April 24, 2007
Brain Scans To Pose Ethical Questions On Preemption Of Crimes?

Brain scans show that psychopaths are not like the rest of us in how their brains work.

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), researchers in the United States, Germany, and elsewhere have started taking scans of the brains of psychopaths while the patients view horrific images, such as photographs of bloody stabbings, shootings, or evisceration. When normal people view these images, fMRI scans light up to indicate heavy brain activity in sections of the emotion-generating limbic system, primarily the amygdala, which is believed to generate feelings of empathy. But in psychopathic patients, these sections of the amygdala remain dark, showing greatly reduced activity or none at all. This phenomenon, known as limbic underactivation, may indicate that some of these people lack the ability to generate the basic emotions that keep primitive killer instincts in check.

Should we use information from brain scans and other measurement methods to identify people to preemptively target before they commit crimes? Some day scientific measures will probably allow us to calculate different odds for each person on whether the person will kill or rape or molest children or otherwise violate the rights of others. How should we use the future ability to perform those odds calculations? I think the answer depends on a number of factors:

1) The cost of the preemptive action for us and those who feel its effects.

2) The efficacy of the preemptive action. How much would a given preemptive action reduce the odds of a person from committing rape, assault, theft, etc.

3) The avoided costs of whatever might be prevented. The costs depend on the potential crime(s) that a given person has a propensity to commit. But then what price tag to put on, say, a rape avoided?

4) The accuracy of the odds prediction. How high would the odds and the accuracy of the odds have to be to make you think the odds warrant action by the state against a currently innocent person?

5) The costs of identification of threats. Brain scans, blood tests, gene tests, and other tests will cost money to perform.

What sorts of preemptive actions to use? I can think of a lot of actions aside from preemptive imprisonment: For example:

A) Talk therapy. But would it help?

B) Drugs or other treatments that reduce violent behavior. Note that the power of these treatments will go up as biotechnology and medicine advance.

C) Exile. This can be from a country or a region or specific neighborhoods. For example, imagine an island to ship potential pedophiles to where there are no children.

D) Tracking bracelets. For example, track when a potential pedophile goes near a playground or school. Or track when a potential murderer is parked along a street at night watching.

E) Warn the neighbors. That way they can arm and otherwise protect themselves appropriately.

F) Outlaw the creation of offspring that carry genes that'll make them high risks to become murderers, rapists, etc. This intervention requires the existence of technology for offspring genetic engineering. That technology will come in 10 or at most 20 years.

Are you philosophically opposed to all preemption guided by the results of brain scans, genetic tests, and other methods of measurement? Or do you see it as valuable and worthwhile under some circumstances?

Share |      Randall Parker, 2007 April 24 11:10 PM  Brain Ethics Law

Wolf-Dog said at April 25, 2007 6:30 AM:

It is almost certain that there will be more invasion of mental privacy in the distant future, regardless of who becomes the government. But it is worth noting that instead of forcing private citizens to take such advanced personality tests, it might be more to the point to require politicians to take such tests to make their character publicly known. For one thing, most top Nazi leaders had very high IQ scores (this is known because after the Nazi war criminals were arrested, one of the first things the Americans did was to give them intelligence tests), and most of these Nazis did not have criminal records. In fact, the manipulator Joseph Goebbels had a PhD in philosophy. If such tests had existed and administered in Germany, then the Nazis were not going to come to power. In fact, the worst suffering in the world is not caused by ordinary criminals; the concentration camps were built by respectable people who had secret destructive inclinations.

And especially in this century science is becoming so advanced that it will become possible for a small group of intelligent people to destroy the world, if these normal looking people are able to hide their intentions. And it is the less intelligent criminals who are not smart enough to hide their intentions, the most dangerous ones look normal and even very popular. For this reason it may be necessary to force government officials to prove that they are not destructive. Since only those who WANT to run for public office, there is no invasion of privacy for ordinary citizens; only for those who have the ambition to become government officials.

TOM said at April 25, 2007 7:36 AM:

"C) Exile. This can be from a country or a region or specific neighborhoods. For example, imagine an island to ship potential pedophiles to where there are no children."

You could call those places, "Pedoph Isles"!

