How Oscar Pistorius killed Reeva Steenkamp (innocent)

Perhaps I’ve been unfair to Oscar Pistorius. I thought I sensed emotional deception and—without really thinking—I reached for my Parabellum pen and blasted him with my invective. But what if he’s been telling the truth all along? Here I set out his emotional defence.

A theme of this blog, indeed the course to which it is linked, is that emotions are as much social as they are biochemical and neurological phenomena. The celebrity of the brain takes all the glory, but who we are, where we are and the society in which we live shape our experience of emotions. The brain mediates between the interior of our body and the exterior social world. It’s a social sense organ.

Pistorius is a young, white man living in Pretoria, South Africa. At the time of Reeva Steenkamp’s murder he was a respected and well-to-do celebrity athlete. He was widely admired for his courage and tenacity in overcoming his disability to become a world class athlete.

Post-apartheid South Africa is rife with violent crime, including murder and rape. Most of this crime occurs within and among the poor, and the poor are overwhelmingly black. Rich whites, the most fearful among South Africans, are actually the least endangered.

But that doesn’t stop them being afraid. We learn what to be fearful of and we learn how to react to it. We can be fearful of what is ‘out there’ and also what is ‘in here’, the memories, histories inside our head. Pistorius wasn’t just afraid of ‘an’ intruder, he was afraid of a black intruder.

The laager mentality of long-dead Afrikaners persists among some of these young men; they fear the threat of a nameless, faceless, armed and dangerous black intruder ‘out there’. In the spirit of those with no state to protect them, they feel honour-bound to defend ‘their’ women and family from the perceived threat, for rapes often accompany armed robbery and murder in South Africa. ‘I had to protect Reeva.’ Pistorius wouldn’t be the first white man to shoot family members thinking they were intruders.

This famous cartoon by Brian Duffy from 1985 helps illustrate how some white South Africans feel.

This famous cartoon by Brian Duffy from 1985 helps illustrate how some white South Africans feel.

These are the ingredients of chronic fear and constant vigilance. Every strange noise and unusual movement is regarded with suspicion. Instincts and reflexes are on a knife edge. Surrounded by an unseen but all-seeing enemy and fearing retribution for past wrongs, young men like Pistorius are inclined to get their retaliation in first and to act with an expectation of impunity. Having lost their legal superiority and entitlements, they feel morally entitled to shoot first and ask questions later just the same. This is the subtext to the Pistorius trial.

Presumably it was feelings such as these that led Pistorius to buy a home in the Silver Woods Country Estate, where he killed Reeva Steenkamp: a 90 acre gated community, protected by high walls, electric fencing, laser sensors, biometric locks; all overseen by closed-circuit cameras and security guards. This is where whites with money have taken refuge. The only black people in these gated communities are likely to be servants or security guards.

It might be thought that Pistorius would feel secure here. Crime was a rarity within the estate. But residents of such estates seek shelter there precisely because they are more aware of violent crime than the average South African. The objective risk to Pistorius had changed, reduced to negligible, but the ideas in his head and the twitchiness in his body hadn’t. As every soldier returning from battle knows, feelings of anxiety and fear can exist even though an individual is no longer in danger. Moreover, ‘they’ knew where he lived and that he was vulnerable. Gated communities are like islands. He was surrounded.

The fear defence was cleverly set out in his bail application affidavit: he shot Reeva in error, thinking she was an armed intruder and his life was in danger. It was an honest, though tragic, mistake. Some selected highlights (my emphasis):

I am acutely aware of violent crime being committed by intruders entering homes with a view to commit crime, including violent crime. I have received death threats before.

I heard a noise in the bathroom and realised that someone was in the bathroom.

I felt a sense of terror rushing over me.

I believed that someone had entered my house. I was too scared to switch a light on.

I grabbed my 9mm pistol from underneath my bed. On my way to the bathroom I screamed words to the effect for him/them to get out of my house and for Reeva to phone the police. It was pitch dark in the bedroom and I thought Reeva was in bed.

I noticed that the bathroom window was open. I realised that the intruder/s was/were in the toilet because the toilet door was closed and I did not see anyone in the bathroom. I heard movement inside the toilet. The toilet is inside the bathroom and has a separate door.

It filled me with horror and fear of an intruder or intruders being inside the toilet. I thought he or they must have entered through the unprotected window. As I did not have my prosthetic legs on and felt extremely vulnerable, I knew I had to protect Reeva and myself. I believed that when the intruder/s came out of the toilet we would be in grave danger. I felt trapped as my bedroom door was locked and I have limited mobility on my stumps.

