One of the leading pioneers in brain plasticity research visited San Quentin to promote his idea for criminal brain system reform.
Dr. Michael Merzenich, professor emeritus at the University of California in San Francisco, told Mount Tamalpais College students that the criminal justice system doesn’t pay enough attention to how the human brain operates.
“Our justice system is neurologically brain dead,” said Merzenich.
The doctor is the author of several books, including Soft Wired: How the New Science of Brain Plasticity Can Change Your Life. “It’s not right to judge everybody by the same rules neurologically,” he said.
Merzenich is the founder of Brain HQ by Posit Science, a program that teaches people how to train their brains. He made significant contributions to the cochlear implant that helps people recover language and sound recognition.
In 2016, Dr. Merzenich was awarded one of the world’s top neuroscience prizes, the Kavli prize, for his achievement in the field of brain plasticity. He also received numerous other awards in his field including the Russ prize, Zulch prize and the Thomas Alva Edison Patent Award.
Merzenich holds more than one hundred patents and has been quoted in over one hundred books.
According to Dr. Merzenich, the justice system is a failure because it fails to identify neurologically struggling youth before throwing them into jails or prisons. It also fails to take an offender’s backstory into account.
“No one is more in need of help in America than those millions of individuals identified as offenders by the American criminal justice system,” he said.
To emphasize his point, Merzenich shared the story of his best friend, Lyle Wildes. Wildes was physically abused by his father as a child. Merzenich said this abuse amplified Wildes’ inability to care about others. Wildes came close to killing his own father and ended up spending 23 years in prison for his violence.
“What does your brain have to do with breaking bad,” he asked the 30 Mt. Tamalpais College students in attendance.
Merzenich said Wildes suffered from a serious brain injury as a result of the beatings he took from his father. During his time in prison, Wildes was able to get on the road to recovery and is now free, working to help others. He is also co-writing a book with Merzenich that is set to be released in 2023.
“It’s not the child’s fault if he grows up to commit a felony,” said Merzenich.
The neuroscientist doesn’t agree with using prisons. He thinks children should be taught to understand how their brain functions.
“Society is at fault for its failure to understand or try to understand the human brain before the disaster,” he said. “We as a society wait for the disaster before trying to understand.”
The doctor shared four important lessons about brain functioning with the students. One, many factors can arise in life that actively degrade brain performance and health. Two, putting the brain on idle will distort its experiences. “We are constructed to be engaged,” he said.
The other two points Merzenich made are commonly understood today by many. The brain grows in power like the body and should be exercised through continuous learning. Lastly, the brain rewires itself and affects physical and chemical things happening in the body.
“Whether you’re 30 years old or 70 years old, you can still learn at the same rate,” said Merzenich. But he pointed out that the processes that control brain plasticity are all reversible.
“Within your brain, in your lifetime, are approximately 4 quadrillion moments of change in which your brain is defining you. We are a continuous work in progress,” the doctor said.
Merzenich believes the justice system should restructure prisons as brain healing centers. Courts should sentence youth and young adults to complete a series of healing center classes. The system should find out what the neurological disorder is and sentence the person to correction of the disorder.
He pointed out that hundreds of vicissitudes in life can add to brain struggles. For example, physical abuse of a child causes setbacks to neurological health.
“Addiction is a brain failure,” Merzenich said.
According to the doctor, getting rid of addictions, obsessions, PTSD, and reactive violence should be the focus. “We should work to weaken the neurological stronghold these things have on people,” he said. Successful completion of the healing center program should justify removal of the felony from the trainee’s record, according to Merzenich.
The neuroscientist said that police officers should be trained to understand the deeper origins of human behavior. He also pointed out that correctional officers are being damaged in some of the same ways as the incarcerated.
“The average lifespan of a correctional officer is only 64 years old,” he said. Merzenich attributes this to the highly stressful conditions of the job and what that does to the human body, along with an unhealthy lifestyle.
Many factors come into play, he said, but the difference between life outcomes is the difference between the amount of positive and negative reinforcement factors that come into play in a person’s life.
“I exercise my brain by having a life of continuous learning, and I do brain exercises on my computer,” said Merzenich.