justice may lead to a compassionate outcome: the criminal cannot help himself, restrain him but don’t hate him; but let us remind ourselves of the first provision of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, endorsed in 1948 by forty-eight countries:

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

But if we cannot even be sure that our conscious minds can dictate the movement of our own limbs, how can we direct the whole macro-organism to behave in a civilised manner to the rest of the world, because some international agreement tells us to? By breaching the boundaries between scientific facts and human values, Sam Harris argues convincingly that most people are simply mistaken about the relationship between morality and the rest of human knowledge. Instead of bowing to secular but quasi-biblical commandments such as the UN Declaration, the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and so on, we would do better to think about morality in terms of human and animal well-being, viewing the experiences of conscious creatures as peaks and valleys in what Harris calls a “moral landscape.” As the abstract of his exploration of morality proposes, there will be a time when science will no longer limit itself to merely describing what people do in the name of “morality”; in principle, science should be able to tell us what we ought to do to live the best lives possible.

This article was originally published in the Guardian Tuesday 29 May 2012

This is your brain on neural implants

Are you still you if devices improve your memory, attention span, and other cognitive skills?
By Ray Kurzweil|Posted Friday, Nov. 16, 2012, at 8:32 AM ET

You are in the future with technologies more advanced than today’s. While you are sleeping, some group scans your brain and picks up every salient detail. Perhaps they do this with blood-cell–sized scanning machines traveling in the capillaries of your brain or with some other suitable noninvasive technology, but they have all of the information about your brain at a particular point in time. They also pick up and record any bodily details that might reflect on your state of mind, such as the endocrine system. They instantiate this “mind file” in a nonbiological body that looks and moves like you and has the requisite subtlety and suppleness to pass for you. In the morning you are informed about this transfer and you watch your mind clone, whom we’ll call You 2. You 2 is talking about his or her life as if s/he were you, and relating how s/he discovered that very morning that s/he had been given a much more durable new version 2.0 body. “Hey, I kind of like this new body!” s/he exclaims.

If you were to, uh, disappear, no one would notice. You 2 would go around claiming to be you. All of your friends and loved ones would be content with the situation and perhaps pleased that you now have a more durable body and mind. Maybe your more philosophically minded friends would express concerns, but for the most part, everybody would be happy, including you, or at least the person who is convincingly claiming to be you.

So we don’t need your old body and brain anymore, right? OK if we dispose with it?

You’re probably not going to go along with this. Your sense of identity is still with you, not with You 2. Our conclusion? You 2 is conscious but is a different person than you—You 2 has a different identity. S/he is extremely similar, much more so than a mere genetic clone, because s/he also shares all of your neocortical patterns and connections. Or I should say s/he shared those patterns at the moment s/he was created. At that point, the two of you started to go your own ways, neocortically speaking. You are still around. You are not having the same experiences as You 2. Bottom line: You 2 is not you.

Now consider another thought experiment—one that is, I believe, more realistic in terms of what the future will bring. You undergo a procedure to replace a very small part of your brain with a nonbiological unit. This is not so far-fetched, as it is done routinely for people with neurological and sensory impairments, such as the neural implant for Parkinson’s disease and cochlear implants for the deaf. As promised, the procedure works just fine—certain of your capabilities have improved. (You have a better memory, perhaps.) So are you still you? There is no good argument that you’re suddenly a different person.

Encouraged by these results, you now decide to have another procedure, this time involving a different region of the brain. The result is the same: You experience some improvement in capability, but you’re still you. You keep opting for additional procedures, your confidence in the process only increasing, until eventually you’ve changed every part of your brain. Each time the procedure was carefully done to preserve all of your neocortical patterns and connections so that that you have not lost any of your personality, skills, or memories. There was never a you and a You 2; there was only you.

Our conclusion: You still exist. There’s no dilemma here. Everything is fine.

Except for this: You, after the gradual replacement process, are entirely equivalent to You 2 in the prior thought experiment (which I will call the scan-and-instantiate scenario). You, after the gradual replacement scenario, have all of the neocortical patterns and connections that you had originally, only in a nonbiological substrate, which is also true of You 2 in the scan-and-instantiate scenario. You, after the gradual replacement scenario, have some additional capabilities and greater durability than you did before the process, but this is likewise true of You 2 in the scan-and-instantiate process.

We naturally undergo a gradual replacement process. Most of our cells in our body are continually being replaced. (You just replaced 100 million of them in the course of reading the last sentence.) Cells in the inner lining of the small intestine turn over in about a week. The life span of white blood cells range from a few days to a few months, depending on the type. Neurons persist, but their organelles and their constituent molecules turn over within a month. So you are completely replaced in a matter of months. Are you the same person you were a few months ago? Certainly there are some differences. Perhaps you learned a few things. But you assume that your identity persists, that you are not continually destroyed and recreated.

Fundamentally, we are not the stuff that makes up our bodies and brains. These particles essentially flow through us in the same way that water molecules flow through a river. We are a pattern that changes slowly but has stability and continuity, even though the stuff comprising the pattern changes quickly. The gradual introduction of nonbiological systems into our bodies and brains will be just another example of the continual turnover of parts that comprise us. It will not alter the continuity of our identity any more than the natural replacement of our biological cells do. We have already largely outsourced our historical, intellectual, social, and personal memories to our devices and the cloud. The devices we interact with to access these memories will become smaller and smaller, making their way into our bodies. It will be a useful place to put them—we won’t lose them that way. And in the coming years, we will continue on the path of the gradual replacement and augmentation scenario until ultimately most of our thinking will be in the cloud.

From How To Create a Mind. © Ray Kurzweil, 2012.

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