I fired shots at the toilet door and shouted to Reeva to phone the police. She did not respond and I moved backwards out of the bathroom, keeping my eyes on the bathroom entrance. Everything was pitch dark in the bedroom and I was still too scared to switch on a light. Reeva was not responding.


He heard a noise, noise of a movement. This filled him with fear, a sense of terror and horror. He felt extremely vulnerable. He had to make some quick moral decisions. Their very lives depended on it. Isn’t this the very essence of Darwin’s position on the evolutionary value of emotions?

Every decision has its counterpart in the brain.  It combines information from different senses to create our perceptions of what is ‘out there’. A sound or a sight is really as much a function of our brains as our ears and eyes. And this brain was afraid, terrified, horrified. Fear makes the senses more sensitive. We don’t just hear a noise, we hear what the noise means, what it foretells. It is not what was objectively true that is paramount, but what he believed to be true. He shot at, not an intruder, but the noise behind the door, at the idea of the intruder.

Who are we to say different? Just as no two noses smell the same, no two people feel fear the same. And we weren’t there. Few of us get to feel that kind of fear.

Reduced to its simplest, his brain did it.  He was powerless to intervene. If he has some good neuroscientists standing by to provide expert testimony, this defence might just work.

[Thanks to Eben van Renen for his insights on life in South Africa today.]

Feeling Morally Responsible, or Not

At first, we call individual actions good or evil without any concern for their motives, but instead solely on account of their beneficial or harmful consequences.

We soon forget the origins of these designations and imagine that the quality “good” or “evil” inheres in the actions in themselves, without regard to their consequences: making the same error as when language describes the stone itself as hard, the tree itself as green—that is, by conceiving an effect as the cause.

Then we locate the good or evil in the motives and consider the acts themselves to be morally ambiguous.

We go further and no longer assign the predicate good or evil to the individual motive, but instead to the whole being of a person, from which the motive grows as does a plant from the soil.

Thus we make a person successively responsible for his effects, then for his actions, then for his motives and finally for his being.

We finally discover that even this entity cannot be responsible insofar as it is entirely a necessary consequence, a concretion of the elements and influences of past and present things: hence, that a person cannot be made responsible for anything, neither for his being, nor his motives, nor his actions, nor their effects.

F. Nietzsche. Human, All Too Human. Stanford University Press, 1995, pp. 47-48. (my emphasis)

Consequence → Actions → Motives → Whole Being → Past and Present Influences

To this list of receding moral responsibility we can now add ‘the Brain’. US courts see rise in defendants blaming their brains for criminal acts, The Guardian, November 10, 2013. Thank the ascendency of neuroscience and the celebrity of the brain for this.

Featured image: Andreas Vesalius, 1543 Source This image is worth thinking about.

Transparent brains reveal their secrets

This is interesting:

A team at Stanford University has made brains transparent, allowing entire networks of neurons to be highlighted and then viewed through an optical microscope. They claim that the technique works with other organs of the body.

The findings are published in Nature as Structural and molecular interrogation of intact biological systems (PDF). It’s not an easy read, but the images are colourful and illuminating. It ends with the claim that this technique ‘provides access to structural and molecular information that may help to support integrative understanding of large-scale intact biological systems’.

As an aside: ‘We’re heading into the centre of a mouse’s brain, into the hippocampus, where memories are formed‘. This statement is worthy of our attention.

And finally, just to remind ourselves that there’s more to a mouse than a brain, this is the sound of a deer mouse.

The human brain is a ‘scaled up primate brain’


Both of these headlines appeared in yesterday’s news:

Obama proposes brain mapping project

“As humans we can identify galaxies light years away, we can study particles smaller than the atom, but we still haven’t unlocked the mystery of the 3lb of matter that sits between our ears,” he said.

One in four Americans think Obama may be the antichrist, survey says

The study revealed that 13% of respondents thought Obama was “the antichrist”, while another 13% were “not sure” – and so were at least appeared to be open to the possibility that he might be. Some 73% of people were able to say outright that they did not think Obama was “the antichrist”.

I find the juxtaposition interesting.

Perhaps ‘we still haven’t unlocked the mystery of the 3 lb of matter that sits between our ears’ because the key to this ‘mystery’ does not lie within the brain but in its relationship to the rest of the body and to the social relations within which that body lives.

