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The thought behind phrenology was that you could not ultimately change a person's psychological attributes and thus their impulses. One could, if anything, redirect the 'faulty' behaviour so that it could be used as something useful in society. Examples from phrenology texts asserted that if one had a homicidal impulse, this person would always have this impulse, however, if they were to find a station in society that could fulfill or satiate this impulse (such as a butcher or an executioner), such a person could possibly avoid committing the murder of a human being.
It is important to note that the subjects which phrenologists selected to measure the undesirable or dysfunctional traits were from poor areas that were known for high levels of crime. Inversely, when investigating the more desirable and functional traits they would measure the heads of people who were deemed high-achievers that had a respected station in life. This approach therefore carried much bias. There was no aspect of a 'double-blind study' and it was all too easy for phrenologists to look for confirmation of biases rather than to openly investigate actual causality of personality and morality.
So, are we much more advanced in our thinking today as to what governs human impulsivity? Well, sadly the answer is that not much has changed in the philosophy of modern neuroscience. In fact, many neuroscientists credit Dr. Gall as the founder for today's work on the human mind and brain.
For example, Proceedings of the 2013 National Academy of Sciences suggests that forecasting future criminal behaviour could become a reality in the near future. According to their study, they have found the first evidence that brain scans might be used to both predict who will be likely to commit a crime and also how long it will be before that person commits a crime. This prediction is based on the activity in a region of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex.
During the scan, subjects were asked to press a button in response to a stimulus on a screen, except when a certain symbol also appeared, in which case they were to refrain from pressing the button. It was found that criminals couldn't help but press the button either way, and that they were more impulsive than the average person. From these results, it was concluded that the part of their brain responsible for stopping an action may be deficient, that is, once an impulsive person gets started on a criminal action, even if they realise potential negative consequences, they cannot stop themselves.
Cannot stop themselves! Really think about the consequences of such a statement. If this is true, then there is no "salvation for the damned" so to speak. There is no possibility of redemption and no avoidance of one's own tragedy. Fate has been selected upon you at birth, and there is nothing you can do to avoid it or change that course. Free will, remorse and forgiveness are almost non-entities in this line of thought.
Let us look very briefly at another recent example. During the 1960s and 1970s, there was a popular thought that the abnormal XYY karyotype (where a male carries an extra Y chromosome) was believed to be the genetic cause for sociopaths and serial killers.
The Y chromosome is the male-determining chromosome; all men have XY chromosomes and all women have XX chromosomes. It was therefore thought that males who carried an extra Y (male) chromosome were more aggressive and had an increased impulsivity for extreme violence. However, it was discovered by the late 1970s that there was actually no basis for this association and that much of the "evidence" for this argument was from biased reports by scientists imposing links between actual physical traits and criminal behaviour they claimed was rooted in their XYY karyotype. In addition, the only males used in these studies with the XYY karyotype were already incarcerated. There were no investigations into males with the same karyotype who had not been incarcerated! After decades of 'analysis', the only trait that was conclusively found consistent in the XYY karyotype were that these men tended to be taller than the average male.
Despite there, to this date, never being any presentation of evidence confirming this theory of innately pre-determined impulsivity and morality, the idea that we can make predictions on someone's intelligence, personality and morality from biological material, is still believed in popular as well as academic science today.
We continue to feel secure in our non-bias approach to scientific investigation using these two modes of thought, apriori and a posteriori, and yet, we are not free of biased error even in recent history. There seems to be an almost over-ridding desire to have faith in the concretised conclusions that are formed from these two modes of investigation, despite the magnitude of error that has resulted. The same dilapidated hypothesis, is used in a never ending quest to search for results that will confirm a desired conclusion, despite its findings repeatedly indicating something contrary. It is as if the thought of choice in the matter were something too terrifying to seriously consider, and that it is much more comforting to believe that criminal traits must be something we can detect and categorise materially so that everyone else can feel at ease that they are indeed 'normal' and need not worry that they could ever commit actions of deviancy or destruction.
Thus, the question still stands: "Does an individual have a choice in whether they commit a crime?" This is where Poe's The Imp of the Perverse comes in.
The Imp of the Perverse
At the very beginning of the short story, we are confronted with the subject of the root of impulsivity, "the prima mobilia of the human soul". The narrator goes on to state that not only the moralists have failed in determining its cause, but so have the phrenologists:
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Cynthia Chung is a lecturer, writer and co-founder and editor of the Rising Tide Foundation (Montreal, Canada). She has lectured on the topics of Schiller's aesthetics, Shakespeare's tragedies, Roman history, the Florentine Renaissance among other subjects. She is a writer for (more...)