Kurt9 said at April 25, 2007 9:00 AM:


There was an SF novel that dealt with these exact issues that came out in 1990. It is "Queen of Angels", written by Greg Bear (back when he was good). The novel takes place mostly in SoCal, where the standard procedure for treating criminals is called "therapy" (which is a form of nanotech based enhancement to modify the neurostructures responsible for sociopathy.

rsilvetz said at April 25, 2007 11:03 AM:

Dystopian techno-fascism at its scary best.

Propensity be damned. You cannot commit/imprison/surveil an innocent because of a damn fMRI or any other damn test. It undermines one of the most crucial advances of freedom of the last 500 years -- the presumption of innocence.

If you want to prevent rape, teach women aikido and make sure they accessorize with lethal weapons, namely the Great Equalizer -- a good gun.

Speaking of guns, you want to collapse crime rates? Just make Vermon Carry the explicit Law of the Land.

There. No pyschopath problem. And noones rights are violated.

Kelly Parks said at April 25, 2007 11:06 AM:

This reminds me of a line from the movie "The Terminal Man" (great 70's sci-fi, based on a novel by Michael Crichton). One doctor comments on their violence-prone patient by saying, "No one ever thinks of these people as physically ill." The patient in question isn't a psychopath, but after a head injury he began having violent episodes caused by para-epilepsy. They implant a computer in his brain that detects oncoming seizures and halts them with a jolt to his pleasure center.

Unfortunately his brain likes the jolts and begins triggering more and more seizures and he chooses that moment to escape and...well, see the movie. (It's not on DVD yet but you can download it from Amazon Unbox or from XBox Live).

Be that as it may, the key unanswered question here is, "What percentage of people with psychopathic fMRI profiles go on to commit violent acts?" If it's a small percentage then it's hard to argue for intervention but if it's a sizable percentage it's hard to argue against it. The next step here is to do some large scale testing of children, discretely identify potential psychopaths based on their fMRI's, and follow them for several years to see what happens.

I think it goes without saying that talk therapy would be useless. You can't talk someone into feeling emotions their damaged/defective brains can't generate.

If most people with these fMRI profiles go on to hurt people, then you must institutionalize them for their own and society's protection. Anything less would result in blood on your hands.

TSM said at April 25, 2007 12:41 PM:

"It undermines one of the most crucial advances of freedom of the last 500 years -- the presumption of innocence."
Yes, but a society also should protect itself from the dangers within. The precise balance of societal power vs. individual rights varies from place to place, with us closer to one end and say, China on the other. ( See http://www.journals.uchicago.edu/cgi-bin/resolve?id=doi:10.1086/302020&erFrom=-1756917561215194049Guest and Richard Lynn's Eugenics book).

I've always found deterrence a more compelling justification for meting out punishment anyway.

"If such tests had existed and administered in Germany, then the Nazis were not going to come to power."
Why not? Why would lower IQ politicians be more appealing to Weimar Germany? And besides, it's not apparent that the upper-echelon Nazis were personally psychopaths.

"In fact, the worst suffering in the world is not caused by ordinary criminals; the concentration camps were built by respectable people who had secret destructive inclinations."
Well, we're provincial, and the suffering in America is caused from on low, by common thugs and psychopaths.

The false positive rate and drug efficacy are very important here. I think preemptive action F is extreme, but not nearly as undesirable if the parent is already going in to get embryonic screening/engineering. I fear the 'warning neighbors' will not be very successful because the 'weakest link,' the child of the least vigilant parent for instance, will be the victim. Do you have any data on the efficacy of tracking devices? Also, I'm betting that the costs of identification will be miniscule in comparison to the benefits and other concerns.

The worst of it is that people will misunderstand the technologies and the questions they pose. For instance, the film Gattaca, genetic tests that indicate one's intelligence and athleticism (for instance) leads to extreme discrimination against those conceived naturally (as opposed to engineered). But this already happens, albeit in a cruder way - some people cannot become a productive economist, and you don't need a blood sample to figure that out, though their genes are to blame. The media will inevitably hone in on some misuse or blatant failure of the technology.