Speaking as a primate, let me tell you that humans consider their brains to be remarkable because they consider themselves to be the pinnacle of mammalian development and can only think that this must be due to their ‘remarkable’ brains. There is no truth in either assumption.

What follows is taken from the abstract and conclusion of just one of the many papers which question the celebrity status of the human brain:

“Neuroscientists have become used to a number of “facts” about the human brain: It has 100 billion neurons and 10- to 50-fold more glial cells; it is the largest-than-expected for its body among primates and mammals in general, and therefore the most cognitively able; it consumes an outstanding 20% of the total body energy budget despite representing only 2% of body mass because of an increased metabolic need of its neurons; and it is endowed with an overdeveloped cerebral cortex, the largest compared with brain size.

These facts led to the widespread notion that the human brain is literally extraordinary: an outlier among mammalian brains, defying evolutionary rules that apply to other species, with a uniqueness seemingly necessary to justify the superior cognitive abilities of humans over mammals with even larger brains.

These facts, with deep implications for neurophysiology and evolutionary biology, are not grounded on solid evidence or sound assumptions, however.

Our recent development of a method that allows rapid and reliable quantification of the numbers of cells that compose the whole brain has provided a means to verify these facts. Here, I review this recent evidence and argue that, with 86 billion neurons and just as many nonneuronal cells, the human brain is a scaled-up primate brain in its cellular composition and metabolic cost, with a relatively enlarged cerebral cortex that does not have a relatively larger number of brain neurons yet is remarkable in its cognitive abilities and metabolism simply because of its extremely large number of neurons.

Despite our ongoing efforts to understand biology under the light of evolution, we have often resorted to considering the human brain as an outlier to justify our cognitive abilities, as if evolution applied to all species except humans. Remarkably, all the characteristics that appeared to single out the human brain as extraordinary, a point off the curve, can now, in retrospect, be understood as stemming from comparisons against body size with the underlying assumptions that all brains are uniformly scaled-up or scaled-down versions of each other and that brain size (and, hence, number of neurons) is tightly coupled to body size. Our recently acquired quantitative data on the cellular composition of the human brain and its comparison to other brains, both primate and nonprimate, strongly indicate that we need to rethink the place that the human brain holds in nature and evolution, and to rewrite some basic concepts that are taught in textbooks. The human brain has just the number of neurons and nonneuronal cells that would be expected for a primate brain of its size, with the same distribution of neurons between its cerebral cortex and cerebellum as in other species, despite the relative enlargement of the former; it costs as much energy as would be expected from its number of neurons; and it may have been a change from a raw diet to a cooked diet that afforded us its remarkable number of neurons, possibly responsible for its remarkable cognitive abilities.

Suzana Herculano-Houzel. ‘The remarkable, yet not extraordinary, human brain as a scaled-up primate brain and its associated cost.’ Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. April 2012.

The Great Brain Experiment


This is Brain Awareness Week, so keep your wits about you.

The Brain Awareness Campaign is a worldwide celebration of the brain that brings together scientists, families, schools, and communities. Although Brain Awareness Week is officially March 11-17, 2013, there are many ways to get involved throughout the year. [Society for Neuroscience]

It’s Brain Awareness Week! The Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives would like to wish all BAW partners great success with their activities and efforts on behalf of the campaign. [The Dana Foundation]

You won’t be able to miss it. There’ll be lots of images of young people marvelling at simulated brains overlooked by smiling neuroscientists in white coats. In fact, everyone will be smiling and having fun. (Especially the neuro-marketers lurking in the shadows.)

Now, personally, I find this ‘celebration’ of the brain rather odd, bordering on the creepy. It goes without saying that it is just human brains that warrant this adoration. But how many human brains do you personally know that you would like to ‘celebrate’.

This cult of the brain is quite a recent development. It began on July 18th, 1990 with the announcement of the Decade of the Brain by George H.W. Bush, then President of the United States and ex-Director of the CIA.

There’s nothing wrong in trying to understand the brain, of course. But this is the blog of an inter-disciplinary course on emotions and so I approach ‘the brain’ in this light. Everything works together and we must try to understand the brain in the context of the entire body and that body in its social context. (I’ve written several posts on this so I’m not going to repeat myself here.] Achieving that takes some doing.

The Great Brain Experiment is a (free) mobile app:

Be part of a unique scientific experiment by playing games on your phone.

Test your memory, your impulsivity, your attention and decision making. Learn about the neuroscience of every day life.

