Scientific Breakthroughs

People’s Evil Intent or Law Breaking Due to Recklessness Decoded in Brain Scan

People's Evil Intent or Law Breaking Due to Recklessness Decoded in Brain Scan
PHOTOGRAPH: Abu badali | Image of stylized crime

At the rate modern devices are being churned out, one would think the technology that can detect evil intent is not that far off.  A new study that peered into the brains of people while they were engaged in illicit activities suggested that brain scans could discern hardcore criminal intent.

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), researchers led by Read Montague, a neuroscientist at Virginia Tech Carilion Research Insitute in Roanoke and at University College London set out to measure brain activity based on blood flow. The brains of 40 individuals (2o- to 30-something males and females) were analyzed as they went through scenarios that simulated smuggling something through a security checkpoint.

The brain imaging study uncovered brain responses that indicated whether a person committing a crime knew that they were committing a crime, or whether they were aware of the risk that they might be committing a crime without really being sure. It suggested a possible neurological basis for legally ascertaining between knowingly breaking a law and reckless mental states that can be used to determine culpability.

Distinctive Patterns of Brain Activity

A computer analysis of the fMRI images correctly categorized people as knowing or reckless between 71 percent and 80 percent of the time. The results showed distinctive patterns of brain activity for when the person knew for certain the suitcase had contraband, and when the individual knew there was a chance of it. The team’s report saw print in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

There is more.  Those differing brain patterns only showed up when people were first shown the extent that security checkpoints were guarded, and then offered the suitcases.

Previous studies have focused more on observing immoral activity including the neural and computational mechanisms that translate the experiences people undergo into the behaviors that they perform. Research findings suggest that moral judgment is influenced by variation in the oxytocin receptor gene, while arginine vasopressin (AVP) has also been implicated in a range of social behaviors including aggression.

Ludicrous or Forward-Looking

Being able to distinguish between knowingly committing a crime and simple reckless behavior is still a work in progress, and not yet ready to be used in the courtroom. Gideon Yaffe, a Yale Law School philosopher, noted some limitations of the research.

He cited the ambiguity with which different brain patterns — confined to a very specific scenario — would apply to other situations outside the laboratory.  He mentioned peering into the brains of people with certain conditions, such as drug addiction (which has always been a problem), to see how they will process risk differently.  Indeed, tech can be used to curb grave harm that may be perpetrated by those who are not in the right frame of mind or have tottering moral values.


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