December 10, 2008
Different Brain Parts Judge Crime And Punishment

Neuroscience catches up with Fyodor Dostoevsky.

When someone is accused of committing a crime, it is the responsibility of impartial third parties, generally jurors and judges, to determine if that person is guilty and, if so, how much he or she should be punished. But how does one’s brain actually make these decisions? The researchers found that two distinct areas of the brain assess guilt and decide penalty.

This work is the joint effort of Owen Jones, professor of law and of biology, and René Marois, a neuroscientist and associate professor of psychology. Together with neuroscience graduate student Joshua Buckholtz, they scanned the brains of subjects with a highly sensitive technique called functional magnetic resonance imaging or fMRI. Their goal was to see how the brain was activated when a person judged whether or not someone should be punished for a harmful act and how severely the individual should be punished.

The right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex decides whether to convict. Surely potential jurors should undergo testing of their right dorsolateral prefrontal cortexes to make sure they work within acceptable ranges. Then the amygdala and other parts of the brain decide how much punishment to dole out.

The researchers found that activity in an analytic part of the brain, known as the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, tracked the decision of whether or not a person deserved to be punished but, intriguingly, appeared relatively insensitive to deciding how much to punish. By contrast, the activity in brain regions involved in processing emotions, such as the amygdala, tracked how much subjects decided to punish.

“These results raise the possibility that emotional responses to criminal acts may represent a gauge for assessing deserved punishment,” said Marois.

“There are long-running debates about the proper roles in law of ‘cold’ analysis and ‘hot’ emotion,” said Jones. “Our results suggest that, in normal punishment decisions, the distinct neural circuitries of both processes may be jointly involved, but separately deployed.”

Neuroscientists will discover much more about the inner workings of brains and how they differ. Those discoveries will likely lead to the development of ways to measure how well people judge. This won't just be a measure of how smart each person is. The ability to judge - especially to judge human behavior - using many types of evidence has got to be a rather complex skill and the ability to do that judging varies greatly between people. Ideally a jury should be made up of people with exceptional skill at judging.

If you are going to get judged by a jury of your peers should it be a jury of people whose right dorsolateral prefrontal cortexes are similar to your own?

Share |      Randall Parker, 2008 December 10 11:25 PM  Brain Ethics Law


Comments
obrien said at December 11, 2008 10:27 AM:

The most dangerous people are those who have high energy levels and low empathy. Prototypical examples of such individuals include Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. Such individuals tend to believe that all problems can be solved by personal effort. On a related note, anybody who believes the biggest problem with The Bell Curve is that is absolves the poor of personal responsibility are deranged. These types of individuals are the types who blame the victim--often someone who has severe depression and/or ADHD.

The Left is really no better. They tend to believe that social problems can be solved by the efforts of others (ie, through heavy taxation). The reality is that social problems will only be solved by improving human capital. Encouraging the poor to reproduce is simply cruel; no amount of effort or pain will make the majority of individuals born of the ultra-poor successful.

The only way to improve life for human beings is eugenics and genetic engineering. Without a better gene pool the human experience will continue to be miserable. And no, having a hard life does not "build character." The only thing a hard life "builds" is cynicism and outright criminality.

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