I recall a WSJ article (front page middle if I recall correctly) which told of how some people were required by law to come in to a local medical center of some sort to get regular treatment, and would get prosecuted if they did not (IIRC). I don't remember whether these people had committed crimes before or had just demonstrated a dangerous tendency. So there is a precedent for this sort of thing.

Kurt9 said at April 25, 2007 1:43 PM:


I do not think that fMRI and other neuro-technologies will be used for preemption of crime, nor do I think such is proper. Rather, I think these technologies will be used in criminal investigation and, later, in developing therapeutic approaches towards treating crime (Read "Queen of Angels" for a novelization of this). I do think that neuro-science will ultimately uncover neuro-biological causes of most (not all) crime and anti-social acts. I also think that neuro-regenerative therapies will be developed to "treat" these neurological causes of sociopathic behavior and that this will be revolutionary in criminal justice.

The radical reduction in crime that I think will result from this will result in a weakening and ultimate disappearance of the christian right from U.S. politics. The reason why I believe this is that neuro-science is discrediting many of the concepts of morality and "evil" that the christian right promugates. Since normal people associate immoral behavior with crime, the radical reduction of crime resulting from developments in neuro-science will lead to a reduction in the current obsession with morality by most people. Thus most people will turn away from the concepts of morality as promugated by the christian right.

Normal people (that is, people like you and I) define morality as how you treat other people. This definition of morality is definable in terms of empathy and other emontional states that are tracable to neuro-biology. The christian right does not accept this definition of morality. They define morality in terms of what you do with yourself, independent of how you treat others. The following example will illustrate how non-sensical this is. I could live a "bohemian" expat lifestyle. I do technical work, or maybe import/export work in Asia. I do not bother to get married, have kids, or any of the other stuff that would cause my financial costs to go through the roof. Rather, I live a "studenty" life style, and retire to the beaches of S.E. Asia (or Latin America) once my investment income exceeds my cost of living. Or, I could spend 6-8 months doing the backpack thing in between jobs. Fred Reed is an example of this kind of life style (all though he did remarry and has a kid).

Many christian right people would consider this life style choice to be "immoral" even though it does not involve any criminal behavior, anti-social behavior, or any kind of cheating or mal-treatment of other people. I have even had christian right people tell me this on the net. It is this irrational definition of morality that will never be definable by science, that has no connection to crime, that will eventually go away once we have an effective neuro-technological solutions to crime.

Toby said at April 25, 2007 4:59 PM:

G) General Infantry.

Peter said at April 25, 2007 5:49 PM:

I am one of those "Christian right" people you don't seem to approve of. I don't quite understand what you are so worried about from those of us who practice the Christian faith. Are you worried that we are going to require you to get married? forbid you from having casual sex? Maybe you should worry about people who really disaprove of you and would like to remove your head from your body. As far as I am concerned, go knock yourself out persuing whatever lifestyle you wish.

Cogsys said at April 25, 2007 10:59 PM:

Re: "If you want to prevent rape, teach women aikido."

Practitioners of Aikido and the other soft martial arts are forbidden from competing for a reason: these traditionalist disciplines don't work in real combat situations. Watch this YouTube clip of a soft martial arts master who promised $5000 to a mixed-martial artist who could beat him. As a reductionist would expect, his fancy moves had zero effect on the mixed-martial artist.

Toby said at April 25, 2007 11:08 PM:


You also seem to be one of those "Christian right" people who can't work out who said what. Ironically, I think my post was more offensive. :)

John Faughnan said at April 26, 2007 7:25 AM:

Does anyone really want a sociopath for a child? (Sociopath is the US term for what europe calls "psychopath".)

Really, even a sociopath would prefer caring and empathic children to serve them.

We merely mandate that future genetic upgrade packages always include a 'high empathy' 'high duty' 'large tribe' module. In time we'll produce a species that might survive the centuries to come.

PS. I think game theory predicts that, in the absence of genetic engineering, we'll always have a certain percentage of sociopaths in any human society.

Kurt9 said at April 26, 2007 10:59 AM:


You're getting me mixed up with Toby.

