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26 March 2015

The neuroscience of Jeremy Clarkson

If humans can’t control themselves, they cannot be allowed the freedoms others enjoy: humans learn self-control, she says, in the same way that toddlers learn to control their bladders.

By Michael Brooks

The great Jeremy Clarkson drama is, at heart, a question of neuroscience. Can our brains, formed and tweaked over millions of years, adjust to modern times? Or are we doomed to let their ancient structures rule for ever?

Perhaps it helps to compare Clarkson to Sims, the central character in Jennifer Haley’s brilliant play The Nether. Both are accused of an ongoing series of only vaguely defined transgressions. Both are largely unrepentant. They consider themselves to be beneficent figures: they provide pleasure and entertainment, albeit of a kind that is frowned on by many. Neither see grounds for criminal proceedings: it is the tenor of their lives and their general proclivities that the authorities seek to rein in.

The difference is that Sims is an entrepreneurial paedophile. In The Nether, the internet has become a fully immersive experience, gratifying all the senses. Sims has created a virtual world where customers’ avatars are free to have sex with childlike avatars – and even slay them with an axe, if they wish.

Is this wrong? It is an unsettling question for the audience, especially since the set makes the online world an immersive experience for them, too. The online children are not real; they are the online personas of consenting adults. No one is physically hurt. The uncomfortable truth is that we have no rules for how virtual adults should behave, even towards virtual children. Technology has already outrun the evolution of our morals.

Sims exploits this. His creation, he says, mitigates against people with his proclivities offending in the real world. Their brains make them do these things, he says. He is merely providing an alternative path of action. Does he have a point? The scientific literature certainly associates paedophilia with specific abnormalities in the brain. In 2003, the Archives of Neurology reported the case of a man whose brain tumour had caused him to start sexually molesting his eight-year-old stepdaughter. When the tumour was removed, his sexual interest disappeared.

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This month, German researchers have reported that there is “growing evidence that paedophilia is linked to both structural and functional brain abnormalities”. One of those abnormalities is in the areas of the brain that deal with impulse control. The question is, does that make us any less inclined to condemn behaviour when those impulses are acted upon?

It seems not. The American neuroscientist and philosopher Patricia Churchland puts it like this: “An explanation is not an excuse.” If humans can’t control themselves, they cannot be allowed the freedoms others enjoy: humans learn self-control, she says, in the same way that toddlers learn to control their bladders.

This brings us back to Clarkson. Top Gear creates a virtual experience for those who have learned to control their bladders but not their impulses to do (or watch) silly or dangerous things. The programme’s appeal is often described as adolescent – and with good neuroscientific reason: in teenagers, the frontal lobes are not yet fully connected. These are the structures responsible for assessing consequences and making judgements. The Clarkson issue is about whether this half-formed physiology and the appeal of its world-view can justifiably be exploited and enjoyed by adults.

Now, though, someone has allegedly been physically hurt. The incident invokes ancient brain structures that flood us with deep-rooted but possibly anachronistic moral certitudes. We, the audience, are left in turmoil and yet utterly compelled to watch as the BBC’s moral dilemma plays out. Having had its way with Jeremy Clarkson for so long, should the corporation now control that impulse towards the axe?

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