Sleeping Psyche…

7 06 2009

I have recently been pestered by a friend about keeping a constant stream of fresh posts going on this blog. In my defence, I have found myself a bit stretched for time, and, in all honesty, more than a little bored by the whole ‘corrupt politicians and broken democracy’ thing. Anyway, while searching for ideas for something to write about and thus appease my friend, I thought back to what I had seen and heard recently. My working hours mean that I now get to listen to Radio 2’s Jeremy Vine show at lunchtimes, and this provides a certain level of intellectual stimulus.

Over the course of the last week there was a piece on this story. At the time I remember thinking that it was an interesting thing, with the potential to set a whole new legal precedent. Indeed, the commentator with whom Vine was talking admitted that the most savvy of defence lawyers would be able to use the implications of the ruling as a way of saving their clients.

For those of you too lazy to read the story, the basics are that a 33 year old woman was acquitted of attempted murder of her mother on the grounds that she was sleepwalking, and thus completely unconcious whilst she held the pillow over her screaming mother’s face.  It was only after her mother had freed herself from her daughter that the sleepwalker awoke, remembering nothing of the events that had just transpired.

As the discussion pressed on, there was the issue of psychology which was mentioned, but it was only in passing. This was, I thought, a more interesting element to the discussion. It was suggested that for the action to be undertaken in the first place, there must be some deep, dark element that had considered the action in the first place. Thus, if this is the case, surely there could be some charge relating to intent brought to bear against the woman?

I’m no psychologist, so I admit to knowing little about how the brain works during sleep, and the various triggers which impact upon sleepwalkers actions, but I do find it fascinating that there is the possibility that the actions of a sleepwalker are in some way representative of the innermost psyche of the person. The question is, would it be right to prosecute someone for thinking about something, even if they had no intention of carrying it out?

I’m suddenly concious that this is crossing into the realms of 1984 or Minority Report, but it is an interesting ponderable. If the actions of a sleepwalker reflect their own thoughts, concious or otherwise, would it be right to slap the cuffs on them and put them into jail? After all, they would have done something, in this case it was unconcious attempted murder. The thing that is missing is the intent, but if the point is maintained, the intent is there on some level. British law is regulated by the word ‘intent’, most prosecutors have to clearly show that there was a level of intent for the judge to agree. If intent is missing, the defendant would most likely be treated for mental problems, and housed securely in a home.

Personally though, I’m not convinced by this. I believe that in the case of the sleepwalking pillow smotherer, you cannot simply assume that intent would be present in some subconcious form and thus prosecute. There is one thing which is preventing such a thing happening, and this thing is medical knowledge. At present, we know very little about the complexities of the human brain. We know that no two people are ever the same, and that there is only a vague, broad set of generalisations that we can make about how the brain actually works. It is for precisely this reason that we cannot rationalise the actions of an unconcious sleepwalker, and therefore why we cannot convict someone for attempted murder with the absence of intent. If we could comprenhensively explain how the brain works, how various levels of thought work, how memory, or speech work, then perhaps it is more likely that we could begin to consider prosecution without intent. However, despite the advances that are being made, this is a very long way away. The judge got it right, and the case was thrown out. The implications of such a case in legal circles remains to be seen.

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