I am saying that there are two separate definitions of morality. One that deals with how you treat other people, the other based on what you do with yourself. The first definition of morality correlates with criminality and anti-social behavior. The neuro-chemical causes of it are slowing being elucidated by science. The second definition of morality is meaningless drivel to anyone who does not subscribe to religion, because there is no OBJECTIVE basis for it. It is not definable in terms of interpersonal relationships and, therefor, cannot be said to exist in any meaningful sense.

The fact that many Americans are confused of these two different definitions of morality is due to the fact that many people, some of whom are christian, claim that there is a correlation between these two different standards of morality, when none such thing exists. Coming developments in neuro-science will eliminate any pretense of such a correlation and, thus, sever any connection between the two in the minds of the vast majority of Americans.

Thus, I stand by my point when I said that coming developments in neuro-science will radically reduce the influence of christian religion in the public debate on the issues of crime, sociopathy, and evil.

Larry said at April 27, 2007 4:47 AM:

The real question is efficacy. Common sense dictates that we should adopt preemptive techniques whose rates of false positives and false negatives are provably low. No such techniques exist at the moment.

Assuming them into existence, and assuming there is no treatment for the revealed problems, then I think our obligation is to protect our society while protecting the civil liberties of the perps-to-be as much as possible. Isolation best fits that bill. It is quite possible that fellow rejectees will choose to congregate and I see nothing wrong with that.

Then there's the future generation question. If we can screen for the problems, parents will abort most such fetuses. Those that are born face the same future of isolation, once they reach an age when their malady creates a societal risk.

Purenoiz said at April 27, 2007 6:16 AM:

How much of this condition is nature vs. nurture? How many sociopaths come from a background in which they themselves were abused/molested etc as children. If I remember from psychology class there was a strong association between childhood molestation and schizophrenia and other dissociative diseases.

A reader said at April 27, 2007 9:07 PM:


I usually just lurk, but having been interested in this and reading the science journals for a couple of years, thanks for the timely and important post and dialog.

All that is necessary for evil to fluorish is for the good people to do nothing. So I vote yes, pre-empt bad behavior.

The neurological and anatomical correlates of morality are varied, but the common thread seems to be the ability for psychopaths to manipulate others for their own purposes.

This is not a lack of empathy -- they understand probably too well the feelings of others.
This is lack of morals - knowing, and using as tools to a selfish end, regardless of the pain of others.

Have we used "tests" to try to predict behavior? All the time.

The OSS (precursor to the CIA) made a report about Hitler's personality, and his likely reactions to being caught.
I vote brain scans for all world leaders.

My former employer required employees to take a "personalysis" test, which resulted in a little colored graph to display on your desk. "I'm mostly green -- so this is how I operate best". I'm an "ENTP" or an INTJ. Whatever.
I vote brain scans for all employees.

Schools test children all the time.
How about a brain scan in the child's records? Or a genetic screen for the Dopamine receptor 4 variant with 7 repeats inserted (the one correlated to ADHD).
Would you want a psychopathic child in your kids' third grade class? (I knew a fourth grader who slammed the teacher's arm between the desks, and broke it, just to see what would happen. The kid was diagnosed with OCD, became a car thief, and has been in and out of jail.)
Would you want a psyhchopath for a kindergarten teacher? Shouldn't the teachers be scanned, too?

To be blunt, in the absence of fixing amygdalar lesions or growing new von Economo neurons or something, the only way to stop a psychopath is with fear. Fear of being outed, fear of being punished. IMO.
They won't participate in talk therapy because they don't think there's anything wrong with them, and they believe that it's all just a "check-the-box" kind of thing.
There are no meds.
They'll lie on self-reported progress reports so forget about that.

Ultimately, when people have little chips in their pinkies with all their personal information, there will be a secret code embedded that flashes "warning -- this individual has tested to be a psychopath". But then the psychopaths will all be hackers, and overwrite the code, and send the warning to the chips on the good people, and take over the world.

Keep up the dialog -- A reader

rsilvetz said at April 28, 2007 11:02 AM:

Let's be clear here. Pyschopaths WILL commit crimes against their fellows. It's not a question of IF. So the moral issue is very limited. The fall under classic "danger to self and others" maxims.

The problem isn't what do you do with a pyschopath.