You could, of course, test ‘your impulsivity, your attention and decision making’ by giving it a miss—for neuroscience tells us that these gadgets do nothing but harm to those—but I think the idea is that you download this thing and ‘play’ with it.

Why not have a go and tell me what it’s like. Test your impulsivity, attention and decision making further by following it on Twitter: Good luck.

One final point, following on yesterday’s post TWITTER EMPLOYEES MAPPED: HOW ARE THEY CONNECTED?, are we and our brains now just neurones in a vast collective brain that, for want of a better term, we call the ‘internet’?

Isn’t that where our memory now lies? We no longer remember things because the information is on the internet. In every sphere of activity, our intelligence is transferred to a computer. Who now knows how to read a map and use a compass, let alone read the sky and use a sextant? There’s an app for that.

Commit a crime and the police will ransack your mobile phone or computer, for there lies evidence not just of your movements but also of your thoughts, motives and intentions. Not only will that information be used to reveal what you have done, it can also be used to reveal what you are about to do.

Happy Brain Awareness Week

Rats and scientists send mixed messages

This blog’s refrain on the brain is that it is a mistake to abstract the brain from the rest of the body and to abstract that body from the social relations that keep it alive. Neuroscience, of course, does precisely this.

If you want to appreciate how neuroscience understands the brain, approach it from the reverse angle, i.e., from the perspective of the subjects of these experiments. In this case, rats.

In recent days, much has been made of some experiments conducted by scientists at Duke University in the USA and a university in Natal, Brazil. The following links give the details:

BBC News – One rat brain ‘talks’ to another using electronic link.

Brains of rats connected allowing them to share information via internet | Science |

Telepathy closer to becoming reality after rats’ brains ‘linked’ across continents

In essence, two rats in separate locations had electrodes attached to their brains and these electrodes were connected by a brain-to-brain interface (BYBI) which, in one part of the experiments, included the internet. The claim is that the rats shared ‘behaviourally meaningful sensorimotor information.’ This from the paper’s abstract:

In this BTBI, an “encoder” rat performed sensorimotor tasks that required it to select from two choices of tactile or visual stimuli. While the encoder rat performed the task, samples of its cortical activity were transmitted to matching cortical areas of a “decoder” rat using intracortical microstimulation (ICMS). The decoder rat learned to make similar behavioral selections, guided solely by the information provided by the encoder rat’s brain. These results demonstrated that a complex system was formed by coupling the animals’ brains, suggesting that BTBIs can enable dyads or networks of animal’s brains to exchange, process, and store information and, hence, serve as the basis for studies of novel types of social interaction and for biological computing devices. (A Brain-to-Brain Interface for Real-Time Sharing of Sensorimotor Information, Nature. Scientific Reports 3, Article number: 1319).

Cue speculation about cyborg rats, telepathic rats and rats ‘sharing information via internet’. Not so fast though. Let’s read the small print:

Animals assigned to the encoder group were implanted with recording arrays of 32 microelectrodes in the primary motor cortex and after recovery resumed the initial training scheme. Animals assigned to the decoder group were implanted with arrays of 4 to 6 microstimulation electrodes in the primary motor cortex and were further trained to associate the presence of electrical microstimulation pulses with the correct lever press. Extra training followed, with a sequence of 60 to 100 pulses indicating a correct choice in the right lever while the absence of microstimulation pulses (1 pulse) indicated a correct left lever choice. During the electrical microstimulation training phase a trial started with a brief period of white noise, followed by the electrical microstimulation cue. Immediately after this cue both LEDs were turned on. If a correct choice was made the reward port would open and the animal was allowed a brief period of access to water (300 ms), otherwise both LEDs were turned off and the intertrial interval started. (my emphasis)

No ‘information’ nor ‘thoughts’ were transmitted. Rather the receiver or encoder rat was ‘trained to associate the presence of electrical micro stimulation pulses with the correct lever press. Extra training followed …’

This does not prevent these scientists from claiming that this is a step towards the first ‘organic computer’.

The rat population can take care of itself, but what does all this tell us about the two-legged critters conducting these experiments?

There is no mention of these rats having emotions or feelings that might work in conjunction with their cognitions, as they do in humans. To understand that they’d have to forsake the celebrity of the brain and place it in its somatic and social context.

Nor is there recognition that rats are highly social animals and that their intelligence (their ‘brain’) is social too. That’s one reason they are one of the most successful mammals in the natural selection stakes and therefore the most numerous.

All this matters because what scientists first do to other animals they eventually do to us.