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The Brain and the Legal Ramifications Involving Responsibility

Some individuals’ chemical make-up is more susceptible to alcohol induced memory loss. In the legal system there is much emphasis put on the idea of “responsibility”. The term mens rea, or guilty mind is a key component relating to actus reus, which is the guilty act. If there is an absence of mens rea regarding an individual who has, indeed, committed a guilty act, the criminal justice system will often entertain a plea of “insanity” or “diminished capacity”. Those people who suffer from a “proven” medical condition by which their brain functioning is impaired often will accept these pleas and, arguably, have a right to do so. If brain functionality is altered to a point by which the individual is unable to recognize that his/her “act” was illegal, the system accepts the medical communities assessment that they should not be held to the same level of accountability as those who do not suffer from any diminished mental capacity. In extreme cases, defendants may utilize the defense of “automatism” – which stipulates that there was no conscious control at the time of the crime and as a result, according to “legal” terminology, there is an absence of actus reus – a guilty act. In such cases, as with the affliction of “night terror”, the defendant is acquitted of all charges.

While “automatism” is rarely used in court cases, “diminished capacity” and insanity are fairly common. Again, the emphasis is on “responsibility” – was the defendant aware of what he or she was doing at the time of the commission of the crime. While all the legal implications of this defense are beyond this writer’s sphere of knowledge, the idea of responsibility resonates in the area of alcoholism and drug addiction. The well-known reality of the “black out” drinking phenomena speaks directly to this idea of responsibility and diminished capacity. Years ago, in a community of hard drinking blue collar workers, a friend, who would go out drinking four or five nights a week, would wake in the mornings and call me and other friends to ask what he had done the previous night. It became a regular routine. He would tell me the last thing he remembered (usually up to 10pm) and I would fill in the 3-4 hours that occurred before he somehow managed to get home. In conversations when he was sober, I would express my skepticism regarding his total lack of memory, as I would relate some of the “outrageous” behavioral patterns exhibited in his “blackout” state. Over time, however, I became convinced that he was sincere – he had NO recollection of events that occurred when he was in his “black outs”. At the time, I would emphasize to him that he was still responsible for his actions since he was “choosing” to drink excessively (despite the fact that others would drink the same amounts and have total, albeit, fuzzy, recall). Evidence now, however, is stipulating that the “black out” phenomenon has specific medical implications and that there are differences among individuals regarding the impact that alcohol has on memory. In other words, there is the possibility that specific neurological “issues” afflict some individuals differently. The chemical make-up of certain brains is more susceptible to alcohol induced memory loss than others.

The implications are interesting. Just as those individuals who suffer from “night terrors” have altered functionality in their brains, it would appear that the “black-out” drinker has alterations as well. Of course, the comparison is not completely fair; “black-outs” cannot occur without the alcohol while “night terrors” are related to natural need for sleep. Plus, the legal implications will always point out that there was a “choice” involved in so far as the drinking was concerned as opposed to the lack of “choice” regarding the need for sleep. But it does speak to the “level” of responsibility for those who continue to drink despite their recurring blackouts. Undoubtedly, blackouts are a clear indication of a possible drinking “problem” and anyone experiencing such phenomena would be well advised to review their drinking habits and consider treatment programs should they be unable to address the problem on their own. Continued blackouts will inevitably impact aspects of an individual’s life and a failure to seriously review the habits and underlying causes of a drinking pattern that allows for continued blackouts could have dire consequences. But the neurological implications of the specifics regarding the “blackout” are further evidence of the complexity of the human brain and the need for continued neuroscience research. Blackouts may not be high on the neuroscientist’s agenda, but it will hopefully become more prevalent so that the concerns of blackout drinking can move beyond the lighthearted dismissiveness of such films as “The Hangover”.  

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