The problem is what do you do with a test that identifies a pyschopath with specificity x and sensitivity y in a screened population z meeting scanning criteria n1..nx?

Once you properly formulate the question it's obvious that your hands are tied unless you want to do pre-emptive fascism. And make no mistake -- you are saying, in the name of the precautionary principle, to take people that have not committed crimes, lock them up and throw away the key -- and deploy the direct and transactional costs of an enforcement posse to do so.

False negatives guarantee no system credibility.

False positives are anathema because they take the innocent without hope of recourse.

Scanning criteria is open to profiling. Is there a single one of us here that doesn't wonder if your average fundamentalist (Christian, Muslim, Jewish, take your pick) doesn't show amygdala dysfunction? And doesn't the genes-are-destiny crowd want to throw in 2cents about gene testing these folks as well?

Already in this thread I have seen folks blur the distinction between sociopaths and pyschopaths. The terms are not interchangeable. Pyschopaths are the monsters. The WILL commit crime. Pyschopaths seem to be born. Sociopaths on the other hand are made and can choose. From your petty criminal to rapist to folks that do nothing at all.

All pyschopaths are criminals, no free will in this matter. Most criminals are NOT sociopaths. Some sociopaths are criminals. See how nasty a super-screening tool can become? How rapidly poor thinking can widen the net and take innocent lives?

Kurt9 said at April 28, 2007 11:34 AM:

This is a little off-topic, but the so-called social decay that the social conservatives decry CANNOT be blamed on us techno-libertarian types. Have a look:


Randall Parker said at April 28, 2007 12:48 PM:

Robert Silvetz,

I can see the problem with false positives. But why do false negatives pose such a huge problem? They would manage to stay in a society and commit crimes before getting caught. That's the current status quo.

As for false positives: For some types of behaviors and personality types I can see false positive as a strong possibility. But for other types of brain and behavioral abnormality there might turn out to be 100% accurate ways of identifying some of the people who possess a cognitive quality.

For psychopaths in particular I'm expecting from Adrian Raine's work (about which I've previously posted) that brain scans will reliably identify them.

As for psychopaths being criminals: According Raine's research there appear to be two types of psychopaths. The type that has one abnormality probably manages to not get caught. The kind that has two abnormalities is more likely to get caught committing crimes.

Tj Green said at April 30, 2007 11:50 AM:

If we don`t do anything about the 1% of males that are psychopathic,then our species will be locked in to endless conflict. It does seem strange that so many of us are so easily manipulated by psychopaths when you consider their obvious disabilities.

Darren Duvall said at May 15, 2007 5:04 PM:

Limbic underactivation isn't always a bad thing if it occurs in people who are properly integrated into society. Limbic underactivation is a useful response when you're standing over a ticking bomb or looking through flames to people who need rescue. For some things like surgery it's a learned response rather than inborn -- though there are certainly some Axis II surgeons out there. There are some very nice people who don't taxidermy their neighbors, who nevertheless don't have "normal" fear responses to dangerous situations. This is an aspect, likely an important one, of sociopathy -- but a necessary one for society. There are dangerous jobs that people with "normal" fear responses wouldn't touch with a ten-foot pole.

Jack Bauer from 24 is a good example of a generally beneficial person who has many aspects of sociopathic behavior. His is controlled by duty and morality, but he still has abnormally low emotional responses to dangerous situations and actions that most of us would recoil from. It wouldn't be surprising to me at all if a high percentage of people in high-intesity law enforcement and military positions demonstrate limbic underactivation, at least from the perspective of not being overly disturbed by otherwise horrific things.

Randall Parker said at May 16, 2007 7:43 PM:

Darren Duvall,

Good point. But I wonder whether some cognitive elements of sociopathy are unmitigated negatives for the rest of us.

I also wonder whether, if we identified future sociopaths early enough, could we shape them into serving in roles useful to us but satisfying to them. I suspect we do not have enough suitable jobs for them and not all of them would accept our designated roles for them.

Post a comment
Name (not anon or anonymous):
Email Address:
Remember info?

Go Read More Posts On FuturePundit
Site Traffic Info
The contents of this